My son said, ‘If you only have two years, we’ll make them the best’

There is shame attached to cancer. I felt getting it could have been my fault.

There is shame attached to cancer. I felt getting it could have been my fault. I should have worked less, slept more, eaten a better diet, exercised. I didn’t feel I was going into battle, though. I usually spoke tenderly to my cancer. ‘We’re going to do this my way,’ I would say gently. ‘I’ll accommodate you, but I’d like you not to be too hard on me.’

Once you’re diagnosed, a treatment plan is put in place – there’s a clear map, chemotherapy and radiotherapy – and I embraced it. I saw the days I had chemo as ‘days off’. Friends were bewildered, but I actually enjoyed going to the hospital. The process itself isn’t enjoyable, especially if you opt to wear the cold cap, which is supposed to help prevent hair loss. It’s painful at first, but you get used to the numbness. I intended to read, but it was impossible to get my reading glasses on under the cap. Instead, I enjoyed the sociableness. Chemo wards are more cheerful than you’d think. I loved the care, not just from the medical staff, but the catering team who bring you tea and biscuits and sandwiches. It’s not a good reflection on the rest of my life, but it was the first time I had felt truly looked after. On chemo days, I would wash my hair, change my clothes and go out for supper – until I got too tired. Then I fell asleep in Ubers, at concerts and waiting at the dentist. A close friend sent me a package of creams and lotions, which I – never before one for self-care – used with joy. Others brought books they knew I’d love, a perfume that became a favourite, expensive sherry, cheeses and (a weakness) almond croissants.

The fatigue eventually stops normal life. It was hard to test recipes. On the worst days my sons chopped ingredients and I sat by the hob as I told them how to cook, what texture to look for. This way I could still judge every dish.

The cruellest thing was how the drugs affected my mouth. At first taste was muffled. I stood in the coolness of the fridge trying to choose between pickled herring, Roquefort and raspberries. Yearning for strong flavours became a kind of madness, but it didn’t last. Eventually a nest of twigs, dry and sharp, formed in my throat. I could barely swallow and my tongue couldn’t cope with chillies. Stupidly, I went to a Sri Lankan restaurant one evening: every mouthful was like a hot sharp blade. I still have a list on the freezer of the foods I could eat when my throat was at its worst, mainly the dals and soups left on the doorstep by my friend Roopa.

There were bad days. I never got used to wearing a wig. In October 2019, the day before my youngest son was due back from football camp, I went to get treats for him. A cake, Nutella, brioche. On the way to the shops it started to rain. By the time I got home my wig was a black helmet. It had no movement. When I tried to brush it into better shape it went rigid, creating stiff wings at the side. I took it off and threw it at the wall.

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