'Contemplating life without her was unbearable'

When the writer Stella Duffy found a lump on her breast, her life was not the only one turned inside out, as her partner Shelley Silas explains
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Cancer, cancer, cancer. There, I've said it. If I hear of one more person getting cancer, more specifically breast cancer, I will think there is an epidemic. Let me get this straight. I didn't have cancer. My partner, the writer Stella Duffy, did, almost five years ago, aged 36. The most common response from people is: "But she's all right now?" She is (touch wood) in good health, working and doing OK. "She's on Tamoxifen?" No, that's only for women with a hormone-related breast cancer. Stella's was not. "So, she's got the all clear?" No. Her doctors don't use that phrase because Stella had a grade three malignant carcinoma - an aggressive, fast-growing cancer - which, although it wasn't in her lymph nodes, had, according to her pathology report, possibly started growing blood vessels of its own. But there was no way of knowing how far it had gone. There still isn't. Hence the surgery, chemo- and radiotherapy. All we know is that, today, she is doing OK. But the chances of recurrence are high. Stella w

Cancer, cancer, cancer. There, I've said it. If I hear of one more person getting cancer, more specifically breast cancer, I will think there is an epidemic. Let me get this straight. I didn't have cancer. My partner, the writer Stella Duffy, did, almost five years ago, aged 36. The most common response from people is: "But she's all right now?" She is (touch wood) in good health, working and doing OK. "She's on Tamoxifen?" No, that's only for women with a hormone-related breast cancer. Stella's was not. "So, she's got the all clear?" No. Her doctors don't use that phrase because Stella had a grade three malignant carcinoma - an aggressive, fast-growing cancer - which, although it wasn't in her lymph nodes, had, according to her pathology report, possibly started growing blood vessels of its own. But there was no way of knowing how far it had gone. There still isn't. Hence the surgery, chemo- and radiotherapy. All we know is that, today, she is doing OK. But the chances of recurrence are high. Stella will have hospital checks for the rest of her life.

It started one winter's day. We'd waved goodbye to the old year and were looking forward to a new millennium. We had the next five years planned, in our heads at least: we would try to have babies; my career would take off; we would have all the attributes of the family we wanted.

On the morning of 14 January 2000, Stella was going to discuss the new Charlie's Angels film on Woman's Hour. But before she could do that, she found a lump in her breast. I will never forget the sudden rush of blood to my head; the word cancer reeling around; the swift certainty that it would be all right. I was lying in bed, my back turned towards her, when she told me what she had discovered. I turned around at speed. I saw the lump. It was large and red, sticking out of the lower side of her right breast. And I could feel it. I convinced myself that by the time she had showered, the lump would have miraculously disappeared. While she went to Broadcasting House, and sounded cheery, I called our GP. Our doctor was away - would a locum do?

What followed for Stella was a series of hospital visits, tests, more painful tests, diagnosis, surgery (a wide, local excision of her breast and the removal of lymph nodes from under her arm), chemotherapy, radiotherapy, visits to a cancer counsellor, Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Her long, red hair falling out; chemotherapy damaging her fertility. And the worry that, at any time for the rest of her life, she could get lymphoedema from a scratch or a cut to her right arm, resulting in the swelling of her arm and hand.

What followed for me was a life-changing experience. I question mortality like never before, including my own. People say when you reach 40, your body starts to ache and things go wrong. They were right. But for Stella, 40 came far too early. Prior to meeting Stella, I hadn't had a serious relationship. She was the one. My soul mate. To contemplate life without her... well, it was unbearable. It still is. And I think about it more often than I care to.

While I was in the moment, and there were many moments - going to chemo with Stella; dancing to take her mind off the three kinds of noxious liquids being injected into her veins; watching lymph fluid ooze out of her underarm because that wound wouldn't heal - I just got on with it because the alternative was not to. I have a history of veering towards depression: spending hours in bed; sleeping; generally feeling down and defeatist about everything. But there was no time for depression. How could I lie in bed, often wanting my world to end, when my sick partner wanted her world to continue? I've changed. I don't do that anymore.

When Stella got sick, more than ever before I wanted us to have her child; someone we could love and bring up together. I thought a child would be a part of her I would have if she died - no replacement for the one I love, but a gorgeous continuation of her. We believe that had we been a heterosexual couple, we would have children by now. But children take a little more organisation for gay couples. I miscarried once and, despite three IVF attempts, never got pregnant again, and chemo contributed to Stella's failure to conceive. After the treatment, Stella's body needed rest before she could try to conceive: we needed to ensure the chemo was out of her system. But it wasn't to be. We have each other but we don't have children. The pain of that absence never goes away.

Chemotherapy gave Stella all the symptoms of the menopause. She had injections to suppress her ovulation to try to protect her eggs. Often, she would stay awake, or just be restless, or hot with night sweats or feeling nauseous. My body changed as well: suddenly the ease with which I drifted into sleep was gone. If Stella was awake, I would stay awake. When she did sleep, I would wake up at the quietest sound or movement she made, worried that she might need me.

And my sense of fear changed. My petty fears vanished overnight and I was left with one overwhelming fear - that of my partner getting sick again. If Stella complains of backache, my one fear raises its head. Or if she looks more tired than usual. Or when she calls me to come to see something, which always sounds sinister to me but usually turns out to be a humorous e-mail. Your partner can't go through all that, and then, hey, life is back to normal. It will never be the same. It has changed me inside out. Some of that change is good; some of it makes me less tolerant of others when they complain or whine about something trivial - go find something really awful to moan about if you have to.

We laugh a lot more; we play a lot more - like practising bat and ball in a hotel room, so we're not so bad at it on the beach the next day. And we have the sort of conversations many people never have. We talk about our fears, our hopes, our dreams. We talk about death - she tells me how long I should wait before seeing someone else if she dies. But I don't want anyone else, so numbers are redundant. And we get angry at the law - after being together for 14 years, if one of us is ill or dies, legally we are not recognised as each other's next of kin. There can be no greater negation of a relationship. And it hurts. If one of us dies, we will have to pay inheritance tax on everything. Married couples: consider yourself very privileged. Non-married heterosexual couples: consider yourself privileged to have the option.

My turning point came about a year after Stella's diagnosis. We were in our garden when suddenly I realised there was nothing I could do to ensure Stella's cancer didn't return. Until then, I thought I possessed powers of healing, and everything I did would guarantee her good health. For some reason, standing in the garden, smelling a rose, made me realise I couldn't do anything of the kind. Once I accepted that I could not love her into health, I could move on. I could enjoy every day, thinking of the things I have, rather than the things I might not have.

Sometimes I get scared and cry. Sometimes I look at Stella and wonder what, if anything, is going on under her skin and within her body. Mostly, I look at her and smile. More often than not, it all feels totally ordinary. And for once, ordinary feels like a good place to be.

BREAST CANCER: REDUCING THE RISKS

Reduce your risk of developing breast cancer by eating a healthy, well-balanced, low-fat diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.

It seems that drinking alcohol increases the risk. The Department of Health advises women to drink no more than two to three units a day. Regular exercise is also advised.

Early diagnosis and better treatment have led to a 22 per cent fall in death rates in the past 10 years - so it is important to be aware of unusual changes in your body.

Look for a lump or swelling in the breast that feels different from the rest of your breast tissue; a lump or swelling in the armpit, arm or around your collar-bone; any change in the shape or size of the breast or nipple; any change in the position or colouring of the nipple, including inversion; discharge; and a pain in the breast, armpit or arm that is new for you. Any changes should be reported to your doctor without delay. Julia Stuart

www.breastcancercampaign.org

'12 Days', edited by Shelley Silas, is published by Virago, price £10; 'Breaststrokes', written and performed by Stella Duffy, is at Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 (020-7223 2223) until 12 Dec

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