How the hell am I going to tell my parents?
I’d wondered, idly, over the years what I would do if I ever got cancer. I imagined waiting until I had had scan results and knew for sure what was happening, before telling them. I imagined driving to their house and sitting down at the familiar kitchen table. I imagined cups of tea and hugs and tears. I imagined how, later, we’d sit down on the sofa like we always did and watch some gentle, mindless TV, like we always did and Mum would reach her hand out and touch mine with it and I’d respond…like we always did. I imagined being together, the whole family appearing as the news trickled through, helping, making tea, arguing, being irritatingly there.
I did not imagine a global pandemic with a nationwide lockdown would get in the way.
I spoke to a friend, that first evening, our shocked faces a mirror for each other on the screen. My first screen cancer conversation.
How the hell am I going to tell my parents?
She didn’t know. There is no map for this, no blueprint for receiving horrible news about an unexpected life-threatening illness whilst being in enforced lockdown during a global pandemic.
My friend paused. Maybe you could ring Macmillan for advice?
An outlandish, alien thought. How was it that I had suddenly become someone who rang Macmillan for advice? And what would they know about breaking bad news in a lockdown anyway?
I checked. Macmillan phone lines were closed, their usual later opening times curtailed due to the virus.
I can’t remember much else about that evening. I think I spoke to another friend. I know I realised that I couldn’t – shouldn’t – go back to work as I was likely to need urgent tests, scans and quite possibly surgery or treatment of some sort and exposing myself to Covid-19 on the NHS frontline was probably not my most brilliant medical idea. What if I developed symptoms, had to self-isolate again and missed my window for tests and treatment, cancer services suddenly closed or postponed? What if they refused to give me urgently needed treatment because I had symptoms? What if I started treatment then got really really sick because I had unknowingly caught Covid and the treatment messed with my immune system?
The next morning I rang Macmillan.
I hoped they would tell me to go away and leave their service for the real cancer patients. I had, after all, only had one itty-bitty bit of lymph fluid that had showed up cancer. Maybe less than 1 ml in the biopsy. It could have been a mistake? I might not count as a proper cancer patient. I had only spoken to my GP, not even an oncologist. We didn’t know what or where the primary cancer was. We had suspicions, sure, but it all could be the most marvellously grotesque misunderstanding.
Please. Tell me to go away.
He was very kind. He did not seem to think my call was misplaced.
I asked him whether or not I should tell Mum & Dad. I was terrified they would hear the news and – in their love and distress – insist on driving the 130 miles to see me and expose themselves to coronavirus. What if they caught coronavirus because of me? What if they died? They were – are – both over 70 and therefore classed as ‘vulnerable.’
They hated being told they were vulnerable.
I can’t tell them, I said to Macmillan man. I can’t. They will want to come and see me during lockdown. I can’t allow them to. We don’t even know for sure what it is. Maybe I should wait until scans and formal diagnosis. I can manage. I can manage.
And yet, due to the nature of my job and the enforced isolation, my parents and I had got into the habit of video calling most days, to check in. They would think I had gone back to work and ask how it was. I would lie. They would know, immediately (I’m a rubbish liar!) which would only worry them more. I couldn’t keep up the lie for the week or two it would take to get a formal diagnosis.
Most people need support, he said gently. They might surprise you. It’s a difficult decision, of course but…it’s ok to allow others to help you with this. It’s ok to let them in, even if you don’t have any certainty to offer them about what is happening.
I can’t do it. I can’t break their hearts. I can’t bear them putting themselves at any more risk than they already are. They are happy at the moment. They are managing in lockdown.
And my brother, his wife, my nephew, the rest of my family. They were so happy. We had had our share of troubles and pain as a family, but, at that moment, we were all doing ok. Better than ok.
I felt like a bomb was about to be dropped, exploding the hearts of the people I loved most.
Except that bomb was me.
I believe you cannot shield someone from pain. You can try but…that often ends up creating a dishonest, stressful mess. There is dignity in treating another as the adult they are, in not trying to control, in affording them the space for their own reactions, their own way of coping.
There is dignity in allowing another to love you to the full extent of the pain that love creates.
We are all stumbling through love and pain, pain and love every day of our lives, and when you try and influence that – when you choose to manipulate life so that you turn down pain and turn up love – you deny the reality and depth of that love.
I ended the call to Macmillan.
I made some tea, and then picked up my phone and dropped the bomb.