World Cancer Day 2018 - What does the 'Big C' mean to me?
If any of you don't know, today is World Cancer Day. It's a day to help fundraise and raise awareness for a variety of charities that help fund research into finding a cure for cancer. It's also a day that is used to help raise awareness about the detection, treatment and prevention of cancer. It's a day for opening up and reducing stigma about cancer.
If you've read my recent post all about why I'm fundraising for the Bone Cancer Research Trust this year, then you'll already know a snippet about how cancer impacted my immediate family when I was younger. Although I've had a couple of guest posts from my sister on this blog in the past, all about her experiences with cancer, I haven't really opened up about how it impacted me. As today is a day for opening up conversations about cancer, I thought it would be a good time to finally talk about it.
When I was ten, and in my last year of primary school, my 8-year-old sister started to get some pains in her right leg. My parents took her to the doctors a couple of times, and it was cast off as fluid on the knee (as it was swollen with a lump). On a further visit to our GP however, one of the doctors considered that it might be something more sinister, and referred her for further testing. After noticing something abnormal on a scan, they conducted a biopsy and found that she had a malignant tumour growing on her right femur. The type of bone cancer that my sister had is called Ewings Sarcoma. An average of 6 children in the UK are diagnosed with this each year.
My memories of the time are a little blurred. But some of them stick out. I remember playing around with my sister, and her complaining that her leg was hurting, and wondering if I had made her leg hurt by playing too violently. I was a bit confused about how the whole 'cancer' thing came about, and what it really was.
One of my most vivid memories from that period is when my parents told me about Sophie's diagnosis. They sat us down in the living room and said that she had cancer. Sophie and my dad were both crying, so I started to cry because I was shocked that they were tearful. I wasn't crying because my dad had told me about the cancer, because I didn't understand what it really meant, I only knew it was bad because of his reaction.
The next vivid memory is when they told me that she was going to lose her hair. I didn't really know that was a thing that happened, and didn't really understand why it would happen. I just wanted my sister to stay the same. That's the second time I remember my parents getting upset, and I did too.
From then on things changed massively. One of the biggest changes for me at the time was actually going to secondary school. All of my friends were heading to a different school, and I felt isolated. Piling this on top of the massive changes in my home life was just a bit too much for me to deal with, and I started crying everyday. I remember being scared of what was happening at home, and not wanting to leave to go to school each morning.
You see, cancer tore my family apart a little. My mum and my sister spent a whole lot of time in hospital; between four day long bouts of chemotherapy and isolation in hospital due to a poor immune system, I remember that a lot of the time it was just me and dad at home. When my sister was at home, things were very different to how they'd been before. We had to constantly apply and reapply handgel. Our pet bird died and we couldn't get any more pets because they could really hurt her immune system. Our medicine cupboard was suddenly full of a whole host of different things that she might need.
I cried every day at school in year seven. Usually more than once. I felt so alone there without my friends from primary school, and catching the bus to and from school alone, and being left to my own devices when I got home was hard. I plunged into schoolwork and reading (and I'm so glad I did, because I don't know what I would have done without them), but it was hard.
I didn't really understand why I was crying all the time back then, but I do now. Both me and my dad felt as though the 'old Sophie' who was my best friend growing up, had been replaced by someone new, who was nothing like her. My sister feels a similar way, and I think it's been hard for all three of us to grieve that lost member of our family, or in Sophie's case, her old self.
Chemotherapy changes a lot of things, and I didn't really understand the impact of it at the time. It changes your tastebuds. Suddenly things that both of us had loved eating as kids were things that made Sophie physically sick. When her hair grew back after she stopped having chemo, it was a completely different texture, thickness, colour. We'd gone from Steph and Sophie, ready to take on the world one farm animal at a time (did anyone else dream of being a farmer as a kid?), to a Steph who was confused and left behind, and a brand new Sophie that no one really knew.
I don't think any of us fully understood the long-term impact that cancer would have on my sister, and I don't think it was ever fully explained to any of us. After the first course of chemotherapy, a surgeon removed Sophie's tumour, but to do so he had to remove the bone from around her knee almost all the way up to her hip and replace it with a metal rod. I remember buying a biscuit that I thought Sophie would like at a school bake sale, and saving it to take to her after her operation because I thought it would make her feel better. It was the first thing she'd agreed to eat in a little while (by this time she had a nose tube, and was struggling to eat anything), and I was so proud that my little biscuit helped. What's equally memorable from that day however is the sound of her screaming as they took out the tubes attached to her leg from the operation. That was another time I remember crying.
I'm not angry that my sister had cancer, and I don't think I ever will be. It's something that was unavoidable: nothing anyone could have done would have prevented it. I've never considered what life 'might have been like' if it hadn't happened, because all we've got is the life where it did happen. If anything, it makes me more filled with love. My sister is my favourite person in the entire world. She's someone I admire and love and she's my absolute best friend. Her treatment and illness is continuing to have a massive impact on her life even over ten years later, but I know that whatever happens in the future, we've been through a whole shitload of stuff and we've always got each other.