Informing your parents on your 48th birthday that you have blood and bone cancer is not a common or pleasant thing to do. In fact, it has been the hardest thing to do in this whole journey so far: let family and friends know, see and hear their pain, their sadness, their shock. Sharing my diagnosis and curtailed life expectancy with people whom I love was and is cutting to the bone.
Trying to work out when to tell and who to tell is a challenge too. I had to seek advice from the wonderful J who had recently experienced this dilemma. In the end, Hubby and I agreed we would find out more information first and did as much of that as possible over the 11th to 13th February. Then we planned to tell my parents first, followed by his parents and then my NZ besties who have known me since I was 18 years old: who I knew I could count on to cope (in their different ways), to be hopeful, practical, support me, Hubby and each other.
I realised I needed to tell people quickly as it is quite hard these days with social media and, when you have the fortune to have good friends, who wish to catch up regularly, to get on with your life if you haven’t told them. I anticipated being less available due to Chemo and recovery, fending off ‘how work was going’ related questions and having to explain why my hair was falling out etc. I just thought no shocks should ensue when I rock up to graduation in July, thinner or fatter (from steroids) and sporting new headwear. Anyway, it’s my style to be upfront about what is going on. Well at least I like to think so.
Also, I recognised I needed support: some now (especially humour) and certainly I am likely to need some later during treatment. Hubby needs support too. So, telling people seemed the right thing to do for me (though I do understand why others might prefer to keep it quiet and wait until treatment has taken place).
My parents who live in New Zealand are amazing people, so generous, kind and often overly considerate of others. They are also inspiring, energetic, wise and well educated; great mentors to others. They were firm with me in many ways when I was growing up, yet open and welcomed questions and debate. My parents ensured I had a diverse range of experiences and chances to pursue hobbies; fantastic holidays in NZ, netball, tennis, scuba, plays, ballet, musicals, art and concerts. I remember going to see Rod Stewart when I was 10 and Charley Pride and the Bolshoi. They have wide music interests. My point is, that for so many reasons I am immensely grateful for my parents and my upbringing. I am fortunate enough to have a great relationship with Mum and Dad, one that only keeps getting better. We have always been super independent and have never lived in each other’s pockets, talking once a month or so and trying to meet in recent years at least once a year. It was especially hard to tell them bad news. Especially this bad news.
Mum cried and had to move away from the Skype call. Her natural empathy for others is huge and so close to the surface, I wasn’t surprised at this reaction but it was hard to view. Dad in his usual stoic, practical in a crisis kind of way, hung in there and asked all the right questions. I did my best to be matter of fact, hopeful and clear. I was churning inside seeing the hurt on their faces. We eventually ended the call so Dad could go and look after Mum. Over the next few weeks it took a bit of convincing them not to jump on a plane immediately (imagine me sending shackles for Mum over the ether!) but in the end, they have been amazing as usual, listened to our needs and I am now very much looking forward to their extended visit later in the year. I am very proud of them and how they are coping.
Telling Hubby’s parents was not really any easier except we spoke over the phone so I didn’t see their faces. It all went a bit wrong initially as they were in the car at the time. When we suggested we wait until they were home they insisted on going ahead but then they didn’t know what was coming. When we explained, the call was stopped and started ten minutes later once they were home. I love my parents-in-law (P and T) and Hubby’s Mum. They have all been very supportive. Being visited by P and T the very next weekend was helpful and in the moment I loved T’s assumption that I would beat the odds.
The weird thing and something I really resented was how many people knew I had Myeloma before I was able and ready to tell my loved ones. My dentist and his receptionist knew because I needed his clearance of not needing any dental work before I could start a bone building drug, the beautician at the hotel we stayed in while taking time away to process all the new information and treatment options knew, when I filled out their questionnaire and she gently announced she would not be able to give me the massage I was craving. Scared of a law suit if something went wrong I suspect. She did give me a lovely pedicure and I found myself reassuring and cheering up her and her manager. Looking after others needs about my cancer was something I learned would become a regular occurrence. One I plan to avoid unless necessary and may come to be rude about as I only have so much bandwidth for looking after others’ needs right now. Sounds selfish but true; though working with a couple of private clients still appeals as it wouldn’t be about my stuff.
I laughed as J had warned me in a funny story about her partner who had told ‘everyone’ about her cancer diagnosis when Hubby came home late one night and confessed. He had shared our new challenge with his manager so he could take some time off to attend tests with me. Then ‘he’d spilled the beans’ over a beer and late night commuter trip following hours of standing on a platform and delayed trains; he’d been frustrated he wasn’t home when we had so much going on. I didn’t resent this; he needed to share but it was weird that people I’d never met and had no affiliation with, knew about my stuff before my good friends knew.
Telling my besties was also a logistical timing issue. On one hand, it was fab as S happened to be visiting from the States with her hubby and his daughter. However, it was our birthday week and I really didn’t want to tell her my news before we had been able to celebrate her birthday. This was tough as it felt like I was lying to her and not able to fully connect or spend as much time with her as I had planned to as I raced off to appointments. It was a total relief to let her know and then Skype with my other besties the next morning. As anticipated they were simply wonderful, reeling but managed well and said all the right things. Soon after I sent an email which was a much easier way of communicating my news to my close UK based friends and other special people in my life all around the world. Deep sigh of relief and a wee bit of fear followed. You never know how these things will land.
While telling others has been extremely hard: telling myself about how many years I am likely to live has been strangely easy. I did want a long life but only if it was filled with quality, mobility, activity and intact cognition. This way, with Myeloma, I strangely feel more in control and have a rapidly growing awareness of just how I might want to live life in periods of remission. Instead of living far off in the future my next five years is firmly in focus. Who I wish to spend it with, how I want to spend it, is a close second in my mind behind successfully managing treatment. I envisage kicking this cancer into outer space for as long as possible if not forever. The way I see it, there is no reason why I can’t be one of the first people to experience Myeloma as a chronic illness with long periods of remission over normal life expectancy, rather than have life limited to 8-10 years with frequent periods of hospital visits and new Chemo regimes. That’s what I’m gunning for and requesting of the Universe. So, you see I still want to be special, but I am being much more specific about, how I wish to be special, when speaking to the Universe.
Illustrations: Sapphire Weerakone
Copy Editor: Stephanie Kemp
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