My Dad was training for his first sprint triathlon, ran most days before work and was the fittest person I knew. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and stage four cancer (the most aggressive type) at 45 years old. He once Googled his tumour, a glioblastoma, and found that someone had called it ‘The Terminator’ online. He found the funny side to it, as he did with everything in his life.
It was a joy to know him and a privilege to be his daughter, and it’s a great loss too so many people that he died at such a young age.
I never thought I’d be someone who’d lost a parent to cancer. It was one of those nightmare scenarios you hear on the news, I didn’t think it would be our family, but it was.
Everything changes when cancer enters your life whether that’s it your own diagnosis, or a family member, as soon as it touches the life of someone you love there’s life before cancer and then there’s life after. Everyone’s story is different and even the recovery and returning to life after the all clear from cancer is an incredible ordeal in itself.
I remember at 15 when Dad was diagnosed thinking to myself that everyone lied when I was growing up. Monsters don’t live under the bed, they live inside of us. And I still think that’s true in so many ways.
Cancer is one of those scary words that people whisper a lot, that we say after a hesitation. It’s a threat, it’s fear embodied. But once you’ve seen it up close or heard it a thousand times over, it loses its sting. Cancer is varied, everybody’s story is different.
All I can ever say is check your body, know what’s right for you and go to your GP if something is wrong, if they don’t find anything but you still feel like something is wrong, go to a different Doctor at your surgery.
My Dad’s doctor missed the signs, he passed them off and didn’t explore them, when all the signs were there. A few months later, my Mum took my Dad to her doctor and he sent Dad for a CT scan. When they got to the hospital, the nurse said he didn’t qualify for the scan as he didn’t have all the signs. Then Dad threw up on her, and he was immediately rushed into the scan as he ticked all the boxes.
There was a tumour the size of a golf ball sat on the side of his brain and we were originally told it was inoperable. Thankfully, Addenbrooks Hospital told a different story. The doctor said he could do the operation (which he did successfully) and remove 90% of the tumour, but that it was like a spiders web, he’d take out the body but the legs would still be in there.
After rounds and rounds of Chemo and radiotherapy, the tumour had spread to his spine. They’d only had a handful of cases before at Addenbrooks, it was extremely rare for cancer to drop from the brain down into the spine. Dad joked he always knew he was special, so of course he’d have the rare type.
He died 10 months after his diagnosis. I held his hand at the end and to this day I’m glad I did. That’s not to say it doesn’t still haunt me sometimes.
I wish I’d had someone who told me how hard it would be, that it would take a toll on me in ways I wouldn’t imagine from my relationships, to how I view myself, my family, the world, even my day to day habits.
I still struggle to think long-term about anything, because it feels like such a privileged and an indulgence to think I will have a long life, though of course, I hope I do. You just don’t know the cards you’ve been dealt.
I couldn’t talk about any of this straight away, I didn’t have the words, I didn’t even know what it was I felt.
All I could say (when I really tried to talk) was that I was sad and I missed my Dad, which for someone who wanted to a writer was a frustrating inaccurate representation of everything I harboured inside me.
Talking is like ripping part of yourself outward, it’s messy and painful. It’s forming a verbal consciousness that doesn’t sound like you’re speaking for the first time.
Writing has been my solace in everything. I blog, write a diary, write for other magazines or outlets. At the end of the day, I feel safer knowing that I can write and edit what I have to say than attempt to formulate it into words.
It’s the expectation that I will feel lighter from getting it out on the page, than drained from having said it without hearing the response I needed.
The biggest thing about anything dark or scary in your life is to get it out of your head. You don’t have to tell someone if you aren’t ready, but write it down, read it through another person’s words, listen to other people’s advice and stories. If you feel less alone, that’s a step in the right direction.
I can only describe what I’ve experienced as a battle against invisible enemies that I don’t understand. In battle there are sometimes winners and losers, but in all cases there are resilience and strength. I don’t like the term that I survived my battle with cancer as it makes it sound like there’s a weakness to those who don’t. My Dad was incredibly brave, strong and resilient and I think watching him face cancer only left us all in awe, that he faced it, as with all things in life wholly as himself.
In lots of ways, I felt I’d let him down. We’re very similar in how we view our lives, our work ethic, our drive. I felt he’d be disappointed to know that I couldn’t get out of bed and go to school, that I struggled to do things that were in my best interest a lot of the time. But then I remembered the cards we’d been dealt were very different.
My Grandad, Dad’s dad, had lived to 81, my Dad lost him in his early forties and it had a profound effect on him as losing a parent does. My Grandad died of the same tumour as my Dad, he sadly couldn’t have surgery as he was too old for it at the time.
At the end of the day, you can only do your best, whatever that looks like.
Sometimes I hide from everything, I don’t reach out and I write it down. Other times I text a friend (I’m still not quite there with the phoning when you’re down thing), but I still don’t do this as much as I should.
Sometimes I still feel like I’m screaming and no one can hear me.
But I know how to cope slightly better than I used to and that’s only through therapy, CBT and reading self-help books about grief, mental health and changing habits.
I loved my Dad deeply, he was a light and a joy to be around and I live in hope that one day I’m even half the person he was.
We can feel incredibly alone at times, despite going through so many universal battles of mental health, cancer or right now the pandemic. If you can reach out, please do, if you can write it down, if you can listen to someone else’s story and feel less alone, it’s always worth it.
Mental Health, like cancer, doesn’t fit into one day, week or month of awareness, it affects people everyday so don’t stop talking about it, even if you feel like no one is listening, trust me, they are.