Cancer is a very common disease, but the full extent of the devastation it can bring can only be understood if you know someone who had that experience or went through it yourself.
Both of my grandmothers had the disease: one was diagnosed early, had chemotherapy and was in remission for over 10 years. Another ignored the symptoms. This is the story about the consequences of that decision.
My grandmother Irina Vladimirovna, my mother’s mother, was the most incredible woman: tall, slim, with a beautiful face and a fantastic sense of style. But I loved her eyes-green/brown, incredibly kind and always sparkling with laughter. Grandma was that rare person, whom everyone loved.
She was a history teacher at secondary school, where she was also the class mentor-in Russia that means being ‘responsible’ for children’s grades and behaviour for the final three years of school. Grandmother knew about her students’ love and home lives, but never judged anyone and was always ready to help anyone in trouble. Even after leaving school many of her former pupils came to visit her, and my grandparent’s small apartment was often full of young people (in addition to my aunt, my mother and their friends), drinking tea and discussing things. Grandfather was used to it and never minded, even if he arrived tired from work.
My grandparents were very much in love when they married and remained in love for the rest of their life together. They often held hands or smiled at each other in a very intimate way, oblivious to the people around them.
Grandfather tried to be strict with his two daughters, but it was hard when they lovingly ‘made’ eyes at him-my mother was particularly good at that. He never raised his voice and neither did my grandmother-somehow even my mum and aunt’s naughtiness was addressed with firmness and kindness. Both girls worshipped their mother and so did my father and uncle, when they ‘joined’ the family.
When I was around three, doctors found a small knot on my grandmother’s thyroid gland and ran various tests to determine if it was benign. At the same time my grandmother noticed a small pea-sized lump in one of her breasts, but chose to disregard it. After her thyroid surgery, she went to Moldavia with my aunt and cousin (who is a couple of months older than me), where she spent a lot of time in the sun-no one used sun-protection at the time and with grandmother’s thyroid problem it was dangerous to be in the sun for too long-but then, no one told her that! By the time she came back the lump in her breast was apple-sized, but she continued to ignore it. She worked at school, helped to look after my cousin and only when her breast changed its shape significantly, she went to the doctor.
The doctor’s diagnosis was brutal, requiring my grandmother to have immediate surgery. My aunt (also called Irina), who was in Moscow at the time, remembers my grandmother walking towards her apartment block from the bus stop very clearly. She says that grandmother looked like she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. My aunt has subsequently spoken to the doctor, urging her to tell my grandmother that the initial diagnosis was wrong.
Grandmother had the mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy. Doctors told my aunt and mother that grandmother had only a year or two at most, but again, the family insisted on keeping the truth from her. She had surgery in March and by September she was back at her school, tending to her pupils. Her eyes sparkled, her hair had grown back and the whole family dared to hope that things will turn around.
However, in October, my grandmother caught a really nasty cold, the side-effect of which was fluid in the lungs. Possibly because of this, cancer started metastasising, spreading to lymph nodes and lungs and later to liver and kidneys. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was stage two, but doctors would tell my mother and aunt later that it was a fast-spreading one.
Grandma lived for over two years after her initial diagnosis and as my aunt and uncle lived abroad at the time, my grandparents lived in their apartment, keeping an eye on things. Grandma was always happy and full of life, but the illness took its toll. Her energy levels plummeted, she was in constant pain and not being able to lift one of her arms (side effect of breast surgery). Soon she had to stop working and within months she required regular morphine injections, so my grandparents moved back to their apartment, as the nurses needed to come in every day.
By September of 1982 grandma was confined to bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. It was incredibly hard for everyone to see her like that. My other grandmother, Galina Alexandrovna, was helping my mum and grandfather and once, when both women were on their own, my grandmother Irina looked at my other grandmother and said: ‘I am going to go soon.’ That was the first and last time that she admitted to the knowledge of her illness.
She passed away peacefully on September 18 in the presence of my grandfather and aunt. My mum said to me that it was impossible to live with the knowledge that her mother was slowly dying, but at least they had the precious time to spend together.
I was six and a half and my mother was nursing my baby brother, who was a month short of his first birthday. We remember grandmother with my cousin, but our knowledge of her illness and death is vague (we weren’t allowed to go to the funeral or wake), both of us only remember her smile, her laughter and her delicious meatballs and sautéed potatoes.
My grandfather could hardly smile for many years, even though my mother and my aunt tried to involve him in as many family activities as they could. My aunt says he was functioning like a mechanical piano for a very long time. He never got over the death of my grandmother and still has her pictures all over his apartment. Sometimes he takes my hands into his and says that they remind him of grandmother’s.
I think every woman dreads getting cancer and as the odds for females in my family are slightly higher, we all do monthly checks. And if any one of us ever finds a lump, we will go to the doctor immediately, because time can make a difference to whether you live or die. That’s the only sad lesson my grandmother ever taught.