Around nine years ago Nicolette (my wife) found a lump in her breast. Anyone reading this who knows all this can skip a paragraph – I just mention this all to give a little background to the musings promised in the heading…
We were living in Spain at the time with our two kids Joe (aged 3) and Ella (aged 2). To cut a long story short, Nicolette was diagnosed with breast cancer and had an operation there in Spain, then returned to the UK in the summer with the kids for chemo and radiotherapy. I had to stay in Spain to run the business for the first few months until I was able to put alternative arrangements in place and come back at Christmas to stay. We rented a house until we were able to move back into our old house, which we had been renting out while we were away. Things began to settle down. Nicolette’s chemo and radio finished, but she continued to take Tamoxifen. The kids went to Nursery School and then school. Nicolette took a break from the Tamoxifen, and then along came a very big surprise; Frankie was born in March 2011, and she has been surprising us ever since. The other big event to rock our world that year was not so pleasant; Nicolette was diagnosed again with breast cancer, and again went into surgery and chemo. Since then, she has got better and gone from strength to strength, among other things qualifying this year as a midwife and doing her first shift in blue this week.
Did I miss anything out? Probably the odd detail here and there, but nothing major, right? What? Oh, the emotional stuff, right. I don’t really do that – I’m a bloke. But if you are interested…
I found the first time harder – much harder. Yes, the second time was in some ways scarier – the fact that it had “come back” seemed to indicate higher risks for the future at first, although it soon became clear that this was a new occurrence rather than a recurrence, which stilled these fears a little. And yes, we had a small baby who was hard work and loved her mummy beyond words, as well as two other children who were still young enough to need a lot of looking after. But at least I was there.
When Nicolette came back from Spain with the kids and I stayed there to run the business, I would work from Monday to Thursday, then drive down to Faro airport and get home to her on Friday evening, leaving again at the crack of dawn on Monday. The weeks she had chemo were the worst. I would leave on Monday morning knowing that before I saw her again she would be having the poison which made her feel horrible for days on end. She had the treatment on Thursdays, and I would be thinking of her the whole time knowing what she would be going through and that I was completely unable to do anything to help. It is hard seeing the person you love suffer – I did that when I got back to her – but to know she was suffering and not be there with her was something I found even harder. I have never felt so helpless. And alone. That second one is strange; alone. There was nobody else that I knew who was doing what I was doing, nobody “with” me. Don’t get me wrong, the family was amazing, so kind and thoughtful at every step, and friends rallied round fantastically. And I would sometimes get a compassionate “it must be so hard for you” comment, but I would just bat these away.
Why? Well, for one thing yes, it was hard for me, but how about for the person whose life is actually under threat and who is undergoing this horrible treatment? I did not want to shift any support away from Nicolette. For another, I didn’t want her to see how hard it was for me (although I think she might have noticed a little…) – she had enough on her plate with her treatment and worrying about how the kids were dealing with it all; I wanted – no, I needed – to be strong for her. Nicolette gets a lot of people saying she is an inspiration, and she doesn’t really get that. What she is for me (among other things) is a fighter, and a bloody good one at that, so there was no way that I could do anything but pick up the mantle for her when she needed me to. Simple. But perhaps the biggest factor was that I simply didn’t want to go into how I was feeling – the fear of what may happen next, the pain at seeing Nicolette going through what she was, the helplessness of not being able to do anything to make it better for her, the heartache of having to leave her and the kids every Monday and miss them so much until Thursday, the bewilderment at the monster she became when the tamoxifen started messing with her hormones (that scared her as much as it did me); I didn’t really want to go into all of this with anyone – even people close to me – I wanted to be strong, and knew they would only be able to fully understand on a cognitive level anyway. I coped in the way which worked best for me; I tried to make sure that everything was as normal as it could be for the kids, that Nicolette had everything I could give her both emotionally and in terms of cups of tea and rest. The second time round was no picnic, but it was definitely easier; as I say, I was here.
It was a hard time, but then we came through it.
If there had been a support group of men in a similar situation at that time, would I have “shared”? Would I have opened up and spilled my feelings? I doubt it – I know that for many guys these groups do offer a very important source of support and that it really helps them to be able to share their feelings, but I’m someone who has always preferred to deal with things in my own way. Nicolette calls me “repressed” – I don’t agree; for me repression is a way of not acknowledging feelings, of trying to keep them hidden away – I did acknowledge them, and dealt with them in my own way. It might not work for everyone, but it seems to work for me. So no, I probably wouldn’t have “shared”. But what I would have loved, what would have helped me to feel not so alone, would just have been a nod of acknowledgment from men in a similar situation – just that knowing look and throwaway aside that we are good at which would make me know that they knew.
Although we do this to raise awareness for male cancers, every time I look in the mirror this Movember (and in previous years), the glorious creature I see nestling on my top lip and curling around my mouth reminds me of the tough times. I know that I am one of the lucky ones, one of the very very lucky ones, whose wife is still with us and embracing life, and who is filled with joy every day by something his children say or do, but this blog is my nod of acknowledgment to all those guys out there who, together with their partners, are going through it. I know.