Each day I wake up feeling grateful to God for being here and for what I have. My bedroom is festooned with cards and presents from people who love me and I look out through the window onto the lawn where my 13 chickens are pecking about contentedly in the grass.
Our dog, Boo, will probably be curled up on the floor beside my bed, while my husband, Andy, will be downstairs in the kitchen making me a wonderful breakfast. I have come to terms with the fact that I am likely to die very soon. The doctor said that if I didn’t have further treatment, I probably had until March, but I’m still here.
A life lived I am 54 and enjoying every minute I have left to the full. I have planned my birthday party in May and hope to be here for Christmas with Andy and our three sons: Will, 25, Charlie, 20, and Henry, 11.
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. I’d had no symptoms, but when one of my nipples became inverted, tests revealed an 8.5-centimetre tumour in my breast. I had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but the prognosis wasn’t good: the cancer was all through my lymph nodes. I am not the kind of person who sits about moping, but the diagnosis was a terrible shock. I got on with life − gardening, walking the dog, raising my sons − but there were days when I felt very unwell. Late last year, tests revealed the cancer had spread to the covering around my brain though luckily not inside it, so I can still think straight. It’s like wearing a cancerous swimming cap.
Time is precious
The doctors have predicted the cancer will close down my brain gradually, then, eventually, I’ll die unconscious. They gave me until last September, then revised that to October.
I passed those landmarks, but about a month ago, there was more bad news: the cancer had spread like wildfire and is now in my pancreas, liver, chest, lung and spine.
When you’re told you will die much sooner than you’d expected, every moment counts. The strangest thing about dying is what it tells you about people. Put simply, they divide into those who are lovely and the rest. Those who you thought were your friends desert you in your hour of need. Those who were mere acquaintances take your breath away with their kindness.
Strangers, though, can be positively cruel. Take the nurse at a posh private local hospital who I met after struggling out to buy balloons for my son’s birthday disco after my first bout of chemo three years ago. “Aren’t you lucky to be treated at our local hospital? You’re very lucky indeed,” she finger-wagged at me. I agreed politely, twice. At the third mention of my luck, I pointed out that the hospital had actually ignored the fact that I was at a high risk of developing breast cancer − both my mother and aunt had it − and, as such, I should have been scheduled for a mammogram every year. As it was, I hadn’t had one for three years before my diagnosis, which was unlucky because the cancer was now so advanced. Her face hardened. “You won’t live long,” she snapped, then hurried off. The balloon man was so shocked he gave me two balloons for free.
The power of love
I have also been astonished by the number of people who dropped me when they found out I was ill, especially old friends. “I don’t want to disturb you” was the initial excuse for not turning up at the hospital or sending a card, followed by silence. One of Henry’s godparents, chosen for her caring qualities, has not shown her face since I was diagnosed. I have appointed him a new godmother now.
Having cancer has made me rude to time-wasters. For instance, a relative wrote me a note when my diagnosis became terminal, saying: “We don’t know when we’ll ever see you again. We’re very sad and sorry you are ill.” They only live 40 minutes away. So I replied, “You’re so sad that you never wrote a card or visited for three years. You call yourself Christians, but you can’t be bothered when I’m ill.”
I am trying hard to make the most of every minute left, spending my time and energy on those who have proved worthy. I’ve discovered the ones who make a great show of being caring are often the least help, so I like to make them squirm.
There are terrible physical trials to endure when one has cancer, but somehow the emotional ones are harder to bear.
Late last year, the cancer chewed through a nerve that controls my eyes. I was losing my sight and had to wear an eye patch. Children were frightened of me. But then a few months later, excruciating “whole-head” radiotherapy restored my failing sight. The doctors were good on this occasion, but they don’t always do a fabulous job, in my opinion. They know I think that, though I try to be polite. Drugs are not properly prescribed and treatments are omitted. I had to remind them last week that they had booked me in for too many chemo sessions.
On the plus side, I’m not in agony, except when someone upsets me. Sudden stress turns into pain zinging up and down my body. But as writer Dr Samuel Johnson once noted, imminent death concentrates the mind. These days, I am up at 5am to do all the things I meant to do years ago.
It’s not easy and emotions run high for the whole family. Henry shut himself in his room for four days after he overheard that my cancer was terminal. But now, at least, we are closer than ever. He does a funny little dance to entertain me every night before bed and thinks up jokes to make me laugh. I’ve found a caring school for him and in readiness I have made him a calendar with every reminder a mum would normally make in person, such as “Take your sports kit in” and “Remember Dad’s birthday!” I cried buckets when I wrote my Christmas message on it, simply telling him to have a wonderful one (but I intend to be here then).
So how does it feel to know you are dying? I feel like a disembodied brain trailing a body I’m told is getting weaker. I take steroids to keep my brain from swelling and my vision clear, and the occasional slurp of pain-killing medicine called OxyNorm. I spend a lot of time in bed, but I get up when I need to or when I feel strong enough. Just looking at Boo, who never leaves my side, gives me a boost.
I have prepared myself for death. I’ve given people lots of my books – I’ve written one on roses and one on paintings – which I hope they appreciate, because I don’t like giving my things away! I’ve also given my designer clothes from my days working as a TV presenter to a young working mother. Finally, I have planned out my funeral: everyone will wear bright colours and drink champagne afterwards.
Coping with goodbyes
The main regrets of the terminally ill include wishing they hadn’t worked so hard and not allowing themselves to be happier. With this in mind I have planned my 55th birthday party for May and we’re having open-air theatre a month later in our garden.
Friends have also helped me to search out old photographs, stories I’ve written and films of me on TV. I realise I was a better-looking young woman than I’d thought and that I’ve done more than I ever imagined I would.
I’m writing future birthday and Christmas cards for my three boys, having checked to make sure they wanted to hear from their old (potentially dead) mum for years hence. My eldest son, Will, asked for practical tips and hints for life in his cards, rather than slush. I have also bought three pairs of heart-shaped earrings for my sons’ future brides to wear.
When I die, I won’t be saying goodbye to my sons. I have told them they will have only to think of me to know what I would say about something. I am writing and self-publishing several more books. I’ve recorded an audiobook on hen-keeping, am writing my book, You Can’t Die, What Would the Dog Do Without You? – Adventures In Breast Cancer, and I’m also hoping to finish a detective novel.
My final tip on coping with my situation? Make jam. It’s the ultimate stress-buster, and you can give it to the friends who do visit and care deeply about you.