Teenager’s book reveals hidden toll of discovering mum had breast cancerMenu
When Emma Sutherland found out her mum had breast cancer, her life was turned upside down. The 12-year-old tried to be brave but inside she was racked with anguish as she faced every child’s biggest fear – that her mum was going to die.
Emma began to self-harm and only found solace when she started to put her feelings into words. Now she’s written a book about her experiences to help other children come to terms with their parent’s cancer.
Eek! My Mum Has Breast Cancer has earned Emma much praise and has been so successful there are now plans for it to placed in every NHS hospital.
In her book, Emma recalls how her mum Rosie broke the news to her and sister Kate, nine. She wrote: “I came home from school when Mum shouted us through to the living-room that she had a Newsflash. Newflash in our house means that something exciting is about to happen, like a holiday to Florida!
“My sister and I sat on the settee in our ordinary living room in our ordinary house on an ordinary day. ‘I don’t want you to get upset or worry,’ said my mum. ‘A few weeks ago I found a lump in my right boob. So… I’m just back from the hospital today and I was told that I have breast cancer.’
“WHOOSH! My head was spinning. Is this actually happening? I thought. WHAT? I was confused. My mum doesn’t get cancer. It happens to other people.
“As my sister and I sat listening to her I felt every emotion inside me drain away. I was numb. I do remember one thing clearly. At the end my mum said that her doctor told her it was not life threatening.
“I didn’t believe her. People who get cancer usually die… or so I thought.”
“So I didn’t ask and turned to the internet instead. Wow! If you type in ‘Breast Cancer’ a zillion websites come up. Some of them are quite scary and a lot of them talk about death but not too many were for teenagers, people my age, in words I could understand.
“I was confused by the big words and ifs and buts. How can you only live with one breast? What will she look like? Will I still be able to hug my mum? Who was going to give me the answers? No one. So I just kept quiet.”
Rosie had her breast removed in 2012 and Emma felt alone and isolated.
She wrote: “School was dreadful for me during this time as it seemed everyone was living in another world from me – the world I wanted to be in – just to be a normal teenager.”
When their mum was recovering, Emma and Kate were her careers. But even as Rosie was getting better, Emma was still convinced her mum would die. Three months later doctors gave single mum Rosie, of Edinburgh, the all-clear.
Then she saw scratches on Emma’s wrist, which the girl said was caused by a bush. Rosie said: “I wanted to believe her but a voice at the back of my mind wondered if she had cut herself on purpose.”
A few days later, Rosie spotted deeper cuts on her Emma’s ankle – and she admitted she had cut herself.
Emma said: “I had gone through so much and bottled my feelings up to the extent that I felt completely numb. Scratching and cutting myself had become my secret way of feeling something. I was horrified when Mum found out. I felt I was creating a problem and upsetting her, which was the last thing I wanted to do.”
When Rosie noticed more cuts on Emma’s ankles she hid all the sharp objects in the house and decided to got help.
Rosie, now 43, said: “I’d been so wrapped up in protecting her from the worst of the cancer, and she was so determined to look like she was handling everything, that I hadn’t seen the reality.”
Emma’s school provided counselling and at Maggie’s Centre, a charity drop-in centre for anyone affected by cancer, Emma revealed her biggest fear – that, in an effort to shield her, Rosie had lied about her chance of recovery.
Emma explained how frightened she was and how there was no information about breast cancer aimed at her age group. A close friend recommended Paul Dow, a child psychologist, and Emma started seeing him.
Rosie said: “On Paul’s advice, Emma and I then started writing notes to each other in a notebook in the kitchen. He suggested we use it to write down things we wanted to ask or tell each other that might be too tough face to face. So we kept the book on a shelf and jotted in it whenever we felt we needed to.
“In the beginning I’d just ask Emma how she was feeling and she would reply as best she could. It was helpful, but heartbreaking to read sometimes, particularly in the beginning when Emma was very fragile.”
Slowly, Emma became happier and more confident and the entries became lighter.
She recalled: “At first it was really difficult to share my feelings on paper. But as I started to feel better I would enjoy writing silly stuff for Mum to read, like ‘My hair is touching my knees – will you cut it?’ – or just ‘I love you Mummy.’”
Inspired by these scribbled exchanges, Emma started writing a book about her experiences with the idea it might help other children deal with parental cancer.
Eek! My Mum Has Breast Cancer came out last August and copies are available in every library in Scotland.
The book is given free to children who have parents with cancer, and there are plans to make the book available in all NHS hospitals.
Emma found out last week she will receive a Princess Diana Award, and now plans to release a series of books covering other types of cancer.
Rosie, who recently got married to Scott, 45, said: “Now I’m cancer-free and Emma is the happy girl she was before my diagnosis. I still feel guilty that I didn’t spot her unhappiness but I’m optimistic we now have the tools to nip future problems in the bud.”
Emma, now 14, said: “The experience has definitely made us stronger and closer as a family. I can’t believe how much good has come from such a horrible situation. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter holds for me.”
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