The bright side: kindness

It’s not all bad, having cancer. It’s mostly bad, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, but I have been absolutely flabbergasted by some of the things that have happened since my diagnosis. And it’s about time I took a break from the sad stuff and talked about it.

I already knew that my family were amazing, but that hasn’t stopped them from proving it over and over with limitless help and understanding. Despite having my sister to worry about, my parents have supported me practically and emotionally at every step. Paul has been working really long hours, but he’s still taken on pretty much every other job in our home and always has time and copious amounts of love for Joseph and Elodie.

This week, while work has rather inconveniently taken Paul to Moscow, my mother-in-law has come to stay with the children and me, and every single night she’s offered to take Elodie so that I can sleep. She’s cooked, gardened and changed a huge number of nappies. This isn’t how retirement is supposed to be.

Friends of mine and Rachel’s have been wonderful, too. Depending on their situations, they have sent things and they have come (or offered to, from as far away as Melbourne). One friend put together a crafting kit for Joseph, with hand-written instructions for every mini project. Another sent a cancer-fighting kit full of lovely beauty products. Yet another anonymously set up a year-long magazine subscription.

Friends have brought me home-cooked food. They’ve come with vegetables from their allotments and eggs from their chickens. The day after my sister’s stroke, a truly wonderful friend who lives many miles away called to say that she was ten minutes from my house and had some things for me. She was on her way to her in-laws’ with her family. While her husband drove around the block a few times to stop the kids from waking up, she gave me and Elodie cuddles and left us with gifts, lasagnes, cake and chocolates. It was like a kindness tornado.

And it doesn’t end there. Acquaintances and even strangers have got in on the act, too. When I was admitted to hospital a few weeks ago, I left with the phone number of a nurse who lives nearby and offered to help out. Neighbours and nursery staff have made the same offer. A woman I’ve never met read my blog, asked for my address and sent a beautiful sleepsuit for Elodie. Friends from school I haven’t really been in touch with for twenty years have sent messages full of love.

Last week, I was opening post while trying to persuade Joseph not to drive vehicles up and down my legs. Distracted, I skim-read a card from a woman I used to work with, several years ago. We ran into one another with our babies a couple of years back, and we’ve been in touch on Facebook. I thought it was kind of her to take the time to send a card. And then a cheque fell out. And then I saw that the cheque was for £500. In the card, she explained that it was a no-strings-attached gift; that she’d sent it because she wanted to do something to help.

I’ve learned a lesson from this. Often, I’ve thought about sending people things and either never got around to it or decided against it. Because I don’t know them well enough, or I haven’t seen them for a while, and they might think it’s a bit odd. But I don’t care about any of that now. Every card, parcel, visit and message has cheered me up while my life has been in turmoil, and I’m prepared to take the chance of seeming a bit over-familiar if I can cheer up someone else.

The bottom line is: people are kind. You wouldn’t always think it when you watch the news, stand in a queue at the post office or read the comments on online articles. But when something awful happens, your faith in humanity gets a real boost. I hope everyone who has helped me gets to see this post. I want them to know that I am humbled, and I am grateful.

The fourth chemo

There’s no doubt about it; the chemo sessions are getting tougher. Before the cold cap is fitted each time, one of the nurses covers my hair in conditioner. I remember being told at the first session that I shouldn’t use my favourite conditioner for this as I might never want to use it again. By the fourth session, the second they opened the bottle, I felt sick. The food Paul and I had ordered arrived just as the cold cap was going on, which was pretty terrible timing. I felt pretty sorry for myself throughout the session.

Paul asked whether I wanted to visit Rachel on the way home. In truth, I didn’t. I was very tired and felt quite nauseous. I wanted to go home, to bed. But we were so close to where my sister was lying in a hospital bed, unable to go home, so we went. She’d been making gradual improvements, and that day, she’d mouthed a few words to her husband, Scott. We didn’t stay long, but it was good to see her. It’s always good to see her. When we were leaving, I told her I loved her and she mouthed ‘love you’. It broke me in the best way, and I was in floods of happy tears as we drove home.

Soon after that, Rachel started talking. Her voice was barely a whisper, and you had to get very close to her mouth to hear her. At first, she repeated things people said to her, but within a couple of days, she was conversing. It was only then that I fully realised how much I’d missed her. We’d only lived in the same village for a year, but we’d talked on the phone several times a week for as many years as I could remember. I felt like we’d got her back. It was wonderful.

And then, another huge step. Rachel started to eat yoghurts and pureed meals. She’d had a feeding tube in her nose since the stroke, but since being more awake and alert, she’d been pulling at it. There’d been talk of putting a peg in her stomach and feeding her through that. But if she started to get enough calories from eating, that wouldn’t be necessary. After weeks and weeks of very little progress, it seemed as though things were finally happening. Every day, there was news. She’d shakily written her name. She’d supported her weight when sitting up. She’d joked about turning 21 this year (she’s actually turning 39, but she’s always said she started going backwards when she got to 30).

One afternoon, Elodie and I went to meet a woman called Rachel in a local pub. She’s a friend of a friend of my sister’s. She was 36 weeks pregnant and had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she’d got in touch through my blog. It was hard to believe that someone else in my local area was facing the same thing I had.

And I hoped that meeting us would somehow be a comfort to her. That she would see how Elodie was thriving, and that I was coping with chemo. She was due to be induced the following week and to have surgery the week after. She seemed brave and in control. I was daunted just thinking about it. And then I realised that I’d been through those things too, just in a different order. It made me take stock. Things have happened so quickly that I sometimes forget just what we’ve lived through.

Shortly before the end of the cycle, Paul and I took Elodie to hospital for her follow-up check. It was two months since we’d taken her home, and she’d doubled in weight. I hadn’t spent a single minute worrying about this appointment, as I was convinced she was healthy. The midwife and health visitor who’d seen us several times at home were happy with her, after all. But in the waiting room, I started to wonder. Could they have missed something? Could we be about to have our world shattered, yet again? The answer was no. The paediatrician checked her over and pronounced her a very healthy little girl. There was no need for further appointments. It was another sign that things were taking shape; getting better.

And what about Joseph? Over this time, he’s made me laugh and driven me insane with frustration every single day. He’s recently stopped wearing nappies, and he’ll tell anyone he passes in the street that he’s a big boy now. He’ll show them his Thomas the Tank Engine pants, too, given half the chance. After a short lifetime of easy bedtimes, he’s started to fight going to sleep, even when he’s so tired he can barely stand. Some nights, he comes to his bedroom door again and again, asking us to put his covers back on. Some nights, I’m so tired I can barely stand, and I think if I have to climb the stairs to put him back in bed one more time, I’ll collapse.

But all of that is so easily forgotten when he sneaks into our bed in the morning and whispers that he loves us. When he strokes Elodie’s head ‘very gently, Mummy’ and tells me that we can’t tread on her, or throw her, and I tell him that we can’t do that to anyone, actually. For some reason, he can’t remember the name for nipples. The other day, he was running around naked and I touched his nipple and asked what it was called. ‘Testicles?’ he tried. ‘Sausages? The smartest giant in town?’ And suddenly, it didn’t matter one bit that I’d lost one of my smartest giant in towns, as long as I had this tiny, wonderful man and his delicious baby sister in my life.

The third chemo

At some point, when I wasn’t paying attention, what was happening in our lives stopped being a crisis and became our new normality. Because, however surreal and awful things are, life creeps in. There are trips to the supermarket and potty-training disasters and playdates. Everyone has to be fed and have their teeth cleaned and their clothes washed. And having cancer and visiting your seriously ill sister in hospital just starts to sit alongside that, like it’s no big deal.

When the day of my third chemo treatment rolled around, we decided that Paul should look after Joseph and Elodie, since my mum was out of action with a bad cold. This left my dad as the obvious chemo companion. I wondered whether the nurses would notice that I had yet to take the same person with me twice.

My blood was taken and, while we waited for the results and the go-ahead for the chemo, we read our books and ordered some food. Dad’s book was by the philosopher A J Ayer, and during a break, he regaled me with a story about how Ayer once got into an argument with Mike Tyson about Naomi Campbell at a New York party. I’m pretty sure it’s the closest my dad has ever come to indulging in celebrity gossip, and I appreciated it.

I’m not sure why, but when the cold cap was fitted, it felt much worse than it had in previous sessions. It gets more difficult as your hair thins, apparently, but I really hadn’t lost any hair to speak of. And yet, during that third session, the brain freeze headache lasted a really long time and I felt faintly sick throughout the infusion. Dad kept me entertained, but I was really glad when it was over.

We decided we’d visit Rachel on the way home. She’d been moved from a hospital in Nottingham to one in Leicester, and it was a five-minute drive from the hospital where I had my chemo. So although I was shattered, it seemed crazy to drive home without calling in, when we were so close. It was a difficult visit, though. We didn’t get much of a response. Perhaps she was just too tired. I know I was.

I felt more nauseous than I had after previous chemos, so I decided to take my back-up anti-sickness medication. But for the next couple of days, I felt exhausted, spaced out and not really myself. I didn’t feel in control when I was looking after the children, which was scary. Whenever one of my parents came over, I went straight to bed for a nap, leaving them to babysit. By the end of the second day, I’d had enough. I stopped taking the medication, deciding that the side effects were worse than the nausea.

After that, it was smooth sailing. I didn’t have a single trip to the hospital before the next chemo. I had lovely visits from a few of Rachel’s friends, and my friend Jo came to help me out for three days with her three-year-old daughter, Molly. I had naps and got the washing done and did bits and pieces of admin. And then Paul’s parents took Joseph to stay with them for a few days, and Paul and I took the opportunity to sleep in every morning.

Every day, Elodie was getting bigger and becoming more alert. Her appetite was growing. She started smiling. I dressed her up in all the beautiful outfits she’d been given. I made faces at her. I let her sleep on my chest, sitting still in a quiet room, listening to her snuffles and smelling the top of her head. And I realised that, even though her early weeks had been the worst of our lives, that hadn’t interfered with the way I felt about her. While I was busy surviving, life had crept in, and so had love.

I’d been dealt a tough hand, but I’d been given so much, too. A son. A daughter. A tumour that was small. A sister who was getting better, despite tough odds. A family who were incredible. Friends who showered me with love. For the first time in a long time, I felt lucky.