Things You Only Know If Your Mum’s Had Breast Cancer

Everyone knows that chemo, radiotherapy and seeing your mum loose her hair is shit - but here’s the things you only know if you mum’s had cancer.


by Sophie Cullinane |
Published on

Nothing can prepare you for the news that your mum – you know, the woman who gave birth to you, raised you and has been the most strong, dependable, unshakable figure in your life – has cancer. Suddenly, the utterly unwelcome and equally devastating reality that your mum might not, as predicted, live forever hits you with all the force of an oncoming train. Your mum has cancer and cancer kills people. Your mum might die. Soon. It feels (and is) too horrible to comprehend.

My mum found out she had breast cancer five years ago when I was in my first year at university. Over the course of those five years – and with an unwavering, stoic, unbreakable bravery that is, even now, utterly baffling to me – she battled chemo and radiotherapy, lost all her hair and a worrying amount of weight, dealt with sickness and skin burns, several brutal operations – including one which removed her breast – and has, now, come out of it the other side.

Like anyone who has gone through an enormous trauma, she is now both less and much much more of a person than she ever was before. And the same thing applies to those of us who were there, clumsily, to support her. Everyone knows that chemo, radiotherapy and seeing your mum lose her hair is shit, but here’s the things you only know if your mum’s had cancer.

The word ‘cancer’ is noisier than a bomb

Before my mum got sick, ‘cancer’ had always been a very quiet word. It was whispered about so-and-so’s mum in school corridors, mumbled solemnly by adults at dinner tables or a barely audible background noise on the news. But when dad drove from London to Brighton and wordlessly took me and my big brother to a pub and told us about mum, the word ‘cancer’ was very loud.

It filled the room, reverberated around the mirrored walls and turned heads at the bar. I felt my face go hot with tears as the punters around us shuffled awkwardly, saw my brother stand up to get ‘some air’ and have a cigarette and my dad reach out to hold my hand, but I couldn’t hear anything other than the word ‘cancer’ ringing in my ears like the distortion of an amp. It took several long minutes for it to stop.

Telling people about your mum’s illness can get political

It was hard, but I did eventually tell my best friends that my mum was sick. It was awful. Remember when you were a kid and you fell over badly in the playground and managed to be brave right up until the moment your mum comes to collect you, when you then turn into a quivering mess? That’s what it felt like telling my best friends about mum.

I said I was fine but the bloody dickheads knew I wasn’t. Thank God I told them – from that point, they could see through my bullshit so it was easier for me to just tell them the truth anyway, no matter how unpleasant. This was very useful during the chemo months when I was such a mess, I couldn’t make it through half a day without crying.

I didn’t want to tell my boyfriend because I was already halfway out of the relationship when my mum was diagnosed and speaking about cancer would have forced me to be more intimate with him than I was prepared to be

I didn’t want to tell my boyfriend because I was already halfway out of the relationship (classic first year at uni stuff) when my mum was diagnosed and speaking about cancer would have forced me to be more intimate with him than I was prepared to be. We hadn’t had sex in months, so why would I let him know about this incredibly intimate and personal thing I was going through? He’d ask me about her and in a rage that was obviously more about mum than him, I’d bark back that it was none of his business. Not very nice.

I even struggled to talk to family members. I once remember bawling in my bedroom and my brother – in an act of kindness that has yet to be surpassed – silently came into my bedroom, put a cup of tea on the floor, squeezed my arm and walked out again. Neither of us wanted to talk, but the tea spoke volumes.

But I wasn’t keen to keep the news from everyone – I’m embarrassed to admit it but there were a number of times when I used my mum’s sickness as an excuse not to go into work when I was actually just really hungover. My mum had cancer, I thought to myself, the least I deserved was a day off when I had spent the night before drowning in a vat of cheap plonk to forget about the whole thing. Speaking of which…

You may think you’re coping when you’re really fucking not

I was a 19-/20-year-old student when my mum was diagnosed and already not averse to having a drink or two, but boy this did step up a notch in the months when my mum was having the worst of her treatment. I went fully feral.

When you’re in a situation that’s so catastrophically awful but also completely out of your control, you’ll scrabble to find control in any other area of your life. For me, this involved controlling my love life and going out getting wrecked so I could get with guys to make me feel better and forget what I was actually feeling.

And booze really helps – and inevitably leads to casual sex. Worrying about boys was a nice distraction and numbing myself with booze was very effective. But only for a time – it wasn’t long before ‘fun, party girl Sophie’ was replaced by a scary, banshee-like creature who went so close to the edge that people stopped wanting to hang out with her anymore. I would go from dancing my heart out to crying at the drop of a hat. Not fun for anyone else.

I’m embarrassed to admit it but there were a number of times when I used my mum’s sickness as an excuse not to go into work when I was actually just really hungover

Thankfully, all of this only lasted a couple of months before I got a grip on myself and actually stepped up to the plate – going back to London to see my mum nearly every weekend and making sure my dad and little sister were properly supported. But I’m still dealing with the repercussions of those wild few months now – my love life has never really recovered.

Suddenly, worrying about your future becomes 'a thing'

There still is a lot of confusion about the hereditary nature of breast cancer, but I found myself worrying about what I would do if I did have the hereditary gene - when most 20-year-olds aren’t worried about much more than peeling themselves out of bed for their morning lecture.

I was always pretty clear about what I was going to do about my breasts – lop them off when the time comes, if you’re interested – but now, five years later, I find myself thinking about my own children and what it would be like for them if I were to get sick. I want to have children before I’m 30 and I’m sure it's, in part, because if I was to get cancer, I’ve always assumed it would happen when I’m nearing the menopause and I want my kids to be old enough to deal with it.

There’s enough ‘what ifs’ in there to even make me chuckle, but I’d be lying if I said that this stuff hadn’t crossed my mind.

I want to have children before I’m 30 because if I was to get cancer I want my kids to be old enough to deal with it

You’ll probably never be OK talking about it

Now my mum is OK, she often wants to talk to me about what she’s gone through when, frankly, I can't think of anything worse. It’s something that I try and push out of my mind as best I can, so sometimes when she ruins a perfectly nice conversation with the ‘C’ word I actually get angry. This is, obviously, a supremely selfish reaction and one that I can quash on most occasions, but not always. No one talks about the deep-rooted anger that festers within you years after your mum gets sick, but it can bubble up in weird ways. And when friends' mums get sick, I don’t want to talk about it then either. Of course, I do because I love them, but it’s never without supreme effort.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the word ‘cancer’ is absolutely everywhere – on every TV programme, in every newspaper and in fun runs all over my city. This is all obviously amazing and serves a very important purpose, but it sure as hell gets in the way of my ability to bury my head in the sand and sometimes I just want to scream at all the do-gooding. Speaking of burying your head in the sand…

You’ll develop an ‘I’m fine’ routine

As part of not wanting to talk about it, I developed a fun little comedy ‘bit’ that I wheel out when the conversation turns to my own health.

Am I not worried about what will happen to me when I’m older? No! Of course not! I’m just going to get them taken off and put on higher! They can take away some of my arse at the same time if they want to! And my love handles while they’re at it! Take it all off!

The laughing that follows this routine is always awkward, but at least it stops the conversation dead in its tracks.

Your mum is amazing

No matter how difficult any of this was, none of it was really happening to you – it’s your mum who’s gone to hell and back. My mum dealt with cancer with grace, good humour and supreme bravery. Sometimes I look at her and I can’t actually believe that any human could go through what she went through and be not only OK but even better than she was before. She’s not just a person – she’s a superhero.

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane

Picture: Ada Hamza

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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