Waiting. Those first few days. Straight after I told my parents, I had the same conversation with my brother. Same screen, different face. Same flinching head-bob. Same stumble of words, same horror hanging in the space between us. I’m sorry, brother, I am. I love you.
He stuttered, repeated himself, um, um, right, um, right. Offered help, support, whatever I need. Yet. He is 150 miles away and we are in lockdown.
Um. Right. Um.
It is what it is.
Please tell whoever you need to, I say. Please tell your wife for me. Let me know your thoughts on how much and what we tell your son, my 9 year old nephew.
What do you tell a child, if anything? Especially one currently unable to see any of his friends or wider family. Sorry, kid, your fave (ok, only!) Aunty is really sick. No, you can’t go and see her. No, it’s not this coronavirus everyone is talking about. It’s the other Big C…
I am waiting. Waiting to be referred to the acute oncology service, to find out what will happen next. I imagine I will see an oncologist. Or an oncology nurse. Or have another, more in depth biopsy? And some scans? I imagine I will sit in an office having serious conversations, a box of tissues silently filling the space between us. I imagine I will be asked if I want to bring anyone else along. I imagine all these things, until I remember that, actually, we will just talk on the phone to avoid unnecessary hospital trips in lockdown.
I am not especially good at sitting on my hands and waiting. I decide to try and do what I can to help myself. I had, as a child, been seen briefly at the Royal Marsden in London, one of the UK’s leading cancer hospitals – would it make sense to re-connect with them? The cancer I may have had then is linked to the cancer I definitely have now. Mum and Dad were concerned I would need live-in support – the nebulous idea of cancer treatment, possibly surgery, possible side effects, of me being unable to live independently for a time, of needing care – floating in the atmosphere between us. They felt I should move in with them in London and perhaps have my care transferred back to the Marsden.
God, but it’s hard. I am 39 and the last thing I want is to go back to my childhood home to be looked after by Mum and Dad.
God, but I’m lucky. So many people would not have that as an option. I know how lucky I am. I really am grateful.
And then, comes the fear. I can’t risk exposing my parents to coronavirus. I feel like a sort of Typhoid Mary, bringing deadly illness to my parents’ door. Monstrous, unacceptable.
But who else? ask my parents. Who else?
None of my friends will be able to go in and out of my flat because of coronavirus. And, let’s face it, no-one else will be able or willing to do the hard yards of caring for a sick person at home. They all have their own families to worry about, or are themselves working on the frontline and therefore an infection risk to me. Who else?
I contact the Marsden, digging out my old letters. They are very kind. I am beginning to understand that kindness runs alongside cancer. You’ve got cancer! and you’ve got kindness! are strangely interwoven dance partners.
Ordinarily, the Marsden tell me, they would have been happy to take over my care, given my history. But they can’t. Coronavirus again. Plus they, too, are concerned of the risk I will pose to my parents, given I will be going in and our of hospital for treatment, for appointments, in the coming months. They clearly don’t think I should move in with Mum and Dad.
Quite how I’m supposed to manage the whole of cancer on my own is unclear, but I decide it’s obvious that I will have to stay alone in my flat. That I will manage.
And here is the first niggling truth cancer asks me to face. On some level, I feel ashamed. I should have tried harder to find a partner, have a family of my own by now. I feel…apart somehow, not quite a proper Grown-up Human (despite my Grown-Up Job and Life, not to mention age) as I’ve not managed to put down roots of my own anywhere or with anyone. I don’t have anyone who would really support me, help care for me, apart from my parents. I should have travelled less. I should have tried more. That way I wouldn’t be worrying my parents so much now, or burdening them when they should be being well-behaved ‘vulnerable adults’ and not expose themselves to unnecessary covid risk.
I mean – I did try. I am still trying (dating sites and hope!) but, for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened yet.
But then again – at least this way, I am not now a wife or a mother who has cancer. I am not facing the horror of leaving behind my own little family. Maybe it is better this way.
It’s easy to outrun the shame of un-rootedness, of loneliness, in the bustle of my usual daily life. Cancer has a way of asking questions, though, of exposing the flayed nerve.
Suddenly, a late afternoon phone call interrupts my thoughts.
Can you come in tomorrow morning for a CT scan? Your GP has booked it urgently.
Ah. The scan. The scan that will show how far this cancer has spread.
Yes, I say, that would be fine. I am just sitting at home.
She goes through – the first of many, many times – the Covid questions. Do I have a fever or cough? Have I been exposed to any known cases in the last 14 days?
No to all. The scan is on. It’s happening faster than I thought, I say. It’s only been two days since my GP told me.
Yes, she replies cheerily, it is! We’ve had cancellations due to Covid so actually have more space.
I smile wryly. Covid has a sense of humour at least.
CT scan booked, I go back to waiting.