My mother-in-law died on Sunday. She was 67 years old. She didn’t smoke and only occasionally drank a small glass of wine. She was fit, active and healthy, spending a lot of time tending to her large garden and the many vegetables she grew. But Cancer doesn’t spare people who live healthy lives and once it took hold, her deterioration was terrifying. She was a strong woman, which gave her strength of fight and the possibility of a long battle with the disease, which while positive at the beginning, made seeing her steady and predictable decline towards the end all the more harrowing.
It had started in the same way that it starts for many of the 55,000 people diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, every year; a lump in the breast. The immediate panic, peppered with occasional moments of weak self-assurance that in all likelihood, it’s just a benign growth, a cyst. Thankfully, that was the case. But during the scan, suspicious cells were found in the other breast that warranted further investigation. It was a tumour. But although a particularly aggressive form of the disease, it had been discovered at a very early stage and with surgery and treatment, her chances were good.
The Lumpectomy went ahead and she was offered Chemotherapy or Radiotherapy. She chose the latter, as the consultant had suggested that due to the quick diagnoses and surgery, Radiotherapy, the less severe treatment of the two, could be effective. It also meant that risk of infection was lessened during treatment, so she could continue to see and spend time with her two young grandchildren, my two sons. But choosing the less aggressive treatment came with a risk; if it wasn’t enough to cure the disease, a subsequent delayed start of the more potent chemotherapy may lead to the cancer spreading.
But Radiotherapy seemed to have worked and blood test results suggested that to be the case. She said she was incredibly ‘lucky’ and what began as a terrifying ordeal had come to the best possible conclusion. But unbelievably, no further scans were offered and after all the care, discussions, treatments, scans, results and final all-clear, she only received two consultations in the months that followed; she felt well and as far as the Oncology unit was concerned, that meant she was well. But this was Cancer and even remission doesn’t mean that the disease is cured. And a year later, when she started having stomach pains, an investigative scan revealed a dark ‘spot’ at the bottom of her lung. The Radiotherapy hadn’t in fact been successful; the cancer was still there, having just ‘retreated’. Follow-up scans at one, three or six months may have detected this but left unchecked and allowed steady growth, the cancer had spread to her lungs, bones and brain.
Her decision now was another difficult one and one that many cancer patients face; choose treatment with chemotherapy and hopefully extend life by a few months, albeit with terrible side-effects and minimal contact with my children or don’t have treatment, feel ‘better’ than she would on chemotherapy but have no hope of extended days.
Initially, she chose treatment. But as time went on, it became clear that it was too late. There was only one outcome now. And it was just a matter of time.
Brilliantly, even though the prognosis had suggested otherwise, she was with us for a family Christmas and was at the wedding of my marriage to her daughter a month later.
She died at home five weeks later, with her husband, son and daughter by her side.
She was a worthy adversary; she took my predictable son-in-law jibes and gave some back. We had a good relationship, not perfect – she was my mother-in-law after all – but she was kind, caring and extremely generous. My two boys have lost a grandmother who taught them how to sow seeds and look after plants; grow and pick apples and then turn them into juice; feed – and chase – chickens and collect their eggs. At five and two years old, they will not remember these things forever and although we will of course keep her memory alive, their memories of that time with ‘ArRa’ will fade.
And it is this that makes me most sad.
My wife has been incredible. Whilst carrying the immense grief of losing her mum to such a horrible disease, she has supported her father as he struggles to come to terms with the loss, taking each hour of each day as it comes. She is organising the many complications of the funeral arrangements, considerately balancing the wishes of her mum and the hopes and expectations of the family and all the while, caring for our two boys and continuing to work. On top of all this, she has me to worry about; this time next week I’ll be having the transplant.
You would think all this is too much for one person to carry but somehow she just does and gets it all done. She has incredible strength of character. And she is an incredible wife, mother and friend.
And her mum would be proud.