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Monday, October 01, 2007

The 'C' word...

Scary word isn't it? I've wanted to blog about my own personal experience of cancer for awhile now, but feel like a bit of a fraud. I mean, how could I possibly understand what it's like? It's actually that very feeling that's finally made me get this off my chest. Weirdly, I first thought about it about two months ago when G and I were watching the last series of Battlestar Galactica. It might seem a bit trite, and a bit of a leap but those who know the show will also know that President Roslin (left) was diagnosed with the disease and given a short time to live (as if the destruction of your home planet wasn't enough to deal with!) Well, of course, in the best tradition of TV drama serials she survived...and I felt a bit cheated, to be honest. That miracle mix of human/Cylon blood was just too easy a way out in my book.

I've decided to blog now because this month Breakthrough Breast Cancer are asking everyone to go 'pink for October', changing the colour of websites to raise awareness of the disease. We've changed our main header on the I Knit website from our usual yellow to bright pink, but we've also launched a 'Just Giving' page where you can donate directly to the charity. As an added incentive (if you need one) every pound donated gives you an entry into our prize raffle - with £50 to spend at I Knit London, a pink Denise Interchangeable Knitting Kit or a pair of tickets to the UK Stitch 'n Bitch Day to be won. The more pounds you donate the more entries you get. Visit the page here.

My own experience of cancer began in the late 1980s. My grandad (here pictured with Nana C. at Portpatrick in the sunshine) succumbed to lung cancer when I was about 14 years old. I remember vividly helping my dad to wash the car with my grandad looking on. He collapsed onto the garage floor and I just stood and stared. I had no idea what was going on, and no idea how to react. I left it to my dad to notice and jump into action. I matured very slowly and was very naive, until I was about 23, but the image of him lying there, and my feeling of complete redundancy has never left me. He'd been a smoker all my life, and probably for most of his own, so it was hardly surprising it happened to him, but certainly not deserved. no-one deserves to spend the last few years of their life dying a very, very slow death. It was two years after the episode in the garage that my grandad was finally taken over by the disease. Even then I wasn't mature enough to really grasp the idea of mortality.

My immaturity played a huge part in our family's next battle with cancer - in 1989 my mum, aged only 41 was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, our family history is sketchy to say the least, and I hadn't lived with her for about 7 years at this point. I'm ashamed to say that made it so much easier for me to shirk any filial responsibility to visit and offer support. Fact is, at 16 years old I didn't understand it, I didn't know how to behave around her and I didn't know the right things to say. Not one for high emotion I stayed away, visiting her only once in hospital and leaving the support to my sister (who has always been her closest friend, and who left with her when the family was broken up) and her partner, Geordie. I cannot bear to imagine what she was going through and how she must've felt isolated, especially by her son who stayed away. My mum got through her cancer, but suffered the trauma of a full mastectomy on her right breast and the unimaginable psychological fallout from that. I believe that the year or so surrounding my mum's diagnosis/operation shaped our relationship permanently, and I am full of regret for not having the courage to be there for her, instead choosing the selfish 'easy way out' and avoiding it altogether...it is vitally important that everyone, men especially, understand what it is to receive that diagnosis, what it means physically and mentally and what they can do to support and care for those affected. My mum got through her dark days with the help of my sister and her own strong will. Her cancer did eventually cause two break-ups; her marriage and her sunbed (which was smashed into pieces shortly after diagnosis). The pic is her with her first (so far only!) grandchild.

By 1996, I'd like to say, aged 23 I'd matured enough to deal with life, and death. but then my Nana (my mum's mum) was given the news that she had a cancerous tumour in her pancreas...and that it had spread so widely there was nothing to be done. Now, my Nana was the closest person to me whilst growing up. During the family's break-up she continued to look after us, my brother and I (we're together in this old photo, me right, in a strop), and we saw her almost daily. She brought me up, in some respects, and the news that she would not be with us after a few months was devastating. Tearful phonecalls and emotional visits aside it was weirdly normal from then on. She continued to come around, we'd have our usual heated arguments about some petty thing or other. She looked after my brother and I for so many years and I still couldn't look her in the eye and tell her how grateful I was, how brilliant she'd been to us and how much I loved her. Gradually, week by week, I started to notice how thinner she was becoming, how the muscles in her arms started to disappear and how tired she looked. This was what death looks like, I remember thinking, only in time-lapse, slow-motion. She managed to out-do the expected 6 months and saw Christmas 1995. It was New Year when she collapsed at home and went into hospital...and I stayed away. Once again too emotionally-stunted to cope with this again I visited her only once in hospital, mid-January. Unbelievably I couldn't find her on the ward, only to discover I'd been standing a few feet away from her bed, but didn't recognise her. She was only 73 years old, no age at all, and another strong-willed Ridley (like my mum). About a month after I saw her in hospital I visited again, this time at home, where she'd returned, to die. It's the first, and thankfully, only time, I've seen death. Somehow, in retrospect I have often felt vindicated for staying away, my guilt convincing me that I did the right thing to keep away, because my lasting images of my Nana are not the ones I want to have. But I know I'm making excuses for myself. We have to face up to this disease in order to exert some kind of control over it and to beat it. My Nana's death changed me in so many ways. My last visit, the day before she died was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do in my life. To feed bits of pineapple on cocktail sticks to a dying woman who had no clue who I was, where she was or what was happening to her, with so much morphine charging round her body that she could barely speak. It was the only time I ever told her I loved her, the only time I ever thanked her for everything she'd done for me over the past 23 years...and my greatest regret is that I have no idea if she even knew who I was or what I was saying. I've never regretted anything more, before or since. It is so important for everyone to understand what this disease can do, what it means for mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, friends...It is too easy to make your excuses and leave; I've done it three times now and I only hope I never need to do it again.



Lynsey said...

wow craig- very poignant

Lynsey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Queen of the froggers said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences Craig, I will probably read that a couple of times or more. Please would you mind popping over to my blog and commenting as I am having a comment for charity month and the more comments I get the more I will donate! x

Betsan said...

Craig - I think your grandmother would have known you were there. My father who is 100 years old has been very ill for most of this year - I've been called to say goodbye to him on six occasions but each time he's pulled through surprising the doctors who care for him. I agree with you it's the hardest thing you can do in life - to watch life being slowly sucked away from someone you love. I think your grandmother knew you were there because when dad has been very poorly we've spoken to him and we know that he's recognised our voices even though he didn't recognise us at the time. I think people hear and recognise familiar voices long after they are unable to recognise faces. Something else that might comfort you is that one night (about 2am) when dad had been very ill he turned to me and said 'Did you know that there really are angels in heaven. I've seen them.' He's also convinced he's spoken to his mother and sister (who are both dead)and it's all very real to him, so he's peaceful with things and that gives me a lot of comfort.
Thank you for having the courage to share your story.

moneymelon said...

Craig, thank you for sharing your experiences with cancer. Too often I take my loving family for granted. I think I would have done as you did and shied away from death, but your story serves as a reminder to me. I lost an amazing Auntie to breast cancer several years ago. I hardly knew her because of language (Japanese) and physical (Pacific Ocean) barriers and there is nothing I regret more than taking so long to move to Japan. I arrived a year after she died. I am still afraid of death, but regret is probably worse.