It’s rare for me to go longer than ten minutes into a conversation without mentioning my family. Whether it’s to explain the delights of Mauritius or to talk about how crazy the Appadoo clan are.
That’s why it hit me hard to find out that my mum has cancer.
2 months ago we go the news that no one wants to hear, my mum was diagnosed with uterine cancer. And it hit me hard.
Knowing the symptoms my mum had and finding out the news sent me into panic mode. You tell yourself to think logically, to believe the statistics and to have faith in science. But logic and emotions don’t always mix. I found myself saying “there’s a huge survival rate and we’ve caught it early, it’ll be fine”. Five minutes later, my eyes would glaze over and I’d be thinking “but that’s my mum. My mum has cancer”.
2 months later and my mum has had an operation (an extended hysterectomy) that’s removed all of her cancerous cells, she doesn’t need any further treatment and things are almost too good to be true.
The logic played out: there is a huge survival rate and we did catch it early.
I wanted to write this blog because when I found out my mum had cancer, I didn’t know how to cope, I didn’t know who to speak to and I didn’t know what to do. I hope that it helps other people going through the same thing find some solace and respite in what can be the most challenging time.
I know I’ve been incredibly lucky in our journey thus far and I know not everyone’s experience is as simple but I hope some of my learnings might support other people out there.
Coping with life
All of sudden, every plan I had made was thrown out of the window. All I wanted to do was go home and spend time with my parents and try to make it all better for them. But that’s not how life works. The world keeps turning and you have stuff to do. Here’s what I did:
1. Use your support network
I am so lucky. I have a huge support network of friends and family who have always got my back. It wasn’t up to me to tell people about my mum’s cancer - that was in her court, but as soon as she did I was inundated with support and kind wishes. Knowing people were there helped.
I know not everyone has people around them to prop them up, people they can lean on. But I can’t say how important it is to try and find that one person who has your back and who you can talk to.
There are so many incredible services out there, MacMillan for one, who became a lifeline for my family from day one and continue to support us. If you’re not surrounded by support please try and find just one source, one person who might be able to listen. You won’t regret it.
2. Look after yourself
It’s hard to do because you’re not the one who’s ill. It’s important to look after yourself, make sure you’re sleeping and eating well so that you can be the best you to help your loved one.
I’m an emotional eater and don’t sleep well at the best of times. The past two months. I completely obliterated my body and now I’m dealing with the consequences! So, I’m speaking from experience - look after yourself! I wish I had.
One thing worth noting that I am proud of:
Me and my mum had booked a holiday to New York together to celebrate her 65th birthday. We got the news a couple of weeks before we were meant to go, the trip was out of the question for her but I decided to go out there on my own. It was one of the best decisions I made. It gave me the chance to reflect, take some proper time out on my own and digest all of my feelings in a way I hadn’t been able to at home (and helped me realise that I wasn’t putting myself first!)
Plus, it means I can rebook the trip with mum and relive it all with her!
3. Check your values
My family mean a lot to me, but I didn’t know quite how much. It took something like this happening to help me check my values and realise who I wanted to be and how. It has been a great opportunity for me to check that I’m acting in a way that is reflective of what I believe and what I hold dear and has really helped me feel like me again.
4. Understand your priorities
Linked really closely to looking after yourself and knowing your values is understanding what your priorities are. This was so so hard for me because I hate letting people down. But, when I realised I’d have to be pulling out of speaking events (understanding my priorities) so that I could refocus on the stuff that needed to be done (checking my values) so I was was getting enough sleep (looking after myself), I was able to make more sense of it in my head.
Know what’s important, where you need to be and why and make sure it aligns to your values and that you’re looking after yourself, and you’ll be in a much better place to cope with cancer.
5. Trust people
In order to do all of this stuff, I ultimately had to learn to trust people. I had to learn that people understand that life isn’t always sunny and isn’t always easy. That life means sometimes you have to cancel things, not go on stage and take time for yourself. And you know what, people always understand. I learnt to trust that people care and want what’s best for you, no matter how bad you might feel doing it.
Coping with work
I found out my mum had cancer one month into a new job. I was overwhelmed with anxiety about how to tell my new team and whether to do so at all. Having something consistently at the back of your mind is one thing, when you’re in a new environment, with a new team it’s a whole other ball game. This is how I coped:
1. Ask for advice
I used my support network loads, to ask how to deal with things at work. I got all sides of the conversation and every different piece of advice imaginable. It meant I could make better informed decisions and also helped me figure out how I wanted to deal with things.
2. Be open and honest
I plucked up the courage to tell my line manager as soon as I knew things were more serious than they seemed, before we even found out mum had cancer. I felt like I wasn’t myself in the office and I knew I needed to share what was going on. I wanted to be open and honest because it’s an important value for me personally, and something I want from the company I work for. I needed to practice what I preach. It also paid off in the end, there is nothing better than being honest with people!
3. Be confident in your decisions
It was really hard to lay all my cards on the table in a new working environment. I didn’t know the protocol or how things should be handled. I felt like I was going to be considered weak for letting my personal life affect my professional life. I felt like it was a weakness to let people in and show what was happening at home.
It wasn’t and letting my team know was one of the best decisions I made. It meant I didn’t have to hide anything and those preconceptions of weakness that I was so afraid of, were completely made up.
4. Trust people
I’ve repeated this on purpose. It’s all so interlinked. I had to trust my team around me to understand where I was at and what I was going through. People do understand, almost everyone will have had a similar experience at some point and people will always want what’s best for you.
People are human, and humans have feelings. Let your guard down, be vulnerable and trust the people you have chosen to surround yourself with to have your back in the way you would have theirs.
5. Understand your priorities
I’m lucky enough to work for a company that told me on more than one occasion to put my family first because it’s 100x more important than work. I know that isn’t true for all organisations out there, but I honestly think if we’re more open and honest and trusting of people, we’ll find a way to see that they are.
Knowing what my priorities are and knowing that I was supported meant I could better align my decisions to support my family. And I could do so without feeling guilty (on the most part!).
Coping with the stigma
I honestly think that the word cancer is way worse than the reality of the disease. It’s easy for me to say in hindsight but cancer has some serious marketing issues that need to be addressed. Growing up, the narrative around cancer was be scared, because 1/3 people you know will die from the dreaded c word. Now, science has moved on, cancer isn’t the end of the world and more and more people are surviving.
1. Say it out loud
It took me a while to move from saying “it was bad news” to “my mum has cancer”. It didn’t get easier. It’s still hard to say. But saying it out loud, made me face reality and come to terms with what we were dealing with. It took it from being something scary, to something we could face together, understand and overcome.
It went from being a concept, to just being a word.
2. Don’t be afraid to speak about it
It’s so easy to shy away from talking about cancer. to pretend it’s not happening and focus on the daily distractions of life. One of the best things we did as a family was speak about it openly and often. Whenever something cropped up in our minds, we brought it up.
By trusting the people around me, and making myself vulnerable, my nearest and dearest also opened up to me about experiences with cancer that they had. It meant my support network was stronger and I could help support other people too. It’s so easy to be scared of speaking about cancer, so that it stays hidden but speaking about it is the best thing I did.
3. Address dying
This one is a biggie. At the beginning to year I read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and it changed my perception of death. As fate would have it, his book is all about how to deal with life when your parent’s aren’t well.
Death is something we’re taught to fear and never to speak about. But it’s the one thing that happens to everyone.
I cannot thank my family enough for having the strength as a unit to speak openly and candidly about what dying means to one another. It made us stronger, it meant we all know what we want when it finally happens and it made us happier to be alive and to be with one another.
Don’t get me wrong, it was one of the hardest conversations we may have ever had, but it was worth it. So, so worth it.
4. Listen to the experts
Google is the enemy. Honestly, googling uterine cancer was off the cards for me. I didn’t want to read into it at all. I had to fight all my urges to become a non-expert in it. I wanted to put my trust and faith in the doctors who were helping my mum and I didn’t want to be worrying that they hadn’t checked something (something that I would never know enough about!)
I know enough basics to be able to know when to challenge, but I also know how important it is to trust experts who have dedicated their lives to saving people’s lives. So that’s what I did.
The doctors, MacMillan nurses, everyone who had trained to help. I trusted them. I listened to them. I asked. There’s nothing wrong with asking and there’s nothing wrong with checking but listen to the experts.
Sharing really is caring. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m writing this. Sharing your experiences, what you’ve been through and the things you’ve learnt is important to helping other people and helps you reflect on your own journey.
When I asked my mum if I could write this article, her initial reaction was no. When I explained how it might help other people get checked for uterine cancer and help other people cope, her answer was yes.
Share and share alike because it might save a life.
Final thoughts on coping
Everyone copes with things in different ways and there’s no hard and fast rule to do so. It’s also impossible to know how you’ll react to things. I thought I was going to be okay and that I’d be able to keep a cool head. I couldn’t and the news completely knocked me off my feet.
It’s been a long journey and we’re still on it and I’m still learning. I feel like “coping” is one half of it and “accepting” is the other. Coping is the first step to accepting and I’m learning that too.
I’m here to listen to anyone who might be going through something similar and thank you for reading this.
(P.S. my mum and family read this before I posted it!)