Health & Wellness

How It Feels To Receive A Cancer Diagnosis As A Mother

"I have a perpetual fear I won’t live to see my daughter grow up"
Kate Middleton and Prince George whispering

The week you’re diagnosed with cancer is a collapsing domino tower of horribly surreal  conversations. Your fight or flight kicks in, and you can barely breathe. It’s a terror. A pure, visceral terror that you can’t run from. But surprisingly quickly, it loosens. Because humans are impressive machines. 

While we can’t live in a frozen state of euphoria (bummer) we also can’t exist in perpetual devastation. We normalise. Life continues. School lunches need to be made. 

Back in 2018, I found a small lump in my groin. In less than a fortnight it went from being a ‘likely hernia’ to a biopsy-confirmed Squamous Cell Carcinoma, in my bum. 

I had Anal Cancer and it was in my lymph nodes. Fuck. I’ve always referred to myself as a paranoid hypochondriac. I have a history of cancer in my family, and my own chequered past of lumps and bumps. This means I’m super-rigorous with my checks, including annual colonoscopies and breast MRIs. 

Kate Middleton, Prince William and their children pose for their annual holiday card. Photography: Josh Shinner

So when I was diagnosed my first response was, are you kidding me? It was no joke. I had an ‘interval cancer,’ one that develops in between checks. Do you know what’s worse than a hypochondriac? A vindicated hypochondriac.

My profession is advertising, and my speciality is client service. Very early on I decided to be as open and honest about my diagnosis as possible. I’ve done medical ‘journeys’ before, including a cumulative five years of unsuccessful IVF. I knew that moving through this alone would not be helpful or healthy for me. 

People don’t know how to respond when you tell them you have cancer. My ‘announcement’ on Instagram included a Q&A that involved instructing people how I wanted them to react. Yes, seriously. “No moist-eyed hugs,” I said. Instead, I requested pictures (preferably nude) of Jude Law. Because why not? That weekend, my phone pinged with Nudey Judey night and day. After a horrific fortnight, I smiled for 48 hours straight. That set the tone. 

Kate Middleton and Prince William. Image: Instagram @princeandprincessofwales

Anal Cancer is not glamorous, the treatment is brutal and the side-effects are ferocious. I mean, my pubes were literally. burnt. off. So in reflection of this, my Insta account became more honest and more black by the day. But I was laughing, and so were my friends. Sharing became my protective cloak. 

My first radiation session wasn’t so scary because I was taking happy snaps of the machine to show my friends. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the magical tale of how Instagram Cured My Cancer (soz Zuckerberg). We’ve been rigorous in appointing a treatment team. 

The resulting duo of Radiotherapist and Oncologist have been lifesaving (or, at least I bloody hope it will be). My psychiatrist became an irreplaceable weekly cornerstone. My family and friends were around in moments that no Insta filter could fix. My husband was there when fear hollowed me out and I couldn’t breathe. And my daughter’s existence was a sometimes-needed reminder why I need to grind this thing down to utter oblivion. As a parent, cancer is one of the greatest fears. Our blessing was she was too young to understand exactly what happened.

It’s not very on-trend to admit, but with cancer comes negativity. I’m forever angry that I had to be the statistic who took one for the team. I have a perpetual fear I won’t live to see my daughter grow up. And I’m so sad my loved-ones have to witness me live through this mess.  

When you have cancer, you do a lot of crying in cars. It’s a contained, private space and is often the first time you’re alone and safe after receiving bad news.

The afternoon my diagnosis was confirmed, I sat in my car with my mother and howled, rocking, breathless at the shock of it all. Cancer diagnoses are a creeping dismay, a series of slowly worsening conversations. But this stands out as the sharpest, most painful moment. That was a low. But none of this is very surprising, is it? 

Got cancer – shit time. Got rid of that cancer – ace! There were other moments though. Muddled, confused happy/sad times that don’t sit in boxes. 

The pure elation lifting up in my chest at having my own words published for the first time. Yet I was also bed-ridden, muddled with opiates, fending off the worst pain of my life. I still chalk that up in the ‘happy’ column. The adrenaline spike of going back to work after a year, and not completely fucking it up. Flying out of the carpark on a cloud of loud music and dopamine, off to pick up my kid, and realising I was having the very normal day I’d prayed for, for months. 

Pre-treatment gin-fuelled blitz-spirit evenings with my husband. Sobbing, but also laughing bloody hard. So, so relieved I had him by me. Feeling scared and safe at the same time.

I remain a mum, wife, daughter, ad-lady, and now, bloody annoyingly, I’m also one of those cancer people. Yet cancer allows you to frame things differently. One of my worst fears came true. My boogie monster actually came to life. And you know what? We’re still here. Thanks to world-class medicine, a solid mental health plan, boundless love and gleefully inappropriate humour.

Ella Ward is the author of 27 Letters To My Daughter. Follow Ella on Instagram @_mssellabella

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