*Trigger warning: cancer, cancer treatment, and death spoken about in no uncertain terms.
One of my closest friends is, as I type this, dying in hospital and it’s only a matter of time until the phone call comes to tell me that she is gone has died today.
When I started thinking about, and writing, this post this morning it was from the position of knowing that my dear friend was receiving end of life care in hospital and I wanted to express how sad, angry, and frustrated I feel about what has happened to her, and how unfair life seems sometimes.
It seems like an odd thing to be doing, carrying on with this piece of writing now, but I need to process this loss and writing is all I can manage right now. Every time I talk I burst into tears. I’ve cried and cried all day and now the tears have temporarily abated there’s a huge part of me that is grieving but another part that wants to tell everyone about this wonderful lady whilst I shake my fist and rage at cancer.
I feel like I am perpetually being robbed by this fucking hideous, persistent, crafty, bastard thief we know as cancer. I live in fear of it every day of my life, like so many of us. We (my family and friends) try to pretend like it doesn’t exist and that I am/we are unlikely to be burgled again, but I know the truth: it is only a matter of time before someone I love is taken from me or that I will be taken from my loved ones because cancer just won’t leave us alone. It can’t. It’s so deeply woven into the fabric of our existence these days. With 1 in 2 of us now being subject to some form of cancer diagnosis in our lifetime, there is a sad inevitability about it: you will be robbed blind, it just remains to be seen in which way, will it be your life or the life of someone you care about that is targeted…or both?
The fact remains, if you’ve been burgled once you’re likely to be the victim again. Just like my beautiful, darling friend. She had breast cancer fifteen years ago and then got diagnosed with Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) in 2015… and now she is dying. I guess some people might say that she was lucky to survive the breast cancer and get more precious years with her family and friends but it’s hard to see it that way right now when for the last two years I’ve watched the bravest woman I know try every line of treatment available only to watch it fail. We all hoped desperately for success and yet one by one saw each treatment was unsuccessful – now there is nothing left to be done, in her own words to a mutual friend, ‘we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel now’.
I have known this woman for a decade now and feel utterly blessed to have had her in my life. She was an English teacher, like me, and when I took up my first teaching job she promptly took me under her wing and supported me in any way she could. At the end of the first year of teaching my dad died suddenly and she was the one who delivered flowers to my doorstep and planned my cover lessons. She was there for me all through my subsequent mental breakdown. She has always been there. She has two children around my age and she became a great friend but also a mother figure. She never dodged the difficult questions with me. She noticed when I was sinking into anorexia or depression and would always say something caring but not intrusive. She always made me feel normal and cared for and SAFE. Later she supported me in my return to work and then through my pregnancy when I was teaching. Since then she’s been there through it all with me, another baby, my own cancer diagnosis and treatment, and now, sadly, I have also seen her through hers.
I have watched a beautiful, loving, kind, and vibrant soul have her life stolen from her bit by bit by the cancer thief. I was devastated to find out she had been diagnosed with Myeloma just around the time I was confirmed in remission with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I had more chemo and radiation to go but I knew that my treatment was effective and it spurred me on. The relief I felt to have been successful in my own cancer battle was short-lived because I knew now what lay ahead for my friend. I couldn’t take it away for her and I knew that her odds and stats were not in her favour. My cancer was curable, hers only treatable.
So whilst at the beginning we thought she might get 5 years or more with her and were ready to cheerlead her through her treatment, we are now less than two years in and she is at the end of her life, there are possibly days left but more likely hours remaining. There have been no good spells for her because she has not responded successfully to any of her treatment. She has been fighting a losing battle but hell has she put up a huge fight.
This warrior woman is a rock and an example to us all on how to live life and how to cope when facing death. Now barely sixty years old she has faced her diagnosis with a grit and determination that I know I would have struggled to muster. I know, in all likelihood, somewhere along the line I will either relapse in my Hodgkin’s or get another cancer diagnosis as a side-effect of the ‘kill or cure’ treatment I’ve already had. I am terrified of that happening but my lovely friend has shown me it is possible to smile and live through hell. I just don’t want to. I am scared.
I’m not going to dress this up and if it’s too much for you then stop reading. Cancer treatment for Myeloma is hideous. The treatment regime has been gruelling. I have felt so powerless as I have witnessed her go through bone marrow biopsies (this is the worst pain I have ever experienced) chemo after horrid failed chemo, blood transfusions, infusions, injections, poison after poison in pill after pill, and none of it has been effective. She’s suffered hair loss/thinning (the least of her worries), severe jaundice, crippling exhaustion, desperate anaemia, neutropenia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, aching, balance issues, weight loss, bloating, insomnia, physical weakness and pain….and so much more. To watch someone keep going in the face of total agony is harrowing. She has always put a brave face on and yet I’ve known how hard it’s been. There’s a look in her eye: fear, I think, that she doesn’t show to many people but because I have been through cancer treatment she knows I get it, she doesn’t need to hide from me.
Less than a month ago I sent her a message to see how she was as she’d just started on another (last chance) line of treatment and got this in reply:
‘You know the score more than anyone: bad taste in mouth, tired as hell, and a belly like a poisoned pup. Lots of fluid retention with this one so looking pregnant! Hey ho, what a week! At least I got through the five days of treatment. Three weeks to recover now’
Despite the horror of it, and believe me this treatment is horrific she was still chirpy. I have messaged several times over the last few weeks and then two weeks ago my friends and I got a blanket text:
‘Unfortunately I’m in hospital. I’ve been here since Friday and I’m not sure when I’m going home. You know how I feel about that! Hope all well with you x’
I was in hospital on Wednesday 18th in the haematology centre having my regular consultant follow up. Fortunately I am still in remission (phew). I knew my friend was on the ward literally through the door, but that she was too ill for visitors. Since then I have been texting and getting no replies, like everyone else.
On Thursday when I was house hunting in Cornwall I received a call from my friend’s husband saying that she was now too ill even to reply to messages and that he would keep us informed. In my head I couldn’t process what he was saying at all. I couldn’t read between the lines. Maybe I didn’t want to.
I spent some of my therapy session talking about my friend and how I felt about what was happening. I said how I am not ready to lose her yet and that I always thought having time to say goodbye to someone would make it in some way easier when the time finally came. I can tell you now – it doesn’t. I can safely say that watching a person suffer and deteriorate before your eyes is no easier than losing someone unexpectedly. Unfortunately, I now have experience of both types of loss. What I do know is that losing someone you deeply love generates a pain and grief that is inconceivable until it happens.
After my session on Friday I went to Tesco. I was ambling round the shop in a post-therapy daze when another ex work friend/mum replacement (I try and collect these mothering older women!) text me to say that our friend had further deteriorated and is now on end of life/palliative care. As I read the message I felt my world start to crumble. Things suddenly became real in a way that they hadn’t until now. I left my trolley and walked out the store and sat in my car crying. Despite knowing that treatment isn’t going well and that she is desperately ill in hospital, I am not ready to say goodbye to a woman who has seen me through the best and worst times in my life. I can’t lose another person whom I love.
In the early hours of this morning I had a dream about my friend. I was visiting her in the hospital and she was unresponsive in her bed, as she is now. I sat there holding her hand when another version of my friend walked in the door and sat with me. She was as I have known her before her illness, full of life, vibrant, exuding warmth and love. She came in and sat beside me and said:
‘This body in the bed isn’t me, darling. It’s just my shell. It’s what’s left of my earthly body. I am here with you now in the way I always have been. I’ve had a good life. I’ve been so happy. I want you to tell people about me. I was a good teacher, wasn’t I? We had a laugh didn’t we?’
and I replied:
‘We absolutely did! You were the best teacher but you are so much more than that. You are an unbelievable wife and mother. I am proud and blessed to call you my friend. You are without doubt the kindest soul I have ever met and my life is all the richer for having had you in it. I love you so much.’
‘I love you too. I’ve got to go now but I’ll see you soon’.
I woke up sobbing my heart out and couldn’t stop crying for a couple of hours.
I found out that my friend died early this morning.
So today is a bad day. It’s right up there among the very worst days of my life. I am beyond devastated and I miss my friend so very much. I will always miss her but I will always carry her in my heart.