I very recently got back from Scotland, where I spent a whole week visiting family and friends I’d not seen since last November.
I feel like a weight has been lifted from me. I also swear that for much of the time I was there, I came as close as I possibly could to forgetting that I have incurable breast cancer.
The main reason I went to Scotland was to see my mum. This wonderful lady is 83, has dementia and lives in a care home in my home city of Glasgow. She is very well looked after but things are tough with the pandemic. The restrictions on visiting are very tight – for example, indoor visiting is banned. In common with thousands like her, my mum is struggling to understand what is happening and is suffering from the lack of social interaction and physical exercise.
Over the course of seven days, I saw as much of my mum as I possibly could. I also spent time with each of my five brothers. I saw nine of my eleven nieces and nephews (the other two live here in London). I visited a few good friends, and, thanks to the good organisational skills of one brother, I managed to combine a lovely bike ride out in the countryside south of Glasgow with a visit to a cousin who recently lost her mum – my own mum’s last remaining sibling.
I had four 30-minute “window visits” where I spoke to my mum on the phone while standing outside her room with her inside at the window. I also had one 30-minute socially distanced face-to-face visit in the grounds of the care home.
While my mum now struggles to remember who we are, there’s definitely still a connection. Even if she can’t process the fact that the person standing there in front of her is her daughter, she knows that the concept of daughter is important and that the person talking to her is important to her and that she is to him or her.
The proof lies in the following anecdote. On my first visit, I suggest that she write in her diary that I’m coming to see her the following day. She gets her diary out, opens it on the July 27 page, and I suggest she write “Maureen”. She writes “Maureen to visit today” in that still lovely and still neat handwriting that I’d recognise anywhere. I’m aware that the more memory prompts she has, the more likely it is that she’ll make sense of what she’s written. I therefore suggest that she also write “daughter”. She duly writes daughter. Then, out of nowhere, she adds a little tick and a few kisses. As she adds the final “x”, she looks up, gives me a massive smile, and says with great satisfaction and pride, “there”. I can’t describe how happy that made me.
I felt relaxed, cared for and loved throughout the whole trip. Despite talking about my situation at length to anyone who cared to and was brave enough to ask, I became aware many, many times throughout my stay that the fact that I have incurable breast cancer was as far back in my consciousness as it’s been since I was diagnosed over a year ago.
It helped that the week I was there coincided with my week off treatment. Under the drug regime I’ve been on for the past few months, I’ve been taking a certain number of tablets of the oral chemo drug capecitabine twice a day – every day, morning and evening, more or less 12 hours apart – for two weeks then I have the third week off. You have to take each set of tablets within 30 minutes of eating.
On the week off, I don’t have to eat at a specific time, twice a day. I can skip breakfast if I want. I can have a late supper without having to remember to eat a snack a couple of hours earlier to stay within the 11-13 hour range that I think is acceptable. I don’t have to think about whether I need to take that evening’s supply of tablets out with me in case I’m not at home. I turn off the “Tablets AM” and “Tablets PM” reminders on my phone. It’s nice.
I packed a lot into the week but it never felt rushed.
I visited friends and family in various places – Glasgow, Killearn, Perth. I rode a tandem for the first time. I had my first ride on an e-bike. I discovered a new park in Glasgow. I was introduced to the music of a couple of bands I hadn’t come across before. I had some really great food. I played tennis. I went on two bike rides, one of 35 miles and one of 20 miles. I breakfasted on wild raspberries during a walk in a park in Perth. I had my first meal out since lockdown was introduced in mid-March. I also managed to read a whole book – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.
If you’ve read the post I wrote for the Institute of Cancer Research, you’ll know that I don’t have a bucket list. That said, being on the tandem was such good fun that retrospectively I’m adding “have a go on a tandem” to and ticking it off from that non-existent bucket list! The e-bike was fun too, but not bucket list material. It may yet become so, I guess, once getting up hills on a regular road bike becomes too much of an effort.
On the book front, parts of Hamnet moved me to tears. The protagonist in this lovely novel is Agnes (William Shakespeare’s wife). In one particular scene, it’s Agnes’s wedding day and she’s thinking of her mother, who died years earlier. O’Farrell writes:
“[Agnes] senses, too, somewhere off to the left, her own mother. She would be here with her had life taken a different turn… So it follows, of course, that she will be here now, in whatever form she can manage. Agnes does not need to turn her head, does not want to frighten her away. It is enough to know that she is there, manifest, hovering, insubstantial. I see you, she thinks. I know you are here.”
Again, as I wrote in the ICR blog, I try not to worry about possibly not being here for specific events such as weddings – the events we fear we’ll miss may never happen – but that passage did make me tearful. Indeed it’s not exactly easy writing this now. I find the words sad but also hugely comforting. I hope that when I’m gone and people feel they have need of me, they’ll think along those lines and find some sort of peace. I recommend the book, not just for that passage.
You should get the message loud and clear from reading this that I had a really lovely time.
If I’m in any doubt at all myself as to whether I had a lot of fun, I have a physical reminder that I did. I’ve got a sodding big cold sore on my bottom lip. I’m an atheist but I was brought up a catholic and I can’t dissuade myself from thinking in a very Old Testament-esque way that cold sores are God’s way of punishing me for enjoying myself too much. I get them quite regularly, in exactly the same place on my bottom lip. They never just happen, though. They always happen in the immediate wake of my having done something that’s really fun – skiing, being on holiday in the sun, cycling on a sunny or windy day (that’s what caused the one I have now). Of course I know that bright sunlight and the cold and the wind can trigger cold sores but I have fun thinking divine retribution is to blame.* I hate them. They are horribly painful and can make you feel really low. The Scottish word “louping” seems tailor-made to describe how your lip feels when you have a cold sore. In addition, of course, they’re unsightly – so much so this time round that I’m quite thankful I have an excuse to wear a mask in public places!
Going back to the god issue, I have to confess that I went skiing several times earlier this year and, despite skiing in glorious sunshine on some days and in bitter cold on others, I didn’t get any cold sores. I like to think that was god giving me a bit of a break cos he/she knew that 1) the scans I was due to have soon after I got back would show signs of progression and I’d have to move on to a new line of treatment and 2) coronavirus was around the corner.
The pandemic forces us to make choices. You balance the risk of catching or unknowingly spreading the virus against your desire and/or need to go to certain places and do certain things. I didn’t need to go to Scotland but I chose to go. I took care on the hygiene front and on the social distancing front I did what I could. Everyone was very accommodating. Almost everyone I came across was complying with the recommendations on social distancing and mask-wearing. I felt pretty safe.
I also didn’t need to have a massive hug with each of my brothers or they with me, but hug we did.
It was sad that I couldn’t hug my mum. This photo shows how close we were allowed to get to each other on the outside visit. It was far from ideal but, under the circumstances, it was the best I could do. It was enough.
I feel like a different person after my trip. I realised in hindsight how concerned I’d been about my mum. Seeing she was OK – within the limited boundaries of what is possible – was a big relief. It was also so good to be in the company of so many family members and good friends.
I got back from Glasgow on Sunday evening. First thing yesterday I went down to the hospital to have blood taken for the regular end-of-cycle tests. Today I saw the oncologist for the results. I’m tolerating capecitabine well, the relevant tumour marker is down again and all the other blood test results were good enough to switch from a three-week cycle of two weeks on and one week off to a four-week cycle of one week on and one week off times two. I start cycle #4 this evening. Back to enforced breakfasts and reminders on my phone and, more importantly, taking the cancer treatment that for the moment at least is enabling me to get on with living my life.
*While this image made me howl with laughter, I do of course realise that it is based on an outdated stereotype. One of my mum’s sisters was a nun and she was the life and soul of the party. More pertinently, my mum’s care home is run by nuns. Before lockdown, there was plenty of singing and dancing and fun and frivolity. I hope they can return to those days soon.