Breast cancer: 'Mum's illness has changed me – for the better'
Jenny Morrison was 10 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five years later, with the future uncertain, she offers a remarkable daughter's eye view of a family hit by crisis
Tuesday 15 September 2009
I found out mum had cancer by accident. I didn't mean to listen at her bedroom door that night, but she was crying and mum wouldn't cry unless it was something serious. She told me she had a lump in her breast and was going to have a small operation to remove it, but it could wait until after our summer holiday in Gibraltar, and I mustn't worry. As a 10-year-old, that made sense to me, because you wouldn't go on holiday if you were really sick, would you? Mum lied to me. One evening in Gibraltar she was standing by the quayside and I started to realise that the lump in her breast must mean she had breast cancer and you die from that. I asked her if she had breast cancer and she said she did; I asked her if she was going to die and she said she wasn't.
When Mum started her treatment she managed really well. Even if she was feeling awful, she always looked and acted as though everything was ok. I didn't know what chemotherapy was, but it didn't seem so bad. We'd get home from school and she'd be sitting there with a drip in one arm and a cup of tea in the other, chatting to her nurse, Elaine. Then she'd sit by the fire and watch old episodes of Friends with me and my brother and sister (then aged eight and 14) and laugh her head off. I think Mum needed to look forward to something every day and watching Friends was it. Mum still needed to keep the money coming in, though – she and my dad had divorced four years earlier – so it was back to work two days after her first chemo session.
At first I didn't tell anyone about Mum's cancer, but someone came to my school to talk about cancer; this was my cue to say something. My teacher would always ask after Mum and wanted to make sure everything was alright and whether I was able to do my homework. I said everything was fine. I should have said it was too stressful and got out of the homework.
In preparation for hair loss, Mum had her hair cut short, then very short. It helped me adjust to when she had none. I helped shave her head when there was so much hair falling out it was becoming a nuisance. Mum looked good with the wig on but I didn't care whether she wore it. When my friends came to the house, I briefed them so they knew what to expect; sometimes their younger sisters, who didn't know Mum was bald, turned up too, so we got used to big eyes, open mouths and white faces. Throughout everything, we all behaved as though chemotherapy was normal, not sleeping was normal, wearing a wig was normal, and being bald was normal. I wish I could have removed the money worries so mum didn't have to keep working. During the chemo she wasn't sleeping at night, then she'd work all day and sometimes she looked so tired. I felt helpless.
Four months into Mum's treatment, just before Christmas, we were dealt another blow: my wonderful dad died from an undiagnosed heart condition. It was so sudden, so devastating; on top of everything Mum was going through, how could we ever be normal again?
I know Mum hated losing her hair, but she never made a fuss. Then she lost her eyebrows and eyelashes, finger and toenails. I felt sorry it had to be that way, and prayed to God it wouldn't be me in 30 years' time. I suddenly felt I was her mother instead of the other way around – I had to protect her from the world and it was my job to keep her happy and healthy. But none of this made me love her any more or less. She's always been my mum, whom I adore and feel proud of, so cancer's death threat wasn't going to change that, because I already love her more than life itself.
Mum turned 50 in 2006 and we didn't want to celebrate just her birthday, we wanted to raise a glass to the fact that the cancer was gone. The chemo was over, her hair and eyebrows were back – she was on the road to recovery. More than 100 relatives and close friends were invited to our house for the celebration, and everyone could finally relax, because Sharon Morrison was back – though she'd always been there, fighting, staying strong and positive. Mum's party was like a victory celebration in a great war – in a way, I suppose, it was. It was over, we had won, and the cancer had slunk away in defeat, hopefully for ever.
In the five years since she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I've changed – for the better. I grew up quickly; I had to, really. I was only 10, but was becoming self-sufficient fast – I'd clean the house, do the washing and cooking with my brother and sister, anything to help. If it made Mum feel better, I did too. This maturity set me apart from my peers – and still does. I'm given the role of the sensible one at home and school, but I remember what it's like to be a carefree child who can depend on her parents for everything. I'll always have that memory.
If you're a mum battling breast cancer, I'd like you to know one thing: if you lock yourself away and slip into a black hole of despair, that is what your children will do. If you choose, like Mum did, to be upbeat and tell us "I'm going to fight this and I'm going to win!" they will believe you and be optimistic. If you allow yourself to become depressed, you've become a victim. I'm not sure what I would have done if Mum had shut down and cried herself into oblivion. Despite the hell she was going through, we needed her to be strong. I accept she was scared and it was OK for her to shed a tear now and then, but I had to know she was still able to take care of me, and even though I wasn't the one with breast cancer, I needed to be reassured. If the rock of the family had crumbled, I would have, too; I'm not sure I'd be the person I am today. Just one thing made me feel sane when my mum had breast cancer, and that was clinging on to normality. It sounds so simple, doesn't it?
While I was writing this article, Mum went for her five-year check-up – which is the one when they sign you off – and she was so happy. I had my best friend round and we casually waved her away and settled down to a film. It hadn't crossed my mind that the appointment could be anything other than successful. But when Mum came back a couple of hours later, my heart stopped. She was crying. I knew before she had a chance to speak, and broke down in tears. Then we sat on mum's bed and listened to the dreadful news we'd heard five years ago. Mum had cancer again, in her other breast. The world is full of evil, cruel, nasty people and she isn't one of them – why should she suffer yet again?
Mum's just had her operation to remove the tumour. It's a grade three, the most virulent kind. But it's a new primary, so it's curable as it was before. The area under her armpit has swollen with fluid – she keeps complaining there's a football under her arm. I laugh when she tells me this; it looks awfully uncomfortable and I don't like to touch it because it makes me feel sick, but Mum still sees the comical side.
Now we're waiting for the chemotherapy to begin. We know what to expect this time around, which makes me feel much better, but it's still a horrible thing for Mum to go through. She doesn't want to lose her hair and nails and taste buds again, or have diarrhoea and a mouth full of ulcers. At the moment I'm about to research if there's a way to train your mind to hold hair in and block the horrible side effects – there's always a chance something could work ...
As I write, Mum is at the shops buying food for lunch, my family are watching a film and working, and I'm in my bedroom wondering how we carry on so normally. I'm not sure if I'll ever understand, but I know why we do it; a semblance of normality was our saviour the first time around, and will be again.
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