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Macmillan guest post #4: Lung Cancer Awareness Month - Six important lessons

1. If something is wrong, check it out early

Sounds straight forward, but sometimes we don't think anything of symptoms. Sometimes we are too busy to deal with 'admin', sometimes we don't want to make a fuss or sound paranoid. A myriad of reasons may cause us to ignore symptoms. My mother had been coughing up blood for six months before seeing a doctor. By the time she had a diagnosis, she was riddled with cancer and beyond repair. Of course, it may not have made a difference had she raised the alarm earlier, but we will never know. We can't go running to the doctor for every minor ailment, but when something serious feels amiss, it's better to be safe than sorry.

2. Empathy is honed with hardship

I had heard of cancer before my mother was diagnosed but I really knew nothing about it. I knew nothing about its effects on the body, little about the medication and associated side effects, and I was largely oblivious to the emotions of the sufferer and their family. My knowledge was secondhand. When cancer infiltrated directly into my family, it suddenly became clear that my empathy towards others had been a diluted form of sympathy. It was only with witnessing cancer carry out its destruction, and living with the aftermath, that I came to understand how others affected by the disease might truly feel. My empathy was a lot realer and sharper and I sometimes cringe at my lack of real understanding and compassion when discussing cancer before it affected us as a family. Even now, I don't claim to know precisely how others feel, but it taught me that true empathy is attained and not conceived.

3. Time is subjective

I sat with my father in the doctor's room when we asked the question on behalf of my mother, who chose not to know. Regardless of what answer might come back, it is never the one you want - "How long does she have to live?" After receiving the usual disclaimer that prognoses are not always accurate, the answer came back as 'about eight months'. Hearing this was devastating. In hindsight, I'm not sure what time period wouldn't have been. Those eight months turned out to be three years and, whilst those three years still seemed short, it was a blessing to have had more time together than we expected. It taught me that time ought to be valuable irrespective of tragedy and regardless of length.

4. Grief never dies, but only because neither does love

It's been over seven years since my mother passed away. In the first few years, I would think about her constantly every day and I couldn't understand how I would ever feel any better with a huge piece broken inside me. As time passed, the grip of grief slowly loosened and that overwhelming memories of death were slowly replaced by memories of life. Whilst the undertones of grief continue to emerge from time to time, the sharp burn of loss has dissipated. Grief originally convinced me that I should feel guilty about this, that not feeling as crushed was a reflection of a diminishing love for my mother. But that is wrong; it simply hurts less because it needs to.

5. Strength speaks volumes

Lung cancer can be a brutal disease. We take for granted that our lungs contract and expand as we draw breath, accommodating the airwaves that we need to pass freely. Lung cancer hampers this ability, transforming them into pockets of stone, preventing them from flexing, and restricting the drawing of a full breath. My mother became unable to draw enough of a breath to find comfort, yet just enough to survive. It was torturous to watch. Yet, with this brutal disease wrecking havoc to my mother's body, she never once complained about her plight nor blamed others (divine or otherwise) for her lot in life. Before she died she said to me that she was just pleased to have seen her children grow to be healthy and independent. This message reverberated in my mind for years (and still does) and to see her courageously live with a crushing disease was inspirational. Her strength came when she was at her weakest and it was an incongruously beautiful yet heartbreaking thing to witness.

6. It rains on the just and unjust alike

Some may consider that my mother contracting terminal lung cancer was unfair or unjust given she was only in her fifties and it did not correlate with her generally healthy lifestyle. After all, she didn't smoke, was active, and lived a very moderate life. But that is the nature of cancer; it can be arbitrary and indiscriminate. I felt a lot of emotions but I have never felt angry about losing my mother to the disease. After all, who are we to judge who deserves what fate? Naturally, good things happen to 'bad' people, and bad things happen to 'good' people. So, if the rain comes, let's just hope and pray that we have an umbrella.


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