THE SILENT KILLER
I was first introduced to devastation at the tender age of 9 when, one afternoon, whilst I was happily playing with dolls and toys on the floor, my Mum gently asked “Tracey, can you come and sit on my knee please, I’ve got something to tell you”. My instincts told me that this wasn’t going to be good news. As I forlornly went towards her outstretched arms, she wrapped them around me, held me close and half spoke, half whispered “I want you to know that sometime tonight or tomorrow, your Nana is going to die”. The bottom fell out of my world. I adored her. She was my mum’s mum and at only 52 was dying from cancer.
In later life, mum confessed that she’d been terrified to tell me what was going on because we’d been so close and she honestly didn’t know how I was going to take it.
Bertha Gregory was my lovely nana and I stayed at her house every Friday night. It was on these Friday nights that she would have a couple of girlfriends round and they’d have one or two of bottles of Milk Stout beer. They always did a funny song and silly hand gestures about it as well which I’ve never understood; I guess it was something they just made up for their own entertainment!
It was on one of these ‘Milk Stout’ nights that I remember Nana talking to her friends about her breasts and something called cancer and being only about 5 years old and little miss nosy with elephant ears, I asked “Nana, what are breasts?” She threw her friends one of ‘those’ looks and then said “Well Tracey, breasts are the things on the top of your feet”. It must have pacified me because I just carried on playing make believe. It’s weird the things that stick in your mind even at a young age.
Of course I now realise that she had in fact got breast cancer and was telling them all about it. Unbelievably the doctors had been treating her for a problem with her spine after she’d fallen on ice and even put her in a special ‘corset’ to support her back. This mis-diagnosis I guess, allowed the cancer to run riot around her body and gradually eat her away.
It was after that, when I remember her becoming really thin and spending long spells in hospital. We’d go and visit her in St Luke’s, Bradford and, as we left, she would stand on the hospital balcony waving us off and looking so frail that a gust of wind may just blow her away. On a weekend she was ‘allowed’ home. She spent time at the cancer hospital known as Cookridge in Leeds for treatment too. In those days if you went to Cookridge, which has since closed, then it really meant ‘the end’. I also remember her hair getting incredibly thin and wispy although I don’t recall her actually going bald. I can though, still picture very vividly in my mind, her having a bed in the living room, by now clearly far too poorly to make it in to bed upstairs and my mum lovingly stroking her head and asking if she wanted anything to eat? “I could really fancy a fish from the fish and chip shop, Joan” and my Mum happily obliged, anything to please her. She actually managed to eat the fish and enjoy it as if she’d not eaten for months, much to the obvious relief and pleasure of my Mum which probably, in some small way, gave her hope that my nana might live to see other days….sadly that scene of hope seemed to signify the beginning of the end….
Even though she’d had breast cancer, my nana actually died from ovarian cancer. The breast cancer I suspect was the primary tumour and ovarian, the secondary. I recall my Mum saying that if you got breast cancer first you could then get ovarian cancer but if you got ovarian cancer first you couldn’t then get breast cancer.
The spooky thing about all of this was that my great-grandma (nana’s mum) who I’d sadly never known had also died at exactly the same tragically young age of 52 and from exactly the same thing – ovarian cancer.
MASSIVE ALARM BELLS then began ringing for my mum and she became completely paranoid about developing cancer like her Mum and grandma before her. My Dad used to say to me “Your mother’s going to give it to herself (cancer) if she carries on like this” I guess his way of saying that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, imagining something so much in your mind it actually ends up happening.
My Mum I know missed her Mum dreadfully. At only 31, she was young to be going through this loss and she often talked and cried about her. It was hard for me seeing her like this. Not only was she having to deal with her aching loss and being a wife and mother bringing up 3 children, I now know that the cancer issue hung over her like a big black dark and depressing cloud.
So, when she developed a very swollen and bloated stomach at the age of 51 I know she was very worried indeed. Regular trips to the GP proved fruitless despite the family history and she was told that ‘it was all in her mind’ that it was probably wind and eventually it was suggested that she went on holiday for a break. I guess the GP thought she needed to get away and that she was suffering from stress. In any event, she took his advice and part way through that holiday in Majorca she had to fly back home feeling so very poorly, she actually thought that she was going to die before she’d even set foot on the ‘plane. Somehow though, and knowing my Mum with her great fighting spirit, she did manage to get back and arrived at the GP’s surgery as soon as was humanly possible.
The next moment she was being rushed in to hospital for emergency surgery. On cutting open her body, the Consultant doctor discovered a mass on her ovaries so far advanced that after the operation she was told that it had spread, was terminal and in their opinion, she only had 6 months to live. It was devastating and yet unsurprising news.
Well cancer hadn’t met my mother and she responded to the prognosis with a defiant “I’m going nowhere!” and that is when her fight for life really began.
Personally, I think you get two types of people. Those that accept the prognosis they are given and curiously, more often than not, die more or less to the day and then the other type that thinks ‘Oh, I don’t think so’! My mum was the latter.
Mum did everything in her power to stay alive and her battle began by researching every single thing she could about cancer and lifestyle making the discovery that diet was a massive contributor. With a relatively healthy lifestyle anyway, she still did the mother of all over-haul’s; Her aim, not only to build herself up to be able to endure the poisonous chemotherapy that was set to invade her body but also to eradicate any other chemicals that may hinder the powerful treatment she was to be given in order to kill the tumour.
So, in came organic healthy eating and soya milk, and out went alcohol and although she drank very little anyway out it went completely. She thoroughly washed fruit and vegetables, stopped eating red meat and she read every book she possibly could about being healthy whilst living with cancer. “I’m going to be having enough poison pumped in to my system without any additional chemicals” she told me and she wanted to give herself the absolute best possible chance of survival.
She also began seeing Mike, a Clinical Hypnotherapist who helped her to visualise her tumour as a block of ice and she imagined smashing it to smithereens with a great big sledgehammer.
I saw at first hand the power of the mind and positivity and its ability to create miracles. She actually went on to live another 7 years.
To say that her treatment was gruelling is a grave understatement and, one day, when I went to see her I was suddenly shocked by how frail she looked. I think she weighed only about 6 stone and although she was in her dressing gown and was moving around like a little old lady she still managed to look ever glamorous and had a matching towelling turban on her head; her nails perfectly manicured and painted as usual.
Her hair had begun falling out almost immediately because the Chemotherapy was so aggressive and as a very proud woman she didn’t want anyone seeing her bald head even me. That was the biggest sadness for her I think in many ways – other than the obvious matter of being on borrowed time.
As well as hair loss, the treatment also caused her to feel constantly nauseous and when she wasn’t actually feeling sick she was being sick and because Chemotherapy is a chemical poison, her mouth became full of agonising sores. She said to me “You see Tracey, the Chemotherapy may well kill off the ‘bad’ (cancer) cells but it also kills off the ‘good’ ones as well”. She lost her appetite with the constant sickness and nausea which in turn made it difficult for her to eat and therefore without food she barely had any strength to get through the days….every bit of goodness that she may have had inside her was also being obliterated….and as she was having treatment every 3 weeks, she would just start feeling a bit better by the end of week 2, able to eat a little and then the cycle would begin all over again.
Eventually, over time, merely the act of approaching the ward at the hospital where she received treatment was enough to bring on the feelings of nausea , simply because of the power of association between the two.
My poor Mum.
Despite all of this I have never in all of my life seen anyone so POSITIVE and DETERMINED to overcome anything. Sheer bloody-mindedness. I would hear her telling people “I’m going nowhere, it will take a steam roller to get rid of me” and I never doubted it for one single solitary second. I really don’t know how she did it and that inspired me every day.
I found her brave beyond words.
One Saturday afternoon when I went to see her as I usually did, there was just the two of us sat peacefully in her living room. In the silence I suddenly felt an enormous sense of overwhelm as I was struck with how amazing she really was and what she was going through. I wanted to tell her how I felt but was scared as I didn’t know how she would react. I felt really nervous but knew one day I may regret not saying what was on my mind whilst I had chance. I swallowed hard and you could have heard a pin drop as I looked across at her and softly said. “Mum…I just want you to know how brave I think you are, I think you’re the bravest person I’ve ever known”…. She didn’t say one word as the tears fell from her eyes and ran down her face and we sat in silence once more, the air heavy with emotion.
I don’t think she realised for one second how astonishing her behaviour was. I was so glad I’d let her know my feelings.
The other thing about Mum was that throughout it all I never once heard her complain about the situation that she was facing. Never once heard her say ‘why me’. Not once. Never heard her moan about any pain she was in, never any negativity at all about what she was going through and so when I arrived at her house one particular day, I was shocked to find her lying on the floor. I rushed over to her “Mum, what’s wrong?!” She looked up at me and said in a flat even tone “I’m in a lot of pain today” and then that was it no mention of it for the rest of the day and the evening that I spent with her, she just laid there. I knew however, that if my Mum was lying on the floor due to being in pain then she must have been in excruciating agony.
Although it was a wonderful bonus that we had our mum around for another 7 years after her 6-month prognosis, it was also incredibly hard and a constant roller-coaster knowing every day that the disease would get her eventually – the doctors had said from day one that they could only control the cancer and not cure it. Whichever way you looked at it, every hospital appointment, every blood test, every scan left us with constantly held breath wondering if this was ‘it’. To live every day under the shadow of death despite having some quality of life in between I find almost incomprehensible. How she lived with that insight on a day to day basis I’ve truly no idea.
The one thing she always insisted on was that she was living with cancer and not dying from it. The medical profession found her a constant source of fascination and she was asked to do talks for them about her experience although sadly this was something that she was unable to fulfil.
For me, it put a strain on the fact that it was very hard to be ‘normal’ around her. At least I found it hard anyway. I felt that I dare not complain if I felt tired or a bit off colour or if I was myself having problems because quite frankly they were nothing compared to hers but…I was human and feeling it too and life still went on with all its ups and downs. This was MY mum and I was going to lose her at an unfairly young age and whilst I was supporting her in every way I could, sometimes, I just didn’t know how to handle it knowing that ultimately she would be taken from me in such a cruel way.
THURSDAY 8 JUNE 2000
Hospital appointment in Manchester.
Went in to Leeds first. Saw an attractive young lady with a bald head and felt an overwhelming urge to talk to her. I do and am so glad for what we share which can’t be put into words. She has breast cancer which has spread elsewhere. I tell her she is brave for not wearing a wig and she responds that people like me keep her going – that is good. Tell her about my situation and she tells me that I am brave but I respond not as brave as her!! My one regret is not telling her what my Mum used to say – that she is living with cancer and not dying from it as this lady said she was. Not a criticism she is stating a fact. As I walk away I am in tears. Meeting her was a very moving moment for me and confirms I am doing the right thing. She is on my mind all day.