I remember everything about the day she told us she had breast cancer. I was back home from University for the Easter holidays. It was a warm, bright spring morning. I had woken up late, feeling guilty I hadn’t started either of the two essays I needed to write.
I was sitting in my usual chair in the living room of my family home, the single sofa-chair I had sat in my whole life. There is an order to things in families. Unspoken rules. I always sat in the chair closest to the television. By dad sat in the other single sofa-chair behind me to the left, and my mum and my sister sat on the ‘big sofa’ – my sister on the left hand side, my mum on the right. That was where we sat. Every night of every week of my childhood. When I think of home, that’s how I still picture it. Picture us in our places. That was the order of things in our house.
That morning, the order of things changed and would never be the same.
My sister found out first. For reasons I can’t remember, she was looking through my mum’s phone, and came across text messages from my dad. In them, my mum said “ I don’t want to tell the kids until we’re certain”. My mum was a terrible liar, so when confronted by my then 17-year old sister, she gave the game away immediately. Something was up. Something serious.
My sister was almost hysterical. It was like she knew.
Within seconds everyone was gathered in the living room. I was sitting in my chair, my sister was sitting in my mum’s, and both my parents were stood up between us. And they told us my mum almost certainly had breast cancer. Quite advanced breast cancer. It hadn’t been confirmed 100%, but the doctors were quite sure. It was to be confirmed later that week as grade 3 breast cancer.
My life changed in that instant. Honestly, I became a different person from then on. I genuinely can’t remember what it was like to not have either 1) a mum without cancer or 2) a mum at all.
One of the worst things about my mum getting cancer is I can’t remember what life was like before it. When she died, well-meaning people said you’ll remember the good times, eventually the bad memories, the memories of her becoming weaker and more ill, fade. For me they never have.
I can recall moments in my life before my mum had cancer, but those memories are tainted. I picture my mum with cancer always. Sometimes physically – literally the way she looked following the chemotherapy which took away her hair that she replaced with a wig. Or wearing her special sleeve, on her left arm, to stop it swelling after they took away her lymph nodes.
Or sometimes she looks like she did before. Young. Without the wig and or the sleeve. But in the memory there is an aura around her – something that tells me she has cancer, or one day will. And I look at her in those memories and I want to tell her. She doesn’t know, but I do. And I want to warn her.
She had cancer for nearly 5 years. Grade 3, aggressive cancer. Like so many, she was unbelievably brave. I think about her bravery and her courage all of the time. She got on with it, she had no choice of course, but she rarely ever moaned or got upset. She had moments, when she was alone with my dad.
He told me that every New Year’s Eve she would cuddle up to him in bed, and ask whether he thought she would be here this time next year. He of course said she would be and to stop being daft. He was her rock, from start to finish. No one else. Just him. We never saw that side of her condition. I was 25 when she died, and my sister 22, but we were her babies, and she shielded us from harm her entire life.
My mum was rock-solid. Nothing phased her. But she wasn’t fighting cancer. It wasn’t a battle. It didn’t beat her. She didn’t lose. She just died.
Her body was overwhelmed with a disease that spread exceptionally despite the best use of medicine and the application of scientific principles. If it was a fight, a genuine ‘battle’ between her and cancer, my mum would have won, because she would have done anything humanly possible to survive for my sister and me.
But it wasn’t possible. She was a passenger in the entire process. There was absolutely nothing she could do, other than eat a bit better (which she did) stop drinking (which she rarely did anyway), and turn up to her appointments and take her medication.
Beyond that, it was just luck. Some survive breast cancer – thankfully more and more are. My mum survived for 5 years – much longer than she would have 25 years ago. She died when she did because the cancer was more sophisticated than the treatment. It’s as simple as that.
For me, to say she “lost her battle” implies my mum did something wrong to let cancer “beat her”, or worse, that she gave up. Worse still, it suggests that the people that have survived cancer fought harder that my mum, they were better at it. They bothered to go the extra mile that she couldn’t.
I don’t have cancer and I don’t know what it feels like. For some, maybe framing the condition as a battle or a fight is helpful. This is just how I see it – as someone who misses their mum: it upsets me every single time I hear or read those cliche phrases associated with cancer. I think it is lazy and I find it insulting. People don’t mean to be – but it still is.
There are no winners and losers with cancer. There are survivors and there are people like my mum, who die, because we as a human race just haven’t come up with a way of stopping it yet.
Dr Elie Isenberg-Grzeda, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre puts it best for me:
“On one side of the coin is, ‘You’re tough. You can beat this. You’re a fighter. You’re a strong warrior.’ But the flip side of that is the person ends up dying from their cancer. And it means they weren’t tough enough. They couldn’t beat it. They weren’t a fighter. They were actually a loser.”
As a journalist, I hear these phrases all of the time used by well-meaning, kind and clever colleagues. But please, stop. Think what your words could mean to someone. Think a second longer about what you might be implying and come up with a better way of saying it. Just say it like this:
On March 12th, 2014 Diane Hewitt died of breast cancer.
I think about her every day. It hurts so much. But I am immeasurably proud of her. Whatever is good about me came from her and I want the world to know she died only because she had no choice, not because she ‘lost a battle’ she was never destined to win.
Read more about it here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/25/having-cancer-not-fight-or-battle?CMP=share_btn_link