Luke’s wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while pregnant. Here, he describes how he navigated those first few weeks.
My wife Janine and I had tried for a baby in 2019, but sadly Janine miscarried at a very early stage in the pregnancy. Consequently, when we found out in early 2020 that she was pregnant and that “Dot” was growing healthily, we heaved a sigh of relief. All the signs were looking promising for this pregnancy to be a successful one.
Meanwhile, Janine had noticed some lumps on her neck as February progressed, but initially we thought this was her immune system responding to the usual winter colds and fighting off the infection. However, as February turned into March and Janine’s 34th birthday came and went, we thought it would be worth getting the lumps examined, as they hadn’t gone away even though the winter bugs had. To our dismay, after appointments at the GP and the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough, we were told that Janine had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Cancer is a word with frightening overtones. In some ways it feels like one of the great taboos in society, as if by mentioning or discussing it, you make it more “real”.
Furthermore, given that Janine has always been in good health otherwise, it wasn’t a word that either of us thought we’d hear in relation to ourselves. Our first thoughts were about Janine and Dot (who by this stage we’d discovered is a girl), and also how to tell Janine’s 14-year-old daughter Jessica, who is in Year 10 at school. Both of them have been incredibly brave in dealing with the diagnosis, and Jessica has shown great maturity ever since being told.
I often wonder what people understand by “being brave” in the face of adversity. When I hear the word “brave”, my first thought is of a soldier evacuating a wounded buddy from the battlefield, or a firefighter rushing into a burning building to save a child. But defining “being brave” after being blind-sided by a cancer diagnosis is very different. It’s extremely hard to articulate. Well-meaning people can be quick to say “Stay strong” (possibly whilst thinking to themselves “Thank God that’s not me”), and I wonder how many of them could actually define what that means too. Because when the doctors broke the news to Janine and me, trying to be brave or strong was the last thing on our minds. Janine had to be away the weekend after the diagnosis – which in the circumstances, probably wasn’t such a bad thing – and I have to say I didn’t leave the house once during that time. It wasn’t a conscious decision: I just found I simply didn’t want to go out or talk to people.
After Janine arrived back on the Sunday evening, we spent most of the following week hunkered down at home, living very quietly and only leaving the house to go to work. None of that felt brave or strong.
For better or worse, we live in a society where having a stiff upper lip was formerly seen as a badge of pride, and matters of the heart and mind were kept strictly bottled up. Thankfully, those idols of social conditioning are being chipped away, but the process is a slow one. Sometimes, being told to “be brave” or “stay strong” feels like an admonition not to let yourself go; and for some reason, that feels particularly acute for the guys out there! That said, I have to confess to giving myself the same advice, to some degree. After the initial shock of Janine’s diagnosis, I was frightened and worried in equal measure, but at the same time paralysed because I felt I couldn’t let Janine see how concerned I was. I didn’t want the issue to end up becoming “all about me” as the expectant dad and didn’t want to burden Janine further by sharing my private worries with her, so I tried to act as though everything was all right. That felt like the right thing at the time, and Janine and I are both a good deal more sanguine about the future now. Looking back, though, it would have been a help to be able to share those worries with someone from time to time, and perhaps to be told: “It’s OK to feel that way as a dad”; “You’re doing fine as you are”; or “Be kind to yourselves”.
In the wake of Janine’s diagnosis, I’ve found that trying to be a hero or a tower of strength is rather a hiding to nothing. In chasing those goals, you end up measuring yourself by what you imagine to be other people’s standards, which is tiring and fruitless, as you can never really know what’s going through other people’s minds (and in any case, who are “other people” anyway?!). Instead, I’ve found that getting through one day at a time – or sometimes, even just the next hour or the next 10 minutes – has been a more successful strategy. As humans we spend so much time planning ahead, and trying to control the future, that we lose sight of where we are in the here and now. Sometimes it’s OK to go with the flow and live in the present. After a few rounds of taking each day as it comes, you then wake up one morning and find you’ve got through a week, then a fortnight, and then a month – and suddenly you start thinking, “Perhaps we can get through this after all”. In other words, you realise you’ve been strong all along, but just without thinking of it in those terms.
Ever since the diagnosis, people – some of them complete strangers – have rallied around us and I’ve been bowled over by the love and support that they’ve shown to Janine. We were thrilled to hear about Mummy’s Star and the amazing support that they give to mothers in Janine’s position, and Janine has been able to join a lovely group of ladies who have all been diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy or within a year after giving birth. They have regular chats via Facebook Messenger and there are some wonderful stories from the ladies in the group, so it’s been a great support to Janine. We have also had a generous grant from the Trustees that will enable us to obtain some extra help at home once Dot (aka Anastasia) is born and Janine starts her chemotherapy.
There’s also something for the guys too: Mummy’s Star offers support for dads as well as being there for the ladies. You can call them and talk about how you’re finding things if you’re struggling or feeling lost, and you’ll be listened to in a completely non-judgemental manner. Mummy’s Star is there for both parents.
Neither Janine nor I had heard of Mummy’s Star before Janine’s diagnosis, so to raise some awareness of the organisation, Janine and Jessica shaved my head in a Big Charity Haircut on Facebook Live. Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, which includes £250 of match funding from Newcastle law firm Muckle LLP, we were able to raise over £800. Once Gift Aid on the individual donations has been added to that, the total will be over £1,000! You can watch a video of the haircut here or see my fundraising page
So, a big Thank You to the lovely team at Mummy’s Star for the help they’ve given to us. Please spread the word and tell your family and friends about them!
Luke, Janine, Jessica and Anastasia