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

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.

News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
news
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

    £26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

    Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

    £24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

    £22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions