In 1967 when I was just 12 years old my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Throughout that year she underwent treatment following a mastectomy. Although she did as much as she could for herself, my dad and aunties were her carers and when they were at work my sister Emily, then aged 7, and I in our turn did our share. Below is an excerpt from my memoir Shadow Across the Sun, depicting a particularly difficult task. In the 60s there was no such thing as counselling for family trauma, you just had to get on with it, which we did.
The neighbours have been in but they’ve gone now and Mum’s gone to lie down for an hour before she gets the tea ready.
“Ooh no!” It’s a sort of shocked whimper coming from her room.
“Are you OK Mum?”
“Come here a min will you duck, and bring a bowl of warm water and some cotton wool, oh and a towel.”
Emily comes with me and we’re wondering what Mum wants all of these things for. As we walk into her bedroom she’s sitting on the edge of the bed with her blouse undone checking the dressing. She’s been going for radiotherapy for a while now so I think that’s why she has to have the gauze dressing over the patch that gets treated.
“The dressing’s got stuck,” she says looking up at us. Her eyes are wide and she looks scared. “Bring me the water please and the cotton wool.”
I pass them to her and put the towel across her knees. She tears a piece of cotton wool and dips it into the bowl, squeezing most of the water out. Then she drips a few drops behind the pad.
“I can’t do it. I can’t get at it properly. You’ll have to do it.”
“I can’t do it! I might hurt you.”
“It will hurt me but it’s got to come off.”
I look at the pad and it is stained red and orange with yellow stuff oozing out between its mesh, and it’s stuck fast to her chest, the yellow stuff acting like glue. I daren’t touch it. I know it will hurt her to pull it off and I don’t know how we’re going to do it.
“Come on duck,” coaxes Mum, “just get the corner of the pad and ease it gently while I squeeze drops of water behind it.”
“I can’t! I can’t do it.” It makes me shudder to think of pulling it away and bringing all of that stuff with it.
“I’ll do it,” says Emily moving past me, and I admire her bravery and feel useless myself as she sets about her gruesome task.
It reminds me of the time that Mum was refilling a stapler. She’d got her finger over the end and a staple shot into it.
Ow!” she’d shouted. “Sherrie just pull it out for me will you.”
I couldn’t. There were two blobs of blood where the staple was sticking in and I just couldn’t touch it. I don’t know what it is about blood but it makes me go all unnecessary. Anyway, Emily came along, calm as you like, and pulled it out – and she was only about five at the time. She is so much braver than me.
She sits there now, perched on the edge of the bed facing Mum, easing the pad, gently, gently, a fraction of an inch at a time, concentration etched on her seven year old features. Mum is gritting her teeth and making tiny ‘hoo, hoo,’ sounds between her lips, so quiet that we can hardly hear them but they show how painful this whole business is for her. Her eyes are screwed tight while she squeezes water and Emily keeps pulling gently.
After what seems like hours, the pad comes free and Mum lets out a long sigh and falls back onto her pillows. “You’re a good girl Emily,” she breathes.
The patch on her chest looks red and sore with a big oozing scab. We can see the line of the scar where the stitches were but it’s embedded in the seeping mass. It looks a terrible mess.
“It’s infected,” says Mum. “The nurse will have to have a look at it.”
She bathes it carefully, hardly daring to touch it, and says she’ll leave it open for a while to dry out. She doesn’t put another dressing on it yet in case it gets stuck.
“Can you start the tea ducky,” she says to me. “Just peel some potatoes and carrots so your father can switch it on when he gets in will you, and get rid of this stuff for me please.”
I take the bowl and the messy dressing and bits of cotton wool all wrapped in tissues.
“Don’t forget to give your hands a good wash.”
I don’t feel quite so useless now because I can peel the veg. I could cook the tea for when Dad gets in if she’d tell me what to do, but she says no wait, Dad’ll do it, I might get scalded with the boiling water. Emily sits on the bed to keep her company while she has a rest. All of that has worn her out.