We want to say a massive thank you to the lovely Steve Bland for this guest blog where he gives us a glimpse into what it's like to support & care for a spouse with terminal cancer. You can follow Steve on Twitter and Instagram, and if haven't already check out the fabulous and MULTI-award winning #YouMeBigC podcast that he co-hosts.
It was about a week after my wife, Rachael, died. I can remember it so clearly. I was sitting in my lounge, on my sofa, all alone. It had been such a whirlwind in the week after she died that any time alone had been at a premium. I took a deep breath, and actually realised for the first time just how hard the previous 20 or so months had been and just how utterly exhausted I was.
Rachael was a BBC broadcaster, and the founder and host of a BBC podcast called You, Me and the Big C. She had set it up to have open and honest conversations about living with cancer after she was diagnosed with the ‘Big C’ herself in November 2016. She wanted to take the conversations happening on social media between young, vibrant, full of life cancer sufferers to a wider audience. And in doing so, she changed the narrative around cancer.
But like I say, it was tough. Relentless. Exhausting. Anyone who supports someone through a serious illness will tell you the same. In a weird way I feel lucky too. Lucky to have been able to support someone very special to me through the toughest time in their life. To have been the person she relied on the most. And I know Rachael valued what I did because she wrote about it in a book she put together before she died. Basically a letter from her to our young son, Freddie, it was everything she wanted him to know about her.
In it, she wrote: “Along with my fabulous friends, I’m very lucky to have a wonderful family support network around me. I know if someone has to go through this, then I’m as good a person as any, as I have such a great team. Steve is of course the Captain. One of our friends, on hearing the news, sent a message saying if you ever had to go through cancer, then Steve would be the man you’d want alongside you.
“It had been only a few years since our beautiful wedding, when we were so full of hope for what our future together would hold. We stood at the front of that church and promised to love each other in sickness and in health. Neither of us could have imagined the sickness part would come so soon. I felt terribly guilty that he was having to go through this because of me. That’s apparently quite common among women with cancer.
“But he told me so many times, that he’d rather go through cancer with me, than have an easy time with anyone else. So, he’s been there for every appointment, holding my hand and picking me up when I’m down. I still feel bad that he’s going to have to pick up a lot of slack on the days I’m feeling rough, when I won’t be able to pull my weight with the childcare and household chores. I was incredibly lucky with the support of Steve, the whole family and my brilliant friends, they made the whole process as simple as it could be.”
Those words mean the world to me. When I read it back it makes me feel extremely proud, but a little embarrassed at the same time. Because the reality is that so many people drop everything and give up huge sections of their own lives to do whatever they possibly can for someone who means the world to them. You just do it. It’s not brave, or heroic, or anything special – you do it because you know they would do the same for you in a heartbeat. You don’t need praise and you (almost always) happily accept being a punchbag from time to time.
And you do it day after day without truly realising the toll it takes or just how hard it is physically and mentally. Like I said, it was only a week or so after she died, when the dust had started to settle, that I took a deep breath and realised what it had taken out of me.
I was exhausted. A close friend said to me fairly recently actually, that while Rachael was ill, I had looked ill too. I was white as a sheet, had put on a bit of weight and wasn’t exactly the picture of health. It’s easy for people to say ‘make sure you look after yourself too’. The reality is that that is so hard to do when so much of your focus is on making sure the person you love more than anything is getting everything she needs to make this horrific situation as bearable as possible.
I don’t even remember having the time to think about how terrible it actually was. I didn’t cry much. I was just so caught up in doing what I could to help, staying in the moment, and keeping Rachael’s spirits up. I was doing whatever was in my control, in a situation where so much was out of my control. But it was heartbreaking. One of the most cruel things about cancer, or any life limiting or threatening conditions, is watching someone deteriorate to the point where in some ways they’re unrecognisable. And as the carer, or the person closest, you get a front row seat. I was chatting the other day to a man who had lost his step-daughter to cancer. She was a bubbly, vivacious woman in her 20s, with so much to live for, when cancer struck. And he told me how heartbreaking it was to see the life and the hope disappear. But you know what, he’d willingly have been right by her side through the whole thing all over again.
If I was speaking now to someone at the start of something similar to our experience, I wouldn’t say ‘keep going’ because I know they will. And I wouldn’t say ‘look after yourself’ because I know that’ll be at the bottom of their list of priorities. I would say that it’s going to be tough and there are no shortcuts; I would say that you’re going to have to be a punchbag from time to time – and you need to put up with it without (too much) grumbling; I would say to try where possible to have a way of escaping, even if it’s only for half an hour. I played golf and took the dog for a walk, and every few months I made sure I had a weekend away with friends; I would tell them to hang in there because life can, and hopefully will, get better. For me, life won’t ever be the same. I have to adjust to a different normal. But I’m determined it won’t be a second class version of life. I owe that to Rachael.
And I’d also tell that person that whatever happens at the end of their journey, they’ll be glad they were there. They’ll feel pride that they helped someone when it got really tough. And, along with the heartbreak, they’ll take comfort from the fact that they stood up to the challenge when it mattered most.
I can say that confident in the knowledge that I did everything I possibly could to support my darling Rachael. In sickness and in health, until death parted us. Just like I promised.
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