“Muddy puddles’ will never be the same! Peppa Pig became a rather large pink presence in our family when our daughter was about a year old. THAT theme tune will forever be etched on my brain, plush princess versions and Grandpa’s boat sailing around in the bath, were a staple accessory, and it still concerns me, to this day, that Miss Rabbit was perhaps slightly over worked and underpaid!
Yet, that little pink pig saved the day in more ways than one. When my daughter was twenty months old, I had a secondary breast cancer diagnosis. I had been twenty six when I was first diagnosed and was always so worried that the chemotherapy would make it difficult to have children.
By some miracle we conceived within a couple of months and eighteen months after her arrival, at a routine check up, my consultant found a lump in my clavicle and the scans showed spots on my sternum. It was a complete shock and this time I had so much more to lose. I had a family. A husband. We were moving to our dream home.
As I arrived at my parents house to collect her after that horrid appointment, I was overcome with emotion. When I had been diagnosed before, I had not been a mother. I had been the child. This was a totally different ball game and knowing what could be coming felt like a huge weight.
My husband and I agreed we needed to tell her. She was pretty clued up and understood a lot for her age. A typical girl, she never stopped talking and she would notice if I wasn’t around. There was no way we would get away without saying something.
I remember being in the kitchen while she had her breakfast one morning and we casually explained that Mummy was going to be seeing rather a lot of Doctor Brown Bear because she had an ‘ouch’. That was it. We didn’t need to say anything more and we just stuck to that. She didn’t ask any questions, but we felt we had done the right thing by facing it in as basic a way as possible and making it relative to something she understood.
We kept to a familiar routine while I went through radiotherapy. While she had her lunch time sleep I would go to my radio session and my mum, a friend or child care would hold the fort. She was so young, I sometimes felt as if we were hiding something from her but aside from going through the usual clingy phases, all seemed well and happy.
Eighteen months later, at another check up, my consultant found a lump in my right breast. Dr Brown Bear and I were becoming best of friends! This time, we needed to tell her more but again, she was only just three. Peppa was still a favourite and this time we explained to her that Mummy had another ouch, this time on her booby and needed to go to hospital but she was going to have a big sleepover with her DoDo (my mum) and then Grandma was coming to stay!
My parents had her while I had my double mastectomy and reconstruction. It was a long hospital stay and I missed her so much, but I will never forget my mum coming to see me the day after the surgery. I was crying because I wondered how I could possibly be a mum when I was in such pain and needed so much care myself. I felt guilty and powerless. I knew it wasn’t my fault but my role as a mother was something that suddenly felt so alien to me at that point. I needed all my strength to heal and rest and the idea of looking after her was just too much.
She was amazing when I got home and we had lots of gentle cuddles. We gave her a little present for being so grown up and she made me endless cards. We found ways of hiding the drains from her, under the duvet and once they were out, I would read to her every night before she went to sleep. I had both in laws move in for a week each and then child care for the third and fourth week while I couldn’t drive. Being a bit of a Miss Rabbit myself and an overly efficient ex PA, it was spreadsheet heaven and with the incredible support of neighbours, friends and family, we made it work.
I will never forget the first time I introduced the word ‘cancer’ into the mix. We were in the car running errands and I pulled up to a row of shops. One of them was a Cancer Research charity shop. She asked what it was. I explained what a charity was and why they had shops to help raise money and then thought now was as good a time as any.
‘Mummy had cancer, but look at how well Doctor Brown Bear looked after me and made me better’ I said, ‘My ouch was cancer but I am all fine now!’ There was a silence in the back of the car and then a little sigh.
‘Well Mummy,’ she said, ‘Great Grandma has Alzhiemer’s and that is way worse than cancer!!’ Out of the mouths of babes. Peppa couldn’t have said it better herself!
However, the fall out of a cancer diagnosis doesn’t just affect the patient. I was struggling with the concept of secondary infertility, as all my cancers had been hormonally receptive, and the maintenance drugs I was on made it impossible to try for another baby. It had never been the plan to only have one and all too soon, our daughter became very aware of the fact that she didn’t have siblings. My sister has three and she is incredibly close with them, but she knew it wasn’t the same.
There were several chats about why Mummy couldn’t have any more babies and whether she would ever be able to have more babies, the advantages of not having siblings and the disadvantages. We have always tried to be as honest as necessary but as she was getting older, it was getting more challenging to answer her questions with suitable answers and I was finding it harder to talk about.
Just three weeks ago, I underwent a hysterectomy and had my ovaries removed. It was practically four years to the day of my mastectomy and reconstruction and our daughter is now seven. She understands so much more and having to explain our reasons for this, has been a learning curve but highlighted how important it was that we were so honest with her in the past. I didn’t appreciate how much she would remember from before, but she did.
We realised how important it was for our daughter to actually picture different scenarios, she needed to relate and I was so proud that my husband and I had been savvy enough to use something like Peppa before. Being hugely sensitive, she needed an image in her head to understand. After a tearful morning one day before my op, my husband and I decided we needed to actively prevent her making negative connotations with hospitals and ‘ouch’s’. It was obvious Pedro Pony’s broken leg and Miss Rabbit juggling her nursing job with various other hats, just wasn’t cutting it anymore!
After school that same day, the three of us sat down with a hot chocolate and my husband brilliantly explained to her the difference between the emergency reasons to go to hospital and optional reasons. I got my laptop out, showing her pictures of the hospital I would go to and the sort of room I would be in. She understood that the operation I would be having meant I (hopefully) wouldn’t have anymore ‘ouch’s and that having another baby could mean I might get one again, so this was a good operation to have. The power of positivity could not have been more important and was actually a brilliant exercise, making it easier for all of us!
Genetically speaking, we will always be vigilant. My grandmother and my mother both had breast cancer but I was genetically tested after my first diagnosis and I was negative for BRACA 1 and 2. I will have further genetic testing in the future, since our daughter is our priority and we want to stay on top of any developments in this area as she gets older.
Over the last six years, we have had one story and we have had to adapt it to each and every age our little girl has celebrated. I count each of those years an enormous blessing. She is our miracle! Helping her understand on a basic to a more detailed level, the complexities of cancer and the far reaching effects of not one, but three diagnosis’s, has been, in my eyes, simply a way of clearing those muddy puddles, making them more transparent.
I think it has made her, as well as us, more aware of how precious life is, giving her a broader idea of the challenges people can face, but in a sensitive and caring way. She is aware of how incredible medicine can be. She told us just a couple of days ago that when she grows up, she wants to be Paramedic. I could only kiss her! It has been a massive learning curve as a parent, challenging, heart wrenching but also a privilege and has only brought us closer.
In light of all of this, after I set up my website Samspaces and our support group SafeSpace, I felt passionately about offering support to parents and families directly or indirectly affected by cancer. There had been so many areas where I had struggled and felt alone, when the guilt had got too much and I needed empathy and understanding on a practical level. I didn’t want anyone else to feel that. I initially set Samspaces up to offer solidarity to anyone adjusting to life again after cancer treatment and dealing with the far reaching side effects, so when I approached Louise at Parenting Success about offering parenting workshops to support other amazing brave and courageous mums with tools, and friendships, it proved to be an effective and hugely positive way of making those puddles less murky. And, in true Peppa style, it has also provided us with some sturdier, even brighter yellow welly boots to jump right on in and splash around in!
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