The day started out exceptionally well. I had finally received an offer on my house in Diamond Harbour. There were overdue repairs and maintenance issues to address and servicing the mortgage had become too much of a burden on my sporadic income. I needed to sell it before I found myself forced into the ignominy of a mortgagee sale. When my estate agent phoned to say that the sale had been confirmed I was thrilled and even more so when my son called to say that he’d received a letter from Canterbury University accepting him back for his second year. Along with this he had received letters from the law and psychology departments congratulating him on his excellent results. I should have realised from the tone of his voice that he was holding something back, but sadly my attention was elsewhere.
It was my final day of work before I was due to fly to London two days later on 23 December 2007. I was having Christmas with my sister and her partner in England then travelling to Edinburgh to spend New Year with a friend. The kids were going to their Dad’s for Christmas before he and my daughter flew to the Gold Coast for a couple of weeks. Since all my friends were going away for the Christmas/New Year period, I was very relieved to be escaping what would have been a very lonely holiday time.
I’d been doing some work for a Logistics company and was in the office having a Christmas drink. We had just finished doing our Secret Santa’s and I was saying my farewells when my phone rang. It was my ex-husband and I could tell something was terribly wrong the moment I heard his voice. My son had been to the doctor as he’d had some swelling in one of his testicles. He’d been sent immediately for tests and he had testicular cancer. He was being admitted to hospital for an operation to remove the tumour in three days’ time.
I froze. My son had cancer. In eight days’ time he would be turning twenty-one. It all seemed so … wrong. I stood helplessly in the middle of the busy office, my eyes filling with tears while staff wearing Christmas hats clutched their Secret Santa gifts and headed out, either to Christmas functions or home for the evening. A colleague who I was quite friendly with, saw my distress and took me outside, away from the questioning eyes. I told her the news and she gave me a hug and asked if I’d like her to take me home.
I decided not to tell my daughter immediately. After arriving home I somehow managed to act normally before she went off to her babysitting job. I spoke to my son on the phone and he was incredibly stoic and positive about the prognosis which he made sound very encouraging. We talked about his upcoming surgery which was set for Christmas Eve. They would remove the tumour and based on the biopsy results, which due to the Christmas break wouldn’t be known for at least four weeks, he may have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment. I was relieved to find that his characteristically dry sense of humour had not deserted him, and he was adamant that I should carry on with my trip to the UK.
I really didn’t know what to do about that. I talked about it to various people – some thought it would be better to go rather than sit around on my own nervously waiting for the results of the biopsy whilst others thought I was bonkers even considering it. I tried to sleep on it but by 4:30am I concluded that there was no way I was going to be able to sleep on that or anything else. I got up and spent the early hours surfing the internet to find out all I could about what we might be facing. I learned about Lance Armstrong and his battle with the disease and found myself feeling remarkably positive. I went to see my daughter immediately after reading this as I wanted to be able to articulate this distressing news as optimistically as I possibly could. She was shocked of course and we both cried together, but afterwards she too was upbeat and confident that things would be OK.
I tentatively thought that I would probably still go to England. I convinced myself that I’d already had a heap to cope with without this piled on top of it. I felt so alone … so drained and I hoped that I might be able to recharge before the next round, which would be receiving the results of the biopsy, followed closely by finding somewhere to rent and moving house.
We went into town and bought a Christmas tree and some decorations and later that day her brother arrived, and we decorated the tree and the house, opened our presents and had a delicious festive dinner. It was almost as though it wasn’t happening. Almost, but not quite. I looked at that kid, still smiling, still talking about the future and his University studies and being so damned amazing and confident that I couldn’t help thinking, but what if? What if this incredible human being – my son, dies without ever having had a chance to live?
I made a decision. I was going to cancel my trip to the UK. I announced to the kids that the three of us would treat ourselves and go to England together in June or July the following year. It was going to cost me a fortune and probably not the smartest financial decision I’ve ever made, but I figured that if Ben wasn’t able to beat this, he would never have had the chance to see anything of the world. I’d sold the house and we needed something we could all look forward to that would help pull us through our current nightmare. I would so happily have swapped places and had the surgery for him, but of course if doesn’t work like that.
The tumour they removed on Christmas Eve 2007 was the size of a grapefruit. They were hoping to give him a prosthetic testicle at the same time but “the ball guy was away on holiday” as my son laughingly put it. He was in a lot of pain, but he was still smiling. Waiting for the biopsy results was torture but on 23 January we were all ecstatic to learn that he was in the clear. Although there was no expectation that he would need to have chemotherapy, he would be monitored monthly and even if chemo was necessary, there was a 98% chance that he would come out of it completely clear of the cancer.
Meanwhile, I found a lovely house to rent in Purau and attacked the onerous task of packing up with enthusiasm. As most parents of teenagers know only too well, there were a lot of boxes piled up in the garage – school books, much loved toys, his favourite picture books and childhood crayon drawings. I was just so grateful that he had pulled through. How tragic it must be for a parent to have to go through the belongings of a child who wasn’t going to make it, or worse, a child that has died? Such a heart-breaking departure from the natural order of life.
Four weeks after our move I was once again on a nerve-wracking roller coaster ride. I received a phone call and the news wasn’t good. He’d been having regular blood tests and his count, which had dropped markedly after his operation, was steadily rising. He had a cat scan and they found lymph nodes that needed to be eradicated which meant he would have to undergo a nine-week course of chemotherapy.
How I dreaded his chemo days. I loathed going to the hospital and seeing my child’s body being pumped full of a concoction of chemicals that I knew had appalling side effects that could stay with him for the rest of his life. I would be overcome by an overwhelming urge to rip out his drip and take him back to Diamond Harbour, anywhere – as long as it was out of that hospital. Of course, that would be ridiculous and wouldn’t help him nearly as much as the chemo hopefully would.
At first he coped well with the chemo and had no nausea or hair loss, just a bit of tiredness. They kept him in hospital for a couple of nights after each treatment and he would have to be given a separate room as the ward would be inundated with visitors, mostly high-spirited Uni friends. As the treatments progressed and the dosages increased, he lost his hair completely and it became obvious from his demeanour and gaunt appearance that it was starting to knock him around. The party atmosphere that had previously pervaded his room was no longer evident, or if it was, only in very short bursts. Despite this, he was keeping up with his University work and would take his books into hospital so that he could complete his assignments, although he dropped Psychology in order to concentrate more fully on his law degree.
After his final chemotherapy I booked our airline tickets to England. We were all due to fly out on 22 June 2008. My daughter and I would be staying for a month, but I booked my son’s return ticket ten days earlier as he didn’t want to miss too many University lectures. Two weeks before we were due to leave, our preparations were rudely interrupted by yet another piece of bad news. He had received the results of a cat scan and they had found a lump that would need to be surgically removed. His oncologist was meeting with the surgeons and we would know more in a week or so about the operation and whether he would still be able to travel to England. I cried as though my heart would break. When was my poor child’s nightmare going to end?
I had got to the stage where I dreaded answering the phone. However, when his call came early the following week, the news was encouraging. He had met with his oncologist and his blood count and tumour markers were showing signs that it was unlikely to be cancerous. He had been given the go-ahead to travel to the UK, in fact his oncologist thought it would a shot in the arm for him after all the medical drama of the past six months. The operation would be done on the 22 July – the day that we arrived back from England and also my 48th birthday.
The three of us had a holiday that for the rest of my life I will neither forget nor regret. We literally shopped until we dropped, and we laughed like drains. We toured around the West Country where my mother was born and raised and had a fantastic time exploring London. My sister and her partner who was a lawyer, showed my son the Old Bailey and the Royal Courts of Law. We visited Westminster, the Tower of London and Madam Tussauds. We went round Windsor Castle and I was able to show them the house in Old Windsor where I was born and the place where I started school. Then we headed to the Cotswolds where we spent five days soaking up village life in a picturesque thatched cottage set amongst the rolling hills and grassland.
All too soon however it was time for my son to catch his flight back to reality. The rest of us spent a fantastic week in France, exploring Paris before heading west to visit Mont St Michel and the sites of the WWII Normandy landings. My daughter, who had been coming top of her school in French, was in her element.
We arrived back in Christchurch on the 22nd of July to the best birthday present I have ever received. The operation had gone well. He was in a lot a pain and would be boasting an impressive scar for the rest of his life, but his outlook was good although he would need to be monitored regularly. A week later I picked him up from the hospital and he came back home to Diamond Harbour to recuperate. I was over the moon.