“Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love”Mother Teresa
In my experience of an advance cancer diagnosis people don’t really know what to say. Questions to understand it seem insensitive and risky as you have to be prepared for the answers. Words of reassurance are tricky. A lot of people opt for the head cocked and pitiful smile when they see you or just plain avoidance. However, there are a pretty large and surprising number of people who opt for action.
As an action junkie I relate to this as it is what I have done in similar situations. When you feel devoid of words, action speak volumes. Sometimes you just have to do something.
Back in May 2018 I was astonished with the direct and decisive action people from all areas of my life took. The night I got home from receiving the diagnosis one of my sister’s just turned up despite being told I was fine and didn’t need her to come. Obviously, I was about as far away from fine as you can be, but I had to pick the kids up, feed them and get them to bed without falling apart. We didn’t tell them straight away. We didn’t know what to say. We hadn’t even told immediate family. We couldn’t find the words. We were in a trance like state. In fact we had a prior appointment with a will writer to do our LPAs and update our wills. So that is what we did on the evening of the day I was diagnosed with invasive advanced breast cancer.
You can’t make these things up.
In a film that would seem ridiculous, but in fact it was what we did that evening. It turned out to be a very practical thing to do. Having one of my sister’s there was a blessing as we were able to have difficult conversations about guardianship. Our original wills were no longer practical given the very real possibility that at least one of us would be taken too soon.
My sister also took on the unenviable task of telling the rest of the family. After that, the wheels were in motion, everyone went into action mode.
Within days of diagnosis, my sister said, ‘You’re going to need a big freezer’ I replied ‘what for?’ She said ‘all the meals’.
She had inside knowledge from friends with a cancer diagnosis. It was a matter of days before my Dad turned up with a freezer and my extended family brought home cooked freezable food.
But that wasn’t what my sister meant.
Nothing could prepare me for the deluge of home cooked meals that would turn up on my doorstep as word got around. I’ve joked before about the number of lasagnes, but not one went to waste. Every casserole, spag bol, curry, cake, soup, biscuit, flapjack, crumble and many more dishes of love were gratefully received. They nourished us through those early trance-like days. The blur of appointments and scans with news getting worse by the day. We put one foot in front of the other and one home cooked meal in the oven and we got through it until we could think again.
We are still lucky enough to receive meals today and they are all a gift of time. Time that we don’t have to think about preparing a meal. Time we can spend with each other or on tasks that seem to take so much longer now. It is not something we expect or always need, but it always makes us feel cared for and loved. One person in particular has never stopped giving us meals. She’s a wonderful cook and even has a drawer named after her in our freezer. There’s always something good in that drawer. We call her our ‘Cancer Angel’ and she is a very special woman who I have got to know in a deeper way since being diagnosed.
As an aside, my then 6 year old, found all the meals confusing. She asked me if we were poor, now I had cancer. I was perplexed. Where had this come from? But soon I understood when she elaborated “but Mummy you always say ‘you have to go to school, Mummy and Daddy have to go to work to earn money to put food on the table and a roof over our heads’ and you haven’t been to work as much and people are already bringing us food”.
It all made sense from a 6 year old’s perspective.
All sorts of kindness poured onto our doorstep and through our letterbox. People and gifts showed up in all sorts of guises from all corners of our life and the world. I was and continue to be truly humbled by peoples’s kindness. Amongst other things, we have been lucky enough to receive flowers, beautiful, honestly written cards, poetry books, magazines, books, Chemo kits, fruit and veg, solid gold engraved lego brick, jewellery, good luck charms, bracelets, Christmas decorations, charms for good health, ice pillows (for night sweats), shawls (when my arm was too big for a coat) and just last night aloe vera socks for my peeling bleeding feet.
We also got several tomato plants and a courgette plant. One lot even arrived with its own grow bag. I loved planting these and enjoying the fruits of my labour all summer long. Reminding me of the thoughtfulness and kindness around me. Feeling a sense of satisfaction when picking the fruit and making soup. The simplicity of nourishment. Overall we felt the power of kindness and community that can easily be forgotten or taken for granted in our busy and overly digital world. The simple gifts of kindness, the offers of help, lifts to appointments, walking companions, sourcing of outfits for school plays and childcare are invaluable. They also made me feel alive and that I mattered to lots of people. The outpouring of love and the genuine, real conversations I have with people I’ve known for years and other strangers has been humbling and a joy. I was never one for small talk. I favour real conversations.
I have been toying with writing this post for a while. A sort of wide scale thank you note to everyone who has held us in their thoughts, sent us messages of encouragement, made us laugh and smile and held our hands through this unplanned and daunting journey.
I am a strong person and I still favour helping over being helped. I am delighted that so many people ignored this and just stepped in. For the last couple of years we have donated to charity rather than sending Christmas cards. I also commit to phoning people who live further afield and have a proper chat with them, reconnecting rather than sending a card year after year. This year I haven’t phoned very many people. It is not because I haven’t got the energy, but it’s because I am more connected with the people that matter than ever before. This is one of cancer’s blessings. It cuts out the crap and brings families and friends closer together. Or it certainly has in my case.
This time of the year seems like a good time to celebrate and think about the importance of community and kindness. I’ve alway been a fan of and contributor to both. It matters and it makes a difference. Merry Christmas and thank you.
“It’s not how much we you do, but how much love we put into what you do that counts”Mother Teresa
I am not religious in the traditional way and yet despite Mother Teresa’s catholic origins her words resonate with my beliefs. Her desire to put common humanity above religious divisions is something we should all strive to do. I do believe in spirituality and the sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves. Sometimes that belief and way of being is the only thing that keeps me going. We all need to look beyond ourselves.
24th December 2019