Living with incurable cancer: talking to my children

In this guest blog post, Shine community member Beth writes about her story of living with incurable bowel cancer, and shares her experiences of talking about her illness with her young children.


 

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Meet Beth

My name is Beth, and I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016 at the age of 37. I was working as a Paralegal, and about to start the final year of my law degree. This diagnosis could not have come at a worse time, just when I was finally pursuing the career of my dreams and becoming a solicitor. However, it was not my career that came to mind, but my family: my husband and my babies.

In 2017 things went from bad to worse. I was told that the cancer had spread to my lungs and was now incurable. I was given six months to three years to live. My son Joseph was nine at the time, and my daughter Abigail was just seven. How was I going to tell them? What was I going to tell them? How much should I tell them? How much would they understand? How could I make sure I was always a part of their lives? What could I put in place for them emotionally for when I was gone?

I had a lot of questions – mostly about my kids, not medical questions for the doctors. Who to ask? I found charity leaflets about talking to children about cancer, but they were very generic; I felt that there was a lack of support for parents and children in this situation. I wanted to speak to child psychologists, parents who had been through this, adults who had lost a parent as a child – anyone who could give me insight into the best things to do for my children. in the end I found help, ideas and support from my followers on my Facebook page. I asked if anyone had lost a parent at a young age and if so, what had helped them. Then the ideas came flooding in.

When I was first told I had cancer, we told the kids that I had some bad cells and the doctors were going to take them out, meaning that I would be in hospital for a bit. After my initial operation, we explained that I would need to have some medicine to kill off any tiny bad cells that the doctors could not see and help prevent any more bad cells growing. We explained that the medicine might make me feel ill. The progression of my cancer meant that I needed to break the news that the bad cells were back, the doctors could not cure me and – the bit I still needed to get my head around – I was going to die (but we had no idea when).

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Beth and her family

I talked to Richard, my husband. We planned to sit the children down and talk as a family, but not about time frames. Unfortunately, we never did get to sit down and do this. Life has a funny way of taking these things out of your hands.

I did tell Joseph and Abigail, but it was one afternoon when I was snuggled up on the sofa watching TV with them. An advert about cancer came on and Joseph turned to me and said ‘you had cancer didn’t you, Mummy? But you don’t have it anymore.’ My heart sank. We had never used the ‘cancer’ word, but he knew. Yet that was not what got me. Yes, I was going to have to shatter their world, and it would have to be now because I could not lie to them. The conversation went something like this:

 

Me: Well, you know that medicine to try and stop it coming back?

J&A in unison: Yes, Mummy.

Me: It looks like the medicine didn’t work as well as we thought, and I do still have cancer.

A: But Mummy, cancer can kill people.

J: But the doctors will make Mummy better, Abi.

Me: Unfortunately, the doctors can’t cure me, but they are going to do whatever they can to keep me here with you for as long as possible.

A: Are you going to die, Mummy?

Me: We all die one day, but I will probably die sooner than we would like. You know that if there is anything you want to ask me, you can. We can talk about anything.

There were lots of tears and cuddles, but oddly no questions – well, not then. A few weeks later my daughter, who is very matter-of-fact, asked ‘Mummy, will you last until Christmas?’. I am still not sure if she was more concerned about her presents – the man in a red suit does not get all the credit in our house…!

Both children made us promise that we would tell them whenever we got any new information. Joseph wanted to know about scan results and treatments. They seemed reassured by being included in what was going on. Just over a year on, we still have no idea how long I have left, but we take each day as it comes, and do everything we can to make as many memories together as possible.

We talked about making memory boxes, something they would have to keep their memories of me and our lives together as fresh as possible. The children put things into their boxes that remind them of something we have done together. It could be a photo of us together, anything that means something to them. I hope these boxes will help them to connect to me through physical things they can hold, touch, see, and smell.

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Dreaming about holidays

I am also doing things that the children do not know about: for example, I have written their birthday cards all the way up to the age of 21. This was tough and I cried a lot, but it was important to me. I set up an email address for each of them and I send them emails. I include a summary of something we have done together, what I enjoyed most, and a picture or two. I bought some books that ask questions about my life, and about their lives. I am in the process of completing these books and trying to answer all the questions.

I plan on recording videos and writing letters for special occasions. My husband can give them if he feels appropriate. The most important thing, though, is to be there for them right now and make the most of the time we do have together.

I am currently on a holiday booking spree…

 

You can learn more about Beth and get in touch with her via her blog, Facebook page, or Instagram/Twitter: @bowelwarrior. 

If you would like more support about talking to children about cancer, you can…

 

Bowel cancer and talking sh*t!

“So, you’re fine now, right?”

Ah, the question that often gets asked when you tell people your cancer woes! And the thing is, it’s usually asked with the best of intentions. Your friends and acquaintances want you to be fine – but ‘fine’ can mean very different things once your body has been through cancer treatment.

In our latest blog, we are literally talking sh*t!  Our writer, Pippa, shares her experiences of a bowel cancer diagnosis and treatment in her early 30s and explains what the ‘new normal’ can feel like once your insides have been through the wringer. Having trouble explaining to people what your life is like now? Please feel free to share with others and, as always, let us know what you think.


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Pippa, during treatment

We live in a country where people are embarrassed to talk about their bodily functions, particularly their bowel movements. We rarely talk about them with our friends and family (you know you have a close friend if you do!) and we especially don’t like to talk about them with strangers, even doctors. This inability to talk about bowel movements is undoubtedly putting lives at risk and it almost cost me my life.

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in both women and men in the UK, and the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK, after lung cancer. Like many cancers, bowel cancer is more common in older people and screening is offered for those who are 60 or older. However, there are quite a few of us who are considerably younger who have been diagnosed with bowel cancer. As screening is only available to those who are older (and even then, it isn’t 100% reliable) you need to be aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer and talk to someone, like your GP, if you are experiencing them.

Before I was diagnosed, I experienced both a change in bowel habits and blood in my stools. These symptoms coincided with starting a new job and I put them down to stress. I was also embarrassed and didn’t want to talk to my doctor about it. I finally went to my GP fifteen months later. What finally convinced me to go? Confiding in my mum and one of my sisters. They were adamant I went to the doctor and it was actually much easier than I thought it would be to speak to my GP about poo! She referred me immediately for a colonoscopy, which is how my bowel cancer was discovered.

When you’re diagnosed with bowel cancer your life will forever revolve around poo, a subject that no-one wants to discuss! During treatment your bowels take a battering and a lot of people have a stoma (temporary or permanent) which brings its own poo challenges. I never imagined my life would involve waking up in the middle of the night and feeling a warm liquid all over my abdomen -and that liquid turning out to be poo from a stoma bag leak. Equally memorable was the occasion, soon after my operation, when I didn’t have a firm enough grip on my stoma bag as I was trying to empty it. Instead of emptying a very liquid poo into the toilet, it went all over the seat, my clothes and the floor – in fact, it went everywhere other than the toilet bowl. Happy times!

Being diagnosed with bowel cancer means you very quickly have to get over any qualms you might have had about talking about poo. Not only do you get used to crowds of people looking at or up your backside, but every appointment with consultants involves discussing your bowel movements.

Even once treatment is over, people rarely return to “normal” bowel function. The consultants like to refer to the period post-treatment as “getting used to your new normal”. For a lot of people, the final part of their treatment is having a temporary stoma reversed, which is when the bowel is reconnected for the first time post-treatment. A section of bowel will have been removed and the bowel that remains will have been affected by other treatments like chemo and radiotherapy. As a result, the speed at which poo moves through your bowel, as well as your bowel’s reaction to food and environmental stresses, will have changed. It is not uncommon post-surgery to spend a considerable amount of time on the toilet. Not only do you poo a lot, but it can also take a considerable time to fully empty your bowels. Challenges include feeling like you need to do a poo but not being able to, going to the loo, cleaning yourself up and then immediately needing to go again (referred to as clustering). No one understands the pure joy of passing a single normal poo until you have had bowel cancer!

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A post-treatment Pippa

These challenges are all a pain when you’re at home but they present even greater challenges when you’re out of the house. Prior to being diagnosed with cancer I tried to never do a poo outside of my own bathroom at home. Post-cancer, that is impossible. In the early stages post-treatment I didn’t like to be far from a toilet because if I needed to go, I had a very short period of time in which I could hold onto my bowel. Please don’t judge if you see a person who looks “perfectly normal” rushing into a disabled toilet. There are a number of medical conditions that mean that people need urgent access to a toilet and until you have experienced incontinence you can’t fully understand how embarrassing and horrible that is. If all other toilets are busy, the disabled toilets can be your only option to avoid an accident. Disabled toilets also provide more space to move around. When you have a stoma, you need that additional room to be able to empty your bag or to replace the bag if you’re unlucky enough to have a bag leak while you are out and about.

It can be very isolating to deal with the after effects of bowel cancer and the treatments. Thanks to Shine I have met a number of fellow “Bowelies” with whom I can have frank chats about poo and all of the other shit that comes with bowel cancer!

I am really passionate about educating people about the symptoms of bowel cancer and getting them talking about their bowel habits more. People can literally die from embarrassment and that’s not right.

Pippa Woodward-Smith is 34 and lives in Southampton. You can meet others like Pippa at our upcoming Shine Connect conference on 23rd April in London.