What My Cancer Diagnosis Taught Me About Being A Mum
I never questioned any of the life plans I have had since I was a girl. The plan was to grow up, leave school and go to college, leave the small town for the big smoke, get a job, travel a bit, get married, have kids, see them through all their milestones, be there for their weddings and enjoy retirement, hopefully still with a hubby at your side!
This was all going nicely to plan for me. I was in my twenties, and more or less grown up when I met a wonderful man in the Summer of 1993. We fell head over heels. We got engaged five months later and were married in December 1995 to the surprise (perhaps even shock) of family and friends. We bought our first house in 1995, and I suddenly felt like a responsible adult because we had a mortgage. Our first child Emma came along quite soon after that.
A few years later we were blessed with the arrival of our second child Cathal. We both changed jobs and moved into a slightly bigger house just as our son Cathal turned one. Life was good. We were happy, and the kids were thriving. We worked hard, and we enjoyed our family time together. Our house was full of laughter and happiness. There was no question that the rest of our family life together was going to be anything other than happy. We were both fit and well and neither of the kids was ever really sick. It was all good. We were blessed.
Then it all changed on 10 January 2007 when I was diagnosed out of the blue with an incurable cancer of the bone marrow called Myeloma.
I was 38, and the kids were just nine and two.
I asked three questions at the moment of diagnosis: Is it hereditary? Do I need chemo? Will I lose my hair? It was all about the kids – could I have something I passed onto them, how long would I have to be away from them, and if I lost my hair, was it going to scare them. The good news is that it is not hereditary, the bad news was that I would have chemo and lose my hair.
Treatment started immediately. I had to stop working, and life at home changed utterly as it all revolved around sickness and the Big C! Cathal was two and had no idea what cancer was so we didn’t tell him anything other than I was sick and would have to see the doctors and go to the hospital. Emma was nine, and while we were scared of frightening her, we knew she needed more information. We told her I had these cells which were taking over my good cells and that I was going to have treatment. We answered any question she had and reassured her as best we could.
After my initial diagnosis and stay in hospital, I was quite weak. Doctors were shocked when they saw my first blood tests. The side effects of the cancer had put me into kidney failure, and my blood counts were on the floor.
My treatment plan was to have four cycles of chemo, then a bone marrow biopsy to see how the cancer was behaving. The medium term plan was to have my stem cells harvested and to have a stem cell transplant. Here comes the science bit: Stem cells are the cells in the bone marrow which have basically not decided what type of cell they are going to be when they grew up (red, white, plasma, platelet, etc). I was going to have my cells harvested. Then they were going to give me the mother load of chemo over two days and then they would transplant me or rescue me with my own stem cells.
This was all new to me – new language, new daily routine…..
We were determined to keep things as normal as possible for the kids. Cathal went to his childminder every day. Emma went to school on the bus. Bryan went to work. I stayed at home and did as much as I could to keep the show on the road. We had some help from my Mum and Mother-in-law. Neighbours and friends were extraordinary too.
While I was dealing with the business of being sick and still being a Mum, I was also trying to deal with living with the fact that I might be dying. There seemed to be no time to sit and deal with the big stuff, but that was okay, and probably just what I needed at the time.
In May 2007, we moved into the intensive treatment. I was admitted to hospital for a two-week stay. I hated saying goodbye to the kids. They hated seeing me go. Thankfully the stem cell harvest was a success, and I was sent home to have a break for about six weeks before the transplant.
The stem cell transplant was terrifying. Hearing about the side-effects of the toxic high-dose toxic chemo was terrifying. Hearing that I was going to be away from the kids for a minimum of a month was terrifying.
I hated that I was going to be in isolation for a month just as Emma’s Summer holidays from school started. We had booked tickets for the midnight launch of one of the Harry Potter books in the middle of July. I knew it was optimistic to think I would make it home, but we hung onto that. We spent the last few days at home together chilling. I had chats with Emma that only a mother can have, I was worried I might not make it home after the transplant.
On 4 July 2007, I left home with Bryan for a month away from the kids. Either my Mum or Mother-in-law moved in with us whenever I had to spend time in hospital. Cathal was asleep as I was leaving, so I leaned over and kissed him goodbye.
How could I possibly be saying goodbye to my little boy who had himself just learned the word 'goodbye'? I kissed him and traced my hand along the curve of his cheek. I stopped myself from thinking it might be the last time.
Emma was waiting for me in the kitchen with Mum. We kept it together as we hugged, I had no intention of letting her know just how afraid I was. My Mum knew. We hugged and left so many words unspoken.
The drive up the N7 from Kildare to Tallaght was full of tears and traffic.
I had my stem cell transplant on July 9, 2007. It was wonderful to know that the real treatment was taking place, and I was on the road to recovery. What followed was a month full of hope and hell. I was unlucky, I had every side-effect I had been warned about.
I vomited 6-7 times a day even though I was unable to eat or to swallow water.
I bled into both my eyes as I was unable to clot blood.
I had a nose bleed which lasted for three days and three nights.
I haemorrhaged from my womb.
I was on anti-sickness medicines 24 hours a day, but nothing worked. I vomited constantly.
I had hallucinations.
My mouth and lips were peeling and swollen.
I had difficulty breathing.
I was weak and weary.
I was isolated from everyone and everything. I wasn’t allowed to have the door or the window open.
I was cared for intensively for a whole month. I remember the day the consultant told me I was finally off her list of people to be worried about. I was finally allowed out of the room. I was too weak to walk by myself. I had lost five stone in weight, but I had no idea as I wasn’t looking in a mirror and I did not spend much time out of bed.
But on August 4th, I was discharged for good. It was the most amazing feeling to be driving home to the kids and Bryan.
Cathal was so shocked to see me that he hung back and then threw himself at me. Emma ran straight to me off the school bus. I was at home, but I was still sick and weak. I couldn't walk up the stairs by myself. I wasn't eating. I lived on a couple of teaspoons of yoghurt a day. I was still throwing up. I still had a long road ahead of me.
There was a lot more I had to come to terms with too. I had to teach myself to eat again. I had to acknowledge the fact that I would never be able to have another baby. That was harsh. I had to struggle with the idea that I might never be back to the way I was BC (before cancer).
I had to brace myself for the results of the bone marrow in September 2007 which would tell me whether the transplant had been successful.
Until then, I was needed as a Mum and wife.
On 26 September 2007, I was handed my life back. We got news the transplant had worked. I could start to plan again. I could start to get back to life – literally. It took about six months to recover fully from the physical effects of the transplant.
I am not sure I will ever be the same again, and that’s okay. I am not sure I want to go back to the way things were BC.
One of the major grieving moments for me after being diagnosed nine years ago was the realisation that there are going to be major life moments in my kids' lives that I am probably going to miss should the worst happen.
Cathal was only two when I was diagnosed, Emma was nine. I know some women who were diagnosed at the same time who are sadly no longer here. At times, I am will stop in my tracks when I think about those women. I remember speaking to one of them in particular. She had very young kids like me. She was busy before her transplant making recordings of herself reading her kids’ favourite bedtime stories in her own voice so her kids would always have her voice when it was time for their bedtime story... that’s tough to think about.
It’s all so real and at times, I feel the breath of serious illness and death on the back of my neck. I know my cancer will come back. Even though the transplant was a success – there is no cure at the moment.
It’s remembering those women and men who were on the Myeloma journey with me and who are no longer here that makes me realise just how lucky am to be still here, fighting the incurable almost ten years later.
My son is now 11-years-old. He’s handsome, funny and charming. He is into jokes, gaming and being outside. He hates tidying his room and emptying the dishwasher! My daughter has just turned 19, and is blossoming into the most extraordinary young woman. She is beautiful, intelligent, funny and just brilliant. She is almost finished her first year of college. I have been here to see her through so many milestones which we would have taken for granted BC.
How lucky am I? I am alive and well (mostly). I have two amazing kids and a wonderful husband. We celebrated twenty years of marriage last year.
I know that whatever happens in the future with my cancer that my kids are going to be fine... I know they will treasure the memories we have made and the mischief we have managed together.
I have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon because there are lots more things I want to be here for... graduation days, young love, college days, travels, the publication of Emma's first novel, Cathal being elected as Taoiseach...!
I want to be here for all if it, and I am so grateful to have got this far and to be still kicking cancer’s butt almost ten year’s later.
Everything has been beautiful, and while I will never be okay with closing my eyes on this one perfectly imperfect life I have, I will cherish all the time I am given with my family, all the time I am given to be a mum making memories and mischief with my kids!
Brenda Drumm writes about her incredibly brave journey over at anirishgirlinterrupted.com. We're truly grateful and awed that she has penned this beautifully honest story for us and our readers.