Saturday, 7 February 2015. Both our teenage children were away on the church youth weekend. A rare chance for my husband and I to have some quality time together. We were settling down nicely into a cosy romantic evening. And then I found it. A breast lump. The warm cosy glow rapidly deteriorated into a hard cold dread. And 10 days later, after seeing the GP visiting the breast clinic and having a biopsy, my worst fears were confirmed. Breast cancer. Further scans and tests revealed a reasonably large lump that was fast growing and had spread to my lymph nodes. I was in for surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and 10 years of drug treatment – if indeed I even lasted that long.
‘Normal life’ as a busy working mum with an active church life was quickly replaced with masses of medical appointments, periods of feeling really unwell and a limited ability to give out to others. Some days it felt like a major achievement to just make it out of bed and get dressed. And didn’t come easily to someone who was used to being in control and mostly on top of a busy and full life.
I was fortunate to have a large and hugely supportive group of friends and family. And it really made a difference. I felt slightly overwhelmed by all the cards, texts, emails and messages of support. I gratefully accepted all the offers of help from chats over a cuppa, cooking, lifts to medical appointments, to loans of cottages to grab a few precious nights away in at the good times.
A few very close friends provided a special level of emotional support. These were all people I knew very well already – I was not in a place where I could have opened up at a deep level to someone I didn’t already know and trust. There were some very special moments that I think I shall always remember. One was the afternoon when my diagnosis was confirmed as quite a lot worse than I had been led to expect. I texted a few close friends that I’d asked to pray for me that day, and one of them immediately came back offering me a cuppa. I sat in her garden on a sunny April afternoon and cried my eyes out. She didn’t try to talk me out of it or try to change my bleak feelings. She just listened, empathised and shared in my grief. Another very special time was one day when I was feeling really ill on the chemo, struggling to either sleep or eat. My sister took time off work and drove all the way round the M25 to come and see me – bringing gifts of a soft cosy jumper and mashed potato! We sat together on my sofa and she wrapped her arms round me whilst we chatted. And I fell asleep in her arms.
I chose to tell people about my cancer and to be honest about how difficult life sometimes was. In response to the question ‘how are you.’ I would say something like ‘not so good at the moment’ or even just ‘crap’ (depending on how well I knew the other person). This may not be the right strategy for everyone but it certainly worked for me.
People sometimes ask what I found helpful and what i would advise them to say or do if a friend or family member was diagnosed with cancer. The first thing I would say is not to avoid the sufferer or to avoid the topic of cancer. I appreciated people who asked me if I’d like to talk about it – and respected my answer either way.
But I also really appreciated people who talked about things other than the cancer as well. Whilst inevitably cancer became a large part of my life it was not the only thing that was important. And I didn’t want to become just a cancer patient and nothing more.
And I found it helpful when people offered very specific things, be it cooking, lifts, cottages or whatever. I found it much easier to say yes to that than to a general offer of ‘anything I can do to help‘.
The thing I probably found most challenging was the subject of healing. At the time I was diagnosed my church was placing a heavy emphasis on miraculous healings from God. I was prayed for many times including by some people who undoubtedly have the gift of healing. But I didn’t have a miraculous healing. I found it particularly hard when some people said that God wants to hear everybody and implied that if I wasn’t healed that was somehow down to a lack of faith on my part. I wanted to scream at them to open their eyes and look around. Could they not see that some people healed and others weren’t? And the people who were healed sometimes had no faith at all where is those who weren’t healed included some of the most committed believing Christians I knew. I don’t understand why God heals some people and not others. And I may well not understand it this side of heaven (at which point it probably won’t matter anyway). But I observe that is how things are. I also hated people who when I wasn’t healed would pray louder and louder and end up shouting at me. When you’re feeling really ill you don’t need to be shouted at. And I don’t think God is deaf! Whilst it would have been fantastic to experience miraculous healing after a 30 second prayer, I soon realised that this was not how it was going to be for me. For reasons I don’t understand God had called me to walk the long hard road. And I needed people who were prepared to walk alongside me and who were in it for the long haul.
Despite these struggles I never lost my faith or doubted that God existed – or that he can and does heal today. But I did start avoiding certain people and there were times when I felt both angry and hurt. I had a friend that moved away and we started communicating by email, talking a lot about the subject of healing. I found this really helpful. Some things are easier to express in writing than orally – writing things down gave me time to really think through what I believed. And to find an outlet for my struggles at 3am on those nights when I couldn’t sleep. My friend didn’t have all the answers either and didn’t pretend that she did. But she help me work things through.
Some people gave me pictures, words or sent me texts to encourage me and this was something I came to really value. One particular friend would pray over me in text messages – that was just fantastic. Some of these were really challenging and I knew God was speaking to me through them. I will finish with a saying that a friend sent me after she saw it written above a church doorway whilst on holiday in Cornwall – and that summarises really well the main thing I think I have learnt from my experiences this year.