Seventy Years of Cancer Observed.
G B Hobson
People did not die of cancer when I was young. Cancer was too naked, too embarrassing, too fearful. There was no cure. Cancer meant a death sentence. Cancer had to be dressed up and made acceptable. Cancer was hidden by a cloak of decency — fear saw to that. A growth sounded better. After all, a growth could be benign and treatable. I have had a small one cut out and many people ignore them unless they cause a problem or disfigurement. But the symptoms of some cancers cannot be easily hidden or dismissed. Yellowing skin of jaundice, might well seem like a disease rather than a symptom, and provide a ghastly charade to what no one wanted to admit — the patient is dying of cancer. I recall being asked by the husband of a dear friend if I had known anyone with a yellow skin like his. “Oh yes,” I said cheerfully, “my dad once had Yellow Jaundice just like you.” I did not tell him that my dad was dying of cancer at the time. My friend had told me that her husband would be suicidal if he knew he had cancer. A deathly silence regarding the truth had to be kept.
Of course, when I was a young child, life expectancy was far shorter than it is today. Antibiotics and life-saving operations were just on the brink of medicine. So it is likely many people did not live long enough to develop a cancer they might have died from. Apart from wars reducing the population, people had nasty infectious diseases. Pneumonia and bronchitis were often killers. When I had just turned seven, I spent six weeks in an isolation ward (a lonely and depressing experience) and another six weeks at home from school because I had Scarlet Fever. Close relatives spent months in sanatoriums because of TB. Over the years, the advance of medicine has not only made such diseases curable but also lengthened life expectancy. Immunisation and legislation have gradually made some serious diseases almost a thing of the past. So the cancers and heart problems now take centre stage. Arguably, cancer is the most feared. Cancer might now be called by name, but it is still a name to put fear into the stoutest of hearts.
My mum visited a neighbour when she became very ill. That might have been the first time I heard the word — cancer. From what I heard my mother say, it was something to be dreaded. During my early years, people died of other things: a classmate with a ruptured appendix, an elderly lady who lived with us from heart failure — the first was regarded as misfortune, the latter, natural causes. And with people dying horribly during the war, I guess death was never far away.
The first time I became intimately in touch with cancer was when a friend’s brother, whom I very much liked, became ill with leukaemia. Even then, I recall a slight feeling of relief because, in my ignorance, I thought that, at least, he did not have cancer! I heard a great deal about Geoffrey’s illness. How, while in hospital — I think he went there for blood transfusions and possibly getting his medication right — pain in his head drove him to banging it against the wall of his ward. His dad was convinced that his work had something to do with his illness but that was a non-starter. Even so, the finger had to be pointed at something or someone to help ease the anger that often comes with helplessness.
It didn’t seem long before Geoffrey was confined to bed. I made him cakes, which he apparently enjoyed. One day I was asked to take the cake upstairs to his flat. His home, which he shared with his pregnant wife, was the renovated attic at my friend’s house where we used to play when we were younger. It was a place of happy memories, but such pleasures were far from my mind as I nervously mounted those familiar stairs.
I was shown into the living room where Geoffrey had a single bed. I sat on a chair by his side while he cheerfully talked to me about the effects of his drugs, seeing shapes moving in front of his eyes. He looked incredibly pale and sickly. My heart went out to him. Did he know what was wrong with him? I don’t think he did. Did he know he was dying? My impression was that everyone in the house was hoping for a cure — to believe otherwise was unthinkable — and that Geoffrey himself thought that he was getting better. But for me there was a tangible awe of being in the presence of a dying man. It was heartbreaking.
While I was there, Geoffrey decided to have a cigarette. He put one in his mouth and looked towards me. “Will you light it for me please?” he asked, passing me the matches.
I don’t know why but I felt nervous of being that close. Did I think I might catch his illness? I was not conscious of such a thought, but most of us try to hide unworthy feelings. I tried hard to stop my hand from trembling while I held the match, but was not completely successful. Thankfully, he did not seem to notice my discomfort and went on chatting. I thought I was going to faint and tried to pull myself together. The room was closing in on me. The heat became unbearable and I found it difficult to breath. I had to get out… get out… get out….
Breaking into Geoffrey’s chatter, I made an excuse to go, trying hard to smile and not shake or stumble over my words. Once outside the bedroom, I slumped down on the attic stairs with my head between my knees. I did not want to go downstairs until I became my normal self. My friend, who left the room with me, fetched me a glass of cold water. My ashen face and unusual exit ensured that Geoffrey’s family got the message that I had been deeply upset by my encounter with a dying man. Such incidents are bad for morale. I could only hope that Geoffrey had been too high on his painkilling drugs to comprehend the depth of distress that had overcome his visitor. This experience made me fearful of visiting the dying, that is, until I received ‘the call’ to pastoral ministry — visitation of the sick and dying, and the conducting of funerals became a treasured and much appreciated ministry.
My dad died of cancer forty-five years ago. But he had suffered major diseases before then. His legs had been paralysed for some years and the creeping disease, whatever it was called at the time, was expected to spread throughout his body. He also had heart and lung problems. Then he began suffering an awful pain in his stomach which indigestion remedies refused to cure. He would thump his stomach in an effort to give a good burp in the hope of relief. But the discomfort grew worse and he would groan loudly with the pain. A visiting consultant had to tell my mum the sad news — my dad was dying with stomach cancer. Painkillers were prescribed by the boxful. Mum told the family that Dad was dying but no one told my dad. Of course, keeping the patient in the dark was quite normal then. There was no treatment on offer and the cancer was too far-gone to operate, even supposing he could have survived the anaesthetic. So we lived with this terrible secret, guiltily whispering in the kitchen or anywhere Dad wasn’t, until the very end.
How well I remember that day. My mum, a far-from-well woman, had become utterly worn out by her caring role, something which had gone on for years even before cancer had struck. Dad, a dried-out yellow-skinned shadow of himself, was now permanently in bed dosed heavily with pain-killing tablets, not that they gave him complete relief. My husband looked after our boys for the weekend while I gave some time to mum and dad. When I arrived at their ground floor flat that Saturday morning, I found out that the District Nurse had been and given dad a suppository containing a heavy dose of pain relief. He was not expected to live beyond Monday.
That evening, I kept an eye on Dad so Mum could get some rest on the living room sofa. Even so, I felt it wrong that I should gaze on my Dad’s nakedness when he needed the urine bottle, but it could not be helped. I fought off the tears when I saw the condition of his body — this once proud, heavily built man reduced to a bag of bones held together by dry jaundiced skin worn thin and breaking out into pressure sores. Applied cream had not halted their spread, never mind produce a cure. After relieving himself of the brownish-amber thick urine, he drifted back to sleep.
A few hours later, I thought Dad was breathing oddly and fetched Mum into the bedroom. Dad opened his eyes and saw us standing there.
“What are you two standing there for?” he growled. “Do you think I’m dying or something?”
We assured him we were there to see if he needed anything.
Dad’s eyes soon closed again. Mum went back to the living room sofa. There was the rest of that night and the whole of Sunday before Dad was expected to die on the Monday.
I stood by the window’s closed curtains — large pink blooms on a white background — as the night grew deeper. A single dim lamp lit the room. The only sounds were of my father’s drugged sleep. My mind drifted to a book I had just finished reading — D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers — recalling the death of Paul Morel’s mother. The sounds made by Mrs Morel during her last hours on earth were what I was experiencing with my father. I looked at Dad, fearful of getting too close. Why? The explanation is rather horrific. A friend of mine had disclosed to me something my mother had told her some time before my dad died. Evidently, my mother had woken in the night to feel my dad’s hands around her throat. He told my mum that he thought he was dying and did not want to die alone. I have not the slightest doubt that my dad was full of remorse and surely would not have carried out such an act. But suffering, and my dad had suffered considerable pain even before cancer began eating into his stomach and liver, can send people crazy. Add fear of entering into the unknown, having had a childhood under the rod of an enthusiastic Evangelical preacher in an age of religious fervour (end of the nineteenth century), plus living a lie for a good chunk of his life (a story that would fill a book), I think I had good reason to keep my distance. And yet the genuine love I had for my father wanted to reach out to him. How could we say goodbye? How could we tell him that we loved him? How could we somehow relieve his fear of death?
I turned to prayer, asking God to let my dad know he was loved and that he could let go of this life and be received in that place Christians call heaven. I recalled my dad telling the story of how he had met with a serious accident at work. Believing him to be dead, his mates had laid him out on a board and stood around him, talking to each other and saying what they knew and thought about him. My dad said that while his mates were talking he was floating above them listening to every word, which he was able to repeat when he was ‘brought back’ again. I also recalled my dad’s father, the only grandparent I have ever met, telling my dad how he had visited heaven and met again all the friends he had known that had died. Of course, neither of them knew that Big Ears had been listening at the door!
I looked at my dad, still ashamed of being afraid of drawing too close him, and spoke softly these words: “Let go, Dad. Don’t be afraid, you won’t be alone. Granddad is waiting for you. We all love you and God loves you too. He will forgive any wrongs. Granddad will look after you. Let go, Dad. Let go.”
Tears were in my eyes; tears for Dad, and also for my mother who had suffered in so many ways and needed respite before we lost her too. Throughout their lives, both of them had worked hard and knew the meaning of pain. Yet they had come through most of it all the stronger, even if physically and mentally battered.
I heard a sudden change in my dad’s breathing. Just as in Sons and Lovers, Dad was gasping and drawing in long, hoarse breaths. Then, after a long sigh, all went quiet. I went quickly to tell my mother. She woke from her sleep, and we hurried to the bedroom. Mum picked up a mirror and held it to my dad’s open mouth. The mirror remained clear.
My sister Barbara died a few years after my dad. She had suffered with bladder problems but left it rather late before visiting her doctor. Taking my mother with us, we visited my sister just after she had received Radiotherapy treatment. She seemed her usual lively self , making us a pot of tea and chatting about her experience.
I noticed her husband sitting quietly in the background, looking bewildered. My sister certainly seemed upbeat about the whole thing, but then she had always been a relaxed optimistic person.
Some months later we heard my sister was in hospital. The cancer had spread to her bones. It was not long before Barbara was dead. The family was in a state of shock. My mother kept saying that she had no idea how ill Barbara had been, that she did not know that she was dying of cancer. She was not the only one. Dying was not a word to be mentioned. It was if mentioning certain words would bring on the reality of them. Better to live in a state of denial.
My sister Betty died some years later. She had pancreatic cancer. When I visited her in hospital, I asked her if she knew what was wrong with her.
”No” she said, “And I don’t want to know.”
So we kept up the charade of not knowing, at least when we were by her side. Her physical condition spoke for itself. When I said goodbye to her I knew it was for the last time, but did she? Likely it was a question she would not even consider.
My mother came next. She had been suffering stomach problems for some time. First they said she had a stomach ulcer. Her pain grew worse and further investigation found it to be stomach cancer. It was not long before she was in hospital having a section of her stomach removed. I was told not to worry and that she would recover from the operation. She would need small meals but we can, and do, survive well by eating less and, if necessary, more frequently. She was eighty-six then and she was almost ninety when she died. By then she had a horrid version of Dementia/Paranoia/Depression that robbed her of her lively personality and love for her family. Life for her was a living hell. Death was a liberation.
My brother Bill suffered Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for a number of years. During that time he had extensive treatment, including spleen removal, but always kept active. He was still working and doing much travelling into his seventies. Finally stomach cancer forced extensive surgery with the removal of his stomach and a new one formed out of a section of intestine. He caught an invasive bug, which brought about more surgery from which he did not completely recover. But that was in the USA and under private medical care. Would he have fared better in the UK? That we will never know. All I can say is that, over recent years, I have been impressed by the dedicated care given to cancer sufferers as my husband and I have watched other family members, some of them much younger than we are, and close friends suffer from cancer. And we have also seen recovery from what, not so long ago, would likely have been a death sentence.
In my church pastoral ministry — visiting sick, bereaved, hospitalised and housebound parishioners, assisting with pastoral care at the local hospice, chaplaincy work in nursing homes — I have been involved with many cancer sufferers. I have been impressed by the change in attitudes over the years. Openness and positivity, along with considerate care, go a long way to healing — of the spirit, even if not always of the body.
Finally, I will tell of a child of thirteen whose life was tragically taken by cancer, and yet lived so vibrantly during her last years that she will always live on in the hearts of the many who knew her. Her funeral, that I had the honour to conduct, was a celebration of a child’s well-lived and happy life.
Cilla (not her actual name) was blessed with spontaneous joy and wit, qualities which made other children want to be her friend. “She was a good laugh” and “I’m going to miss her” were not only the remarks made by her young friends but also by many elderly people who appreciated her candid, friendly, kindly, and jovial manner.
Indeed, Cilla was a joy to all who knew her for she had the capacity to give of herself freely with a generosity of spirit that, even when she was so ill herself, her cheerful smile lightened the load of other sufferers who met her.
During her illness, Cilla had the privilege of meeting a number of celebrities, but I would say that the privilege was theirs. As indeed it was my privilege to conduct her funeral.
Cilla had a bubbly personality, gentle ways, and was never happier than when helping others. She had a strong, brave spirit, and when well was a little shepherd to her brothers.
She spoke her mind but was never a moaner.
“I’m knackered!” “I’m starving!” These were her only complaints. Even in her sickness, her concern was for her parents and others.
She enjoyed her bike but most of all she was a football fan — Manchester United. This gave cause to much friendly banter with her friends. It was good that she was able to lead as normal a life as possible.
Cilla met with much suffering in her young life. Treatment for her condition can bring strong adults to tears but she took it all bravely, with her loved ones by her side to hold her hand and give words of encouragement.
Cilla will not be mentioned in history books or be honoured by a monument, but she will live on in the hearts of those who loved and cherished her during her short lifetime and that is worth more than all the world’s glittering prizes. Surely, it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.