Just in case you didn’t know, cancer is not a single disease. It’s a class of diseases whereby body cells multiply in an out of control manner until they form thick tumours. These tumours start to interfere with the proper operation of the body, often messing about with the blood supply.
It’s not an easy disease to have and a right bastard to cure. Currently modern medicine does this by means which usually cause collateral damage elsewhere. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are not things that any of us would want to ever encounter or endure.
Luckily, to date, I haven’t had to, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have some understanding of the trials of cancer as my Mum has had just about all of them. It all started with Ovarian cancer over twenty years ago which was found in her by fluke and fortunately attacked and seen off before it became terminal. Many other women have not been so luckily. Sadly, cancer has a habit of returning and in Mum’s case it did, right into her bowels. So we had those tinkered about with and Mum was left with a stoma as a result. Not the nicest thing to have to cart around but better than a tumour.
Another sigh of relief was breathed but the fat lady had not sung. More tumours popped up into pelvic cavities and nodules appeared in Mum’s lungs. One of these tumours managed to interfere with Mum’s nervous system causing her leg function to degrade and eventually give up. This happened one terrible evening as she was putting out the bins. A nasty fall broke her arm and left her immobile upon the ground, saved by a passing stranger who heard her plaintive cries.
And so Mum ended up in her chair, with a set of legs that won’t work and a prognosis veering towards the darker side. This has all happened over a period of years and her friends and family have become almost blasé when confronted by her positive attitude towards the disease.
But it’s hard to keep up the facade of happiness when something inside you is trying to kill you and you’re stuck in a chair unable to get out. One evening Mum let her cover slip whilst we were talking about something inconsequential. I could see that her life had retreated to a single room and set of circumstances with no sign of relief or escape. I searched for something uplifting to say and all I could come up with was the fact that many in this country would welcome the excuse to sit on their arse in front of the telly. I didn’t say it out loud. Mum was clearly suffering more than physical pain and as I rode home I wondered what I could do to help.
That ride was in the dark, it was crisp and I was alone on country lanes. I passed shadow cows in fields, caught glimpses of foxes and climbed a hill with a half moon peeking over the crest. At the highest point I looked down on the lights of my home town and a chain of thought began to link itself within. This was my escape from the pain of everyday could I give a little to Mum? She’d probably not be up for getting strapped to the bike but how about a few snippets of life that are not her own as a kind of diversionary therapy.
Problem is that she’s heard most of mine, but maybe I could garner a few bits from others. But who? Who do I know who are kind enough to help out and always willing to share experience? Who do I know who do wild things that deliver laughs, gasps and looks of incomprehension?
Bikepackers. And more specifically the bike packers who hang out at the Bearbones bikepacking forum. My life changed when I discovered this forum and I transformed from a cleanly shaven road whippet to a hedge-shitting hairy legged long distance staring semi-hobo off road rider. I’ve never met a more welcoming or friendly bunch and I’m sure a few of them would be willing to help out.
So I stuck a tentative post upon the forum:-
“I rode over to see my parents tonight as I do all the time. My Mum is now permanently disabled caused by cancer that found its way into her spine. The knock on effect was nerve damage that has now rendered her legs useless and she’s chair bound and relies on carers. To compound things her latest scan shows lung tumours that are growing, not rapidly but they are not going away.
Now my Mum is a very hardy and generally positive woman who has fought cancer for nigh on twenty years but tonight understandably she was not as chirpy as usual. So I am on a mission to cheer her up and if you have ten minutes you can help. It would be great if she could get some random postcards or letters from complete strangers saying “Hi”.
I have no idea what would come after “Hi” but I don’t think an essay in sympathy is her kind of thing. Maybe something along the lines of .. “Dave told us you could do with cheering up so here’s a picture of me with a ferret”.
Even if only one person did it, I think it would give her a few minutes break from my slightly insane Dad who she has to share a room with all day long. Think me in 20 years time.
Anyway I’d thought I’d ask. If anyone’s up for it. Drop me a PM and I’ll give you her address.”
I’d hoped one, maybe two would respond and the odd letter would drop through Mum’s door, maybe with a picture of a ferret. The response was overwhelming.
It started with some beautiful flowers sent anonymously. Then a card arrived with a picture of myself semi-naked on the front, a memory of a trip to France the year before. A letter was next from Pete who described his last ride in Wales and another sent a box of chocolate sprouts.
Mum loved every one. I received texts daily telling me of the offerings that had arrived. A hand designed Christmas card, a postcard from a 13 year old who bikepacks with his Mum, a calendar of firemen (mostly undressed), fridge magnets and a letter from Becky with picture of her dog.
Mum’s heart nearly exploded when Nigel sat down with his class of schoolchildren and each sent her an individual Christmas card with a fact relevant to the festivities. One child poignantly wrote inside “Don’t worry Jenny, you are not alone”.
Every single gesture took Mum away from this horrible disease for a few minutes whilst offering a brief sense of solidarity. Today’s text told me of a game of pocket Scrabble from Karl and Cat. They’d decide to send her every letter and try to improve her son’s vocabulary at the same time.
I saw Mum the night before last and saw her face as she told me of each communication. There was no facade this time, the bikepackers had pushed aside the suffering and delivered some genuine warmth into Mum’s life. And not one of them had ever met her.
I’m proud of my Mum for the fight she’s had with cancer over more than twenty years and proud of the dignity she maintains even when it confines her to a chair and daytime TV. I’m equally proud of my bikepacking compatriots. They cannot know how much a tonic they’ve been and Mum wants to thank each and everyone of them for the pleasure she’s had in receiving their letters and gifts. This is in some part to Stu who operates and mentors the forum and its community. Their kindness is a reflection upon him.
And so you’ve read this far, maybe you could help? It would be great for the letters to continue, a stamp and a few words are all it needs. The cheerier the better but be advised that she’s seen enough dodgy photos of me. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, (@citizenfishy on twitter), drop me a line and I’ll give you Mum’s address. This is your opportunity to be “medicine” … something that nobody has offered you before.