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 at 32: Life, but not as you knew it

April is Bowel Cancer Awareness month, so in our latest blog post, we’re bringing you a blog by Cara, a Shine member who was diagnosed with bowel cancer shortly after she turned 32.  Currently undergoing treatment, Cara is passionate about raising awareness of bowel cancer and its symptoms, as well as sharing her experience of treatment. Please do share this blog with others and, as always, let us know what you think!


As April is bowel cancer awareness month I am asking this:

#Isitok that on average 2,500 young people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year and that many of these individuals experience a delayed diagnosis? A delayed diagnosis that stems from a perception that in your 20s and 30s you’re too young to possibly have bowel cancer?

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Guest blogger, Cara

I decided to write this blog post because that is exactly the situation I found myself in 14 months ago when I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer and I hope that by sharing my story I can raise awareness of the disease and make people stop and think. After all, nine out of 10 people survive bowel cancer if it is caught in the early stages and the key to this is early diagnosis. My advice is that if you have a concern and it’s not normal for you, don’t be embarrassed speak to your GP about it. We all know our own bodies and you know when something just isn’t quite right.

A little about me……

At 32 years old I found myself staring cancer in the face like an insurmountable challenge that I didn’t know if I was strong enough to tackle. It had taken 10 months to reach a diagnosis and when I speak to other people my age with bowel cancer I’m not alone in having been told we are just ‘too young to have cancer’.

My cancer story started when I decided to pay a visit to my GP because I was slightly concerned that there were some changes in my bowel habits and I was experiencing abdominal cramps. A routine blood test showed that I was anaemic and the GP made a referral. Looking back now the anaemia explained the tiredness I had been dismissing for months as something that just happens when you “turn 30” – something which now makes me chuckle as if reaching 30 puts you on some slippery slope to the realms of being an OAP!

Before I knew it, we were six months down the line with no answers as to why I was anaemic, and with the suggestion that the pain and anaemia were both down to period pain. During this time, I also had to deal with the death of my father. It was a difficult time, but as I dealt with my grief, my life began to get back to some sort of normal. I was going to the gym, going out with my friends and I even took part in a charity cycle from London to Paris with work.

However, as the weeks passed I found myself being unable to keep pace with my friends. Little did I know that my anaemia had slowly been getting worse and that lurking in my colon was a growing tumour. Just before Christmas, after a couple more visits and chats with the GP, I found out that my red blood count had fallen dangerously low and that my doctors were considering a blood transfusion. A test on a stool sample discovered blood that wasn’t visible to naked eye and I was quickly referred for a colonoscopy. That was when I knew I had cancer. I had seen this before when my father had been diagnosed. From that point my diagnosis happened very quickly but what I still couldn’t get my head around was why, with my family history of cancer, the faecal test wasn’t done at the beginning alongside everything else. It’s still something that I question today.

Since my diagnosis I have faced 14 months of endless hospital appointments, blood tests, seven hour days in the chemo unit, major surgery and blood clots, and while I would love to say I am at the stage of moving from cancer patient into the ‘life after cancer phase’, my post-chemotherapy scan showed lesions on my liver and the cycle has begun all over again. I am now undergoing a more aggressive chemotherapy which involves the joy of a ‘cold cap’ in a vain attempt to save my hair!

Another twist in my tale…..I have Lynch Syndrome…..

Lynch syndrome is the most common form of hereditary colon cancer and can increase the risk of developing colon cancer by up to 80%. Statistics make it as common as the BRCA mutation, but many people won’t have heard of it. Being in active treatment, I haven’t been able to fully address the impact that Lynch syndrome could have on my future, but I know that when the time comes it will have an impact on decisions about children and also that there will be decisions to make about having preventive procedures. While it would be very easy to think that knowledge of this mutation could have helped to detect my cancer earlier, I can’t change the past. I do believe though that knowledge is power and, that by ensuring I get right screening, I can minimise my risk of developing another cancer in the future.

What I have learned….

Dealing with a chronic disease forces you to develop a certain superhero strength…but that’s not to say that there aren’t difficult days or days where I feel so overwhelmed by it all that I don’t know how I going to make it through the next bit of treatment. Cancer will change me, but how is not yet fully clear. I’ve been told that I am so strong to be able to deal with everything that I am going through ………personally I don’t think I’m anything out of the ordinary. I think we all have superhero strength within all of us. It’s like the saying goes: ‘you don’t know how strong you can be until being strong is your only option’.

Cara works as a buyer in the womenswear department of a major UK retailer. She volunteers as a Cancer Research UK Campaigns Ambassador and claims to have an unhealthy addiction to travel literature and anything travel or adventure related! You can follower her on Twitter @Caraeliz24.