At Easter this year I will be enjoying time with my family, walking my dog and eating more chocolate than is good for me. Looking around the table on Easter Sunday, my mum will be seated next to me. This, in itself, is very on message for the Easter resurrection.
On Good Friday 2020, we were called into the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital to say goodbye to her. She was deteriorating following chemotherapy the previous week, and the medical team were putting her in an induced coma. She had tested positive for Covid.
The country had only been in lockdown for 2 weeks, our understanding of the virus was not what it is now. On the day she was put into the coma, 944 people died of Covid in the UK. The average Covid coma survival rate at the time was 50%, and when you factor in the cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy – it was not looking good.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in early February 2020. It was lucky, they said. We have caught it incredibly early, they said. There is a survival rate of 95% over 5 years, they said. She was part of the 55,200 new breast cancer cases in the UK every year, that is around 150 every day. So statistically she was in a ridiculously small minority as it was.
Our world had shifted but this was a blip. Something to be endured and overcome. In 18 months, we would look back fondly on this as a time we pulled together as a family and triumphed. This would be a story to tell the grandkids and they would be disinterested, as all children are, as they were told about something which happened long before they were born.
What we couldn’t know then was Covid-19 was coming.
She was admitted to Hospital 5 days after undergoing her second round of chemo. All visiting was suspended so she could only text and call, and gradually even these became less frequent. What I now know is that she knew how ill she was and was trying to protect us. A few days later she was moved to ICU, and then the call came.
The ICU telling us to come in. The drive to the Hospital, the pained look on the face of the ICU nurse, the fact me and my brother were not allowed to see her – strictly one person allowed – will haunt me. The “bad news room” as we have christened it has gone down in family legend.
Having lost her own father unexpectedly, she had drilled into us about not to go to bed angry and never leave angry. She knew the regret that came with parting on bad terms only to then find there was no way to go back, no way to make up for cross words said in the heat of the moment. I realised then that I didn’t need to see her. I knew she loved me and was proud of me. The pain was from all the things she would miss in the future – future weddings, being a grandmother, even me finally running the postponed London Marathon.
She was in a medically induced coma on a ventilator for 6 weeks. A new normal arose; we would wake up and wait for the Hospital to call. They told us she wouldn’t make it, so we braced ourselves – and then she’d lasted the night. This happened 4 times until the news came that her kidneys were failing, and her heart was beating abnormally. Her survival at that point was down to 1 in 5.
The news was constantly bad, until one day it wasn’t. She was holding steady at the bottom. Then the next day she was a little better, and a little better after that. To this day I am unsure exactly what happened, but a Doctor had injected her with something to help her Kidneys thinking it couldn’t do any harm. I am forever grateful to that Doctor.
It was a blisteringly hot June day when I was finally allowed into her ICU room to see her. She looked as you would imagine – the cancer and the virus having ravaged her for 4 months by this point.
As any cancer patient or ex cancer patient knows, you are scanned, regularly and often. It was during one of these that they found it. Whilst in the coma, her eminently treatable breast cancer had spread, it was now on multiple places in her bones. Spread as whilst she was circling the drain there was not much to be done – she had to survive Covid first. Big words were thrown around like terminal and incurable.
I am in no way criticising the amazing NHS staff that kept her alive – some things just are what they are. Covid-19 is a pandemic. It has been reduced to the statistics and numbers we see recycled on the news programmes. But we are the hidden face of it. We are the raw pain and grief underneath those numbers. My mother could have survived her treatable cancer, but now, thanks to Covid-19 and the well-oiled machine of NHS cancer treatment, she is dying. The short waiting times allowed her to squeeze in her cancer treatment before lockdown came. The irony is not lost on me.
Any spare moment that they can give us is one we didn’t think we would have on Good Friday 2020. But we are the sharp end of the wedge. It does not do to dwell on what could have been; nevertheless I can’t help but wonder if they had held off starting chemotherapy just a few weeks or months to the summer when lockdown was eased a little… would we be in a different place? On the day she was discharged from Hospital, there were only 14 deaths from Covid.
I am not one to look back, only forwards, another habit my mother instilled. As I look forward I see the NHS creaking but beginning to struggle through the backlog of patients they have. Macmillan estimates that across the UK there are currently around 50,000 ‘missing diagnoses’. I read the Macmillan Report and my heart breaks for all the patients and their families, but somewhere there will be a patient with the same prognosis as my mum, diagnosed a few weeks later, whose treatment was postponed, and they will survive. They will live a long and happy life.
I am happy for them, truly, but being in the right Cancer Hospital at the right time and receiving the right treatment may not save my mum. Her prognosis looking forward is what can be described as “cautiously optimistic” that she will have at least five years with the treatment she’s now receiving.
Any time we have with her now is a bonus, but I still won’t be sharing my easter eggs with her.