Coming to into motherhood for the second time was already different. I was more nervous, more excited, more realistic, more confident, more everything having experienced a newborn before. Combining this moment with advanced colorectal cancer was not a difference I had been anticipating. It was at the 6-week health check for my daughter that my GP referred me for the procedure that would reveal my cancer. It wasn’t a complete shock. I had been experiencing rectal bleeding and extreme pain throughout my pregnancy, and after losing my mother and grandmother to colorectal cancer I knew these were possible symptoms. But I was 31, which is considered very ‘young’ for any type of bowel cancer, and I was pregnant – and we all know can mess with your bowels. Odds were in my favour of it being pregnancy related. An odd I clung to with all my might for over nine months.
Finding out it was cancer was like a sharp full stop in the middle of a sentence. It was happening in completely the wrong place. For a long time, I remember not being annoyed or upset that I had cancer, but completely furious that I had cancer at this point in my life. I remember being in a sterile hospital room with my husband, sat on uncomfortable plastic chairs having my treatment plan laid out to me by the consultant. At the end she said, ‘I want to be clear. This treatment plan is severe, it means you will be too ill to look after your children but if we don’t give you such an extreme treatment plan, you will die.’
I was completely winded. It seemed so harsh at the time. Who was this woman to tell me that I couldn’t look after my children? In reality, what she cleverly did was completely dismantle my expectations of myself. I had stayed at home with my first baby, experiencing every milestone, every tantrum, every cuddle needed. There were times I found being a stay-at-home mum completely overwhelming of course, but the thought that I wouldn’t be able to give my daughter the exact same experience I had given my son, made me feel like a failure before I had even started.
Relinquishing control was not easy for me but as with so many things, cancer constantly pushes you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do and motherhood was no exception. I was so worried about leaving my children for long periods of time whilst I was in hospital, in reality, little ones have no concept of time. They don’t know if you’ve been gone for ten minutes or ten hours. What they do know is if their needs are being met or not, if they are loved. That was easily covered.
It was the same with missing milestones. I was devastated to miss the first time my daughter did everything. The truth is, 5 years on, my daughter has no memory of me having cancer, or leaving her with a nanny. She definitely doesn’t care that I wasn’t there the first time she rolled over!
Since getting the all clear I have been contacted a number of times by friends who know a mother of very young children, who has just been diagnosed with bowel cancer. This isn’t surprising when you consider Bowel Cancer UK’s latest research that every year in the UK over 2,500 under-50s are diagnosed with bowel cancer, a 45% increase since 2004*. But whenever a mother with cancer get’s in touch, their first question is always the same. It isn’t about cancer itself, or the treatment, or the surgery. The first question is always a variation on coping with cancer and family life. The second question is usually about explaining cancer to children. The biggest thing cancer taught me is that we, as mothers, put so much pressure on ourselves to be our own version of perfect, but when you strip all the ‘stuff’ back we are all doing the best we can and that’s enough. Which is why my answer on how to get through motherhood and cancer is always the same; just be kind to yourself.
* For more information on Bowel Cancer UK statistics visit https://goo.gl/8MPSxK
About the author
Nicola is a writer of fiction and non-fiction and author of ‘The Fabulous Woman’s Guide Through Cancer.’ Nicola lives in Hertfordshire with her husband, two children and French Bulldog.