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  • Lidia Huerta

I Might not be the driver but I'm sitting shotgun

In December 2020, I was about to start a masters in London, just about to move into a new flat with my boyfriend and was happy to start feeling a bit more stable after such a rollercoaster year of the pandemic. However, in that same month, I was informed that my mum had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember quite vividly finding out while at work, my heart broke in tiny pieces and couldn’t comprehend what this diagnosis meant - my mum, my whole world, my soulmate, was going to start a battle like no other and I needed to be by her side.

The choice of leaving London was a no brainer - I’d never been more sure of anything in my life. I packed my bags and traveled back home to Spain. I have been home with her since then, going to all the doctor’s appointments, supporting her emotionally, enjoying our time together. I decided to undertake my masters anyway, even if it meant doing it online. These past months have been a 360 degree change, they have been extremely hard on her, but I know it has also been hard on me. Seeing my beautiful, caring, loving mum change so much and feel like there’s not much I can do about it is shattering. However, I try to remain strong and resilient for her and usually only talk on facebook groups or with close friends who have gone through a similar journey. I have discovered peace of mind in writing, it makes me feel like I get to talk about it with someone (even if nobody will ever read this), I let out my emotions and can allow myself not to be strong all the time.

Going back to the diagnosis and so it all starts making sense, it’s important to go back to a time where some of the symptoms showed slightly. I remember being on a holiday summer in 2020, my mum had a bit of a stomach ache but of course, we all just thought it was food poisoning. It was slight and minor and did not affect her much throughout the week away. However, this carried on and we suggested she went to the doctors. Her pain was dismissed, suggesting it might just be lack of tolerance to certain foods at night. That was left at that. We all departed (each family member leaves in different countries), my mum stayed back home on her own. Whenever we would talk on the phone, she didn’t express any complaints except the common light ones, she managed to go to the doctors again and this time they decided to run tests on her.

Weirdly, this time feels like a blur because so much happened so quickly but I remember receiving a photo of her in November or so. She was wearing a coat I had sent over for her birthday, it was a size L because she has always been an L. She sent me a picture letting me know it’s too big on her and she will have to exchange it for another size. She had gone from an L to an S in a matter of months. Nothing made sense.

Shortly after this, doctors pointed out the tumour to us - but they did not clarify whether it was benign or malign. It was in early december when her diagnosis became very clear and we were told she had cholangiocarcinoma - she also needed to start chemo right away. Her first session was a few days after Christmas and we welcomed the new year with a very new reality.

One of the parts of this early journey I have found the toughest was to accept that her diagnosis was a rare one. Cholangiocarcinoma is her cancer. Stage IV, regional. Meaning that there’s a main tumour, an intrahepatic bile duct cancer and then, regional, because it has spread a bit to her lymph nodes and other areas. Because of the advanced state of her condition, surgery is out of the equation, all we can rely on at the moment in chemotherapy.

The reason why it’s important to go into a bit of detail about her diagnosis is because we have been told to watch out for the signs for breast cancer, we have been told to avoid smoking to prevent lung cancer and there’s a lot of research showing how men are at risk of prostate cancer (as some examples); these awareness campaigns and information are brought to us based on research and the study of various cases. These campaigns are so useful to raise awareness, to remind us to check in with our bodies. But there are so many other rare cancers out there that also need to be brought into the spotlight, because this is so at random, we never know who will get it next - and there’s no point in running away from this reality. Instead, it’s important to point out some of the symptoms to make sure that if at any point anyone were to observe some similarities, it is important to go to the doctors and not disregard such symptoms as a common condition.

Sharing stories can, in a way, allow those in charge to invest in research of this type of cancer. Stories show truth, truth shows reality, and reality is humanity - therefore, when there’s an existing issue affecting a certain population, it is a duty to invest time and money into finding ways to improve prognosis.

Ever since her diagnosis, I try to remain hopeful by spending time in nature whenever I can, by listening to my mum tell me stories of her youth whenever she feels like talking. I embrace the moments we get together because sadly, I do not know how much I’ll have with her. What is scary is that because of the silent symptoms and delays in diagnosis, many seem to have quite sad endings. This makes me feel anxious and upset, I feel a sense of hopelessness creep in and feel angry at the world for hurting my mum, a healthy, compassionate woman who’s done nothing but live and love. I wonder if there will be more solutions down the line, more hope to grasp while going through this - but for now, all I can do is stay present, stay grounded and stay healthy for my mum.

Such observations about my feelings led me to the following realisation: For the past five years I thought my life was in London, but when I heard about my mum’s health, I realised, my life is my mum - quite literally. She gave birth to me, she looked after me, she’s been my guide, my best friend - how could I not, at times like these, be here for her in full spirit?

A paradox of emotions is to see a loved one go through so much, I think sometimes I feel deeply sad about missing out on “life”. I wonder what I would be doing if I was in London, if I could do my masters in person and if I could meet my new classmates and interact with them. I wonder what opportunities I am missing out on because I'm in a small town and my mind is mostly occupied by thoughts of cancer. But then I realise, life is long ( i know it doesn’t apply to everyone) but it can be long. Meaning there will be the time in which I’ll be able to pursue those goals, those cities, those people - but the time I spend here now, the lessons and stories I can learn from my mother, the memories we can create together, those are unique, irreplaceable and unforgettable. I wish this would’ve happened to me instead of her, but then I know she’d be unhappiest if I ever said that, but I guess that shows how we are, just beings made of love.

So please, if you’re going through the same, know you’re not alone. Mixed feelings are part of this journey, and although it’s my mother’s journey, in a way, it has become mine too. I might not be the driver, but I’m sitting shotgun. So it’s important to know that if you’re also a traveler on this journey, even if you didn’t ask for it, know you’re not alone. That it’s important to befriend pain, and understand that uncertainty is natural, conflicted emotions are normal and that suffering because your loved one is suffering is so human. You deserve to be loved, to receive energy and compassion, you deserve to know that you’ve got all the right in the world to feel upset, to feel in pain, to feel confused, to feel misunderstood, to feel lost, to feel guilty, to feel angry, to feel fearful, and most importantly, you’ve got all of the right in the world to ask for support too.

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