Everyone goes through that awkward phase. That part of their life when nothing makes sense and it feels like everyone is against you, and no-one understands what you’re going through. Trust me, I know.
I was thirteen when my mother was diagnosed with stage three colorectal cancer and I was right in the middle of this dismal phase of my life. I felt as though my entire existence was seeping into an endless abyss from which there was no escape. I was lost, despairing. I felt like I could trust no-one and there was no escape from the enclosing darkness.
All of which seems so very emo to me now. But that’s okay. I’m not here to tell you that those feelings are invalid. You may feel broken and think that you’re truly alone, but trust me, it’s normal to feel that way.
Right at that make or break point in my life something happened that shook me out of my thoughts. At this point I’d completely cut myself off from everyone that I’d once laughed with and loved dearly. I was lying to and manipulating people just so I could be alone. I was hurting people to keep them away from me. I didn’t realise how much harm my distancing myself was causing until only a few months ago, if I’m honest.
And then one day I came home from school. My mother had been going for multiple tests at this point and all I knew was that she’d met with her doctor a couple of hours prior earlier. So, I took the bus from my school to the home of a family friend, where I was meant to meet my mum and older brother.
When I walked inside, my mum was quick to get me alone. We walked into the sitting room and she sat me down beside her. I’d already lost both my grandparents and a close friend of mine to cancer in the previous few years, so what she told me that day wasn’t exactly comforting. We’d been preparing for the worst since she first collapsed, but I was still in denial. I refused to believe that it was possible. I never thought it’d happen to my own mother. It couldn’t be true.
When she told me that she had cancer, I was shocked. Everything around me seemed to fade away. She was talking to me but it wasn’t going in. My hearing stopped and my vision zoned in on a single spot as that same phrase repeated in my mind over and over again: ‘stage three colorectal cancer’ on loop. The night passed and all the way home, that was all I could think about. I was lost in a daze.
I was the same at school the next day, still focused on one thing and one thing only. For so long, my mind had been fragmented in many directions and in complete confusion. But after that night nothing else seemed to matter.
Now, at this point I should probably tell you, everyone reacts differently, so this is simply how I reacted. I didn’t get overwhelmed with grief; I didn’t shed a tear. It’s not that I didn’t care – I just went numb. I was numb to everything. Instead of worrying and spending hours thinking ‘what if’, I simply focused on my actions. I wasn’t exactly happy, nor was I depressed. All that truly mattered to me was ensuring that my mum would be okay.
There were only three of us and it affected us all in such different ways. My brother was overwhelmed with stress and concern about what was going to happen. My mother was clearly terrified – she was focusing on not dying. As for me, I was in this strange tranquillity. I wasn’t scared or stressed. I was one hundred percent focused on ensuring that everyone remained calm. I’m not sure why, but I felt so distanced from the situation. It felt like it wasn’t really us going through all of this, like it was someone else and we were merely onlookers. In many ways I realise that my way of coping with that situation was unhealthy, but it worked for me.
So, I just continued with normality. Instead of the spiral into depression I was previously in the midst of, I was now consumed by this senseless middle ground. The shock to my system snapped me back into reality and set me back onto the straight and narrow. I was in a sort of purgatory, waiting for everything to be over.
Eventually, my mother had her surgery and not too far down the line her lymph nodes came back all clear and everything was suddenly great. Now, I’m no idiot, I know that so many people go through unimaginable things like losing their parents. I don’t profess to be an expert on what you’re going though. I know that we were lucky and I am so unbelievably grateful for that.
I have experienced a lot in my short time on this earth, more than I should’ve. I’ve seen a lot of hurt and misery and I never realised that it was slowly breaking me apart. I cut myself off from everything… from everyone. I was always so obsessed with being the best that I could be – with making a name for myself – that I didn’t see what I was doing to the people closest to me.
When summer came and things were looking up, I took some time to pull away and evaluate everything. What I learned from all of this was so much more significant than anything I’d been thinking about on those cold dark nights earlier in the year.
I love my life now. It’s nearly a year now since that traumatic day and I’m like a different person. I’m at a new school, with the greatest friends in the world. I spend as much time as I possibly can with my family. I’ve pursued hobbies like editing and writing. I laugh on a daily basis and love going outside. I’ve finally started to figure my life out and that unbearable dark confusion has long since dissipated. After everything that happened I finally realise what is really important and that is the most incredible feeling imaginable.
Ashley is now 14, studying hard at school and doing great. She was 13 when her mother was diagnosed with a large colorectal tumour and given six to twelve months to live. Ashley is sharing her experience to help other teenagers going through similar experiences and to help parents to understand teenage reactions to cancer.