An apology to my son

He said it calmly but clearly: ‘Mum, I can’t remember a time when you weren’t having treatment for cancer’. It broke my heart. For a 50 something woman, two and a half years of treatment as a percentage of the whole is pretty small, even if the horror of it is recent. But to this 10 year old, cancer has filled his childhood. And it’s taken its toll.

I can’t imagine how completely horrifying it must be to be told that your mother to whom you’re close, has got cancer. I can still remember vividly the Friday I told him, and the rollercoaster of emotions that followed as we came to terms – together – with the reality of what was happening. There were serious and searching questions: “Will you die?” There was awkwardness when I said that he could talk to his teacher any time he needed to: “I do not want to talk to my teacher about your boobs, Mum”. And bizarrely, there was outright hilarity: bouncing on my bed after a bath singing at the top of this voice, “Mum’s got breast cancer, mum’s got breast cancer”.

I was never sure whether his outward behaviour was an accurate reflection of how he was coping as the months turned into a year of my feeling sick, tired, ill, lacking in energy, occasionally grumpy, or not able to attend all his school events. I was transparent about what was happening at each step, and gave him as much certainty as I could about how it would impact him and his world. But I never shared any adult worries or thoughts, or bothered him with childcare concerns or other practicalities. He needed authenticity from me, but also to feel safe, loved and protected at home, and to know that his friends and school life were non-cancer places where the rough and tumble of life continued. He appeared to be dealing with everything with the most amazing fortitude but what really was going on in his head and heart?

I gave him different channels to externalise his thoughts and emotions. One was a mood chart to plot how he was feeling; another was a diary in which we both wrote, passing the pages between as a written conversation – for him, that seemed easier than trying to find the words to talk out loud. ‘Bad’ behaviour is of course a further channel of expression and I balanced on a never-ending tightrope between normal discipline and boundaries on the one hand, and leniency on the other when I could see he was struggling.

Eventhough I was declared all clear with only maintenance treatment in the background, he still didn’t feel as though it was over. That would only happen in his view when the five year maintenance period was complete. I settled in for a long but patient wait. So when after only nine months the cancer came back, it was a hard blow – for both of us. Just as we were getting into our new groove, everything had been thrown back up in the air.

Bad behaviour returned only now with much more anger and physical aggression, targeted mostly at me. He challenged established boundaries with rage and vitriol. Again, I made it clear that rudeness and disobedience weren’t acceptable but also opened up with him conversations around what sat below that anger and how to deal with it in more helpful ways – for him and also for me. The nervous ticks returned too.

While all this went on, I was dealing with my own fear around what if the next treatment didn’t work, then what? We had counselling – separately – to try to deal with the whirlwind of emotions that was hitting us. Some of it helped. But mostly, the answer lay within ourselves to get back in control of this lifelong condition and find our peace with it.

I researched like mad and then implemented a number of lifestyle changes to diet, supplements and a more integrated approach to treatment. As I began to feel better emotionally and as the efficacy of the treatment improved dramatically (no small coincidence in my view), so I think things shifted a tiny bit for him. My son has always been a barometer of how I’m feeling; despite his over intellectual approach to life, he has the most sensitive spirit.

So, when the good news came that I was clear again, I thought we could finally put this behind us. We cried tears of joy together and we hugged each other tightly. It felt different this time, that this new integrated approach was indeed working and I felt genuinely optimistic that we had cracked this particular nut.

But when you’re 10 years old, ‘moving on’ from an experience that feels as though it has taken up all your life is a big ask. How do you begin easily to create a different reality when the pictures and video in your head of your mother for the last two or more years is of her looking pale and ill, being out of breath, wanting to lie on the sofa instead of play football, shuffling around the kitchen to prepare a meal?

We have some gentle building to do together now. It’s not possible nor indeed respectful to try to erase the bad memories. Part of the healing is to accept that they exist and to acknowledge that they also represent our strength and resilience. Rather than eradicate, our task now is to carefully and slowly create new memories that will shine brighter than the bad ones.

So my son, I apologise for what the last three years have done in your life. I know you’re strong. I know you’re intelligent and resilient. But I also know how this cancer has knocked this part of your life to bits. It doesn’t feel like it now but ultimately, you will be stronger for it.

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