Jake was six when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. About to start chemo and therefore about to see my appearance dramatically altered I knew I had no choice but to try and explain to him in simple, non scary terms what was happening. “Mummy’s got a nasty lump,” I said as we sat together in the kitchen one sunny afternoon. “But the doctor’s are going to give me lots of strong medicine to make the lump go away.”
It didn’t seem necessary to fill his head with the nitty gritty of what lay ahead – a full mastectomy, lymph node removal, six weeks of daily radiotherapy not to mention the five years of medication and near constant anxiety facing me if I was lucky enough to get that far. And talking of lumps – the one in my throat was pretty sizable during our ‘chat’ and so I thought it best to keep things brief and to the point. How much does a six year old with wobbly bottom teeth and a Spiderman obsession really need to know about the harsh realities of a cancer diagnosis anyway?
The first time Jake saw me without hair he literally keeled over. He bounded downstairs one morning and before I could stop him had yanked the trusty little turban I’d taken to wearing off my freshly shaved, beautifully bald head. He fell backwards onto the floor in horror, shrieked and then went very, very quiet before saying, “Mummy, are you going to die like that lady off the telly?”
That lady off the telly was Jade Goody. It shocked me that he’d absorbed and remembered her heartbreaking story even though he was only five when she died and I should have known then that even if it’s not talked about, all the big stuff that our children observe and experience is filed away somewhere, shaping who they are and who they will become. Trying to regain my composure I retrieved my (cough) funky, protective headgear and attempted to convincingly reassure my darling boy that mummy would be absolutely fine whilst crossing every single finger, all of my toes and furtively tapping on the nearest bit of wood.
Two years on and I often wonder what Jake really remembers of that time. He certainly never refers to it or seems to express any anxiety around the subject of ill health. Is it wishful thinking on my part to hope that mummy having had cancer really wasn’t such a big deal for him? That he was too young to really know what was going on and that it hasn’t affected him adversely at all? That maybe, just maybe, we’ve got away with it?
Funny, revealing, poignant little moment in the supermarket the other day. As I packed the last few items into yet another, just purchased, bag for bloody life, the cashier handed Jake four of those green tokens – the ones that look like tiddly winks that customers then deposit into the charity box of their choice as they exit the store.
On this particular day the three local organisations all worthy of support were an animal welfare centre, a specialist children’s playgroup and Paul’s Cancer Support Centre. I was distractedly analysing the alarmingly long till receipt I’d just been given and putting my depressingly light purse away while Jake bounded over to the large, clear, perspex boxes, clutching his valuable tiddly winks, ready to make his choice. He studied the information displayed above each box and looked over at me. He put his first green counter in the box for the local cancer charity. He looked over at me again, smiling shyly. He put his second counter in the same box and the third and finally the fourth. Between each and every deposit he looked at me with a sweet but knowing expression on his face that told me all I needed to know. Tiddly tokens donated he grabbed my hand, squeezed it tight, absolutely no words required. We set off, pushing our wobbly wheeled trolley back towards the car and began discussing the ever so serious business of what was on the menu for lunch.
And so, thank goodness, life goes on – huge, defining moments alongside three for two discounted deals. It’s a mixed bag, but I wouldn’t swop it for the world. I’m hoping Jake wouldn’t either…