Sunday 19 May 2019

'My two little boys were my first thought when the doctor told me the cancer was back' - mum with incurable cancer

Dublin mum-of-two Claudia Vaulont (40) explains how she's coping with a diagnosis that could mean she has to say goodbye to her beloved family

Getting the right balance: Claudia Vaulont is conscious of keeping things as normal as possible for her young kids despite her cancer diagnosis. Photo: Frank McGrath
Getting the right balance: Claudia Vaulont is conscious of keeping things as normal as possible for her young kids despite her cancer diagnosis. Photo: Frank McGrath

My two little boys were my first thought when my doctor sat me down last October and told me my breast cancer was back. He explained that this time it was stage four metastatic. 'Metastatic' basically means it's incurable and that's a very hard word to get your head around.

He quickly told me he's had patients coming in and out to him for 20 years with my diagnosis. That it can be lived with. There are medications that work very well and a strategy that can be put in place. But at the back of my mind, it's always there that my own mother died from breast cancer. I know what it's like to grow up without my mother around and what I missed out on. I don't want my kids to have to go through that. I don't want them to grow up without mammy there.

Our youngest, Ronan, turned one the week before I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I'd felt a lump in my breast while breastfeeding him but I didn't think too much about it - I put it down to a blocked milk duct. But it didn't go away and in August 2015, I was diagnosed with stage three, level three hormone receptor breast cancer. I went through four months of chemo, a mastectomy and radiation. In the summer of 2016, I was cancer-free but then last October I was re-diagnosed.

You often hear people talking about 'bucket lists', but there are practical reasons why you can't rush off and go swimming with dolphins when you get a diagnosis like mine. The bills still need to be paid, work done and school runs made! And especially when you've little kids, there's also a real need to keep things as normal as possible. But it's tricky to find the right balance. One thing I remember from being younger was I knew my Mam was sick but, as kids, we were never spoken to about what was wrong. I found out from a family friend when I was about 12 or 13 that Mum had cancer and that was very hard for me.

I want to prepare my boys, but at the same time they're so very young. Fergus goes to the CLIMB programme, a programme for young children whose parents have cancer. I was very much in two minds about sending him, because he's only five, but he loves it and it does seem to be very good.

I think what grabs him most is there are other kids who talk about mammy or daddy being in hospital or very tired and sick - those are things he sees and relates to and maybe it helps him know there are other kids like him.

Tragic: Emma Hannigan
Tragic: Emma Hannigan

Some days I feel very sad that they have to go through this, that they have a mammy who doesn't have the same energy levels as other mammies. One of the things I can't do is go swimming and I know it's something they love. The other side is the guilt. I know it's nobody's fault, but I have days where I feel extremely guilty for putting my children through this. For not being able to give them what other parents can maybe give them. For having this feeling that I have to try and cram everything in because what if I'm gone in five, six, seven years' time?

I feel I have to try and teach my kids as much as I can right now, but at the same time, I know I can't over-run them. I've not gone mad showering them with gifts at Christmas or birthdays - that's not me - but I do feel the need to make the most of my time with them. I feel like every bit of time needs to be quality time. I want to bank every hug and cuddle.

During the snow, I panicked that they'd spent a whole afternoon binging on telly because we couldn't get out anywhere. I said to my husband 'Oh my God, we should be doing jigsaws or something with them', but as he pointed out, a quiet afternoon in front of the telly isn't doing them any harm. You can't be making magical memories all the time, it's just not sustainable.

To them I'm the same mammy. I worried how they'd react when I lost my hair with chemo, but we talked about it and they barely batted an eyelid. Children are resilient. My husband, my family and my in-laws have very similar values to me and the same abilities I have.

Taking it day by day: Claudia has started a new treatment. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taking it day by day: Claudia has started a new treatment. Photo: Frank McGrath

If the worst case comes around, it will be okay. These kids will be fine - they will be loved and well looked after. I've also had amazing support from neighbours and friends and I know if I'm not around anymore one day, they will be there for my boys and my family. But there are times when you need your mam. I want to be here for them and hopefully I will.

I enjoy keeping busy. There's always something going on in our house - I've two older step-children (14 and 16 years old) - and I'm still working 26 hours a week in my educational role at a community development organisation. There I'm just another employee doing a day's work. I'm not Claudia the cancer patient.

It's at night when I sometimes can't help thinking about the prospect of not being here… not seeing the kids get their first job or if they get married one day. Of course I feel sorry for myself sometimes and what I might miss out on.

Last Christmas I had to go into hospital and I was sitting looking at photos of the kids at home on Christmas morning, crying. I'm an optimistic person - I try to approach what I'm going through with humour, but you can't live in denial either.

Emma Hannigan's death really affected me. I read the letter that was read out at her funeral and sat in my kitchen bawling my eyes out. It just brings it closer to home, that people with this disease have a higher chance of going earlier.

I've not written any letters, hopefully that will be a bit down the line for me yet. I've talked with my husband about my not being here, but it's a sore topic. For him, it's the panic of: 'What would I do? How will I manage?' Neither of us likes to spend too much time thinking about it, especially when we've no way of knowing what the future holds.

I'm not doing too badly at the moment. I started a new treatment in January and I'll get scans done in April to see if it's working. Doctors can't give me a prognosis so we just take everything as it comes.

I can't call it a 'positive', but my diagnosis does make me appreciate the stuff I can do and the time I have and the importance of spending it with the people I love. The material stuff doesn't matter as much. Although certainly things could be easier there! We've been trying to get a mortgage and just found out we can't because when you've a terminal illness, you can't get life insurance. I said to the lady 'sure I'll be around for another 20 years!' and she said 'how do you know?'.

The reality is I don't know, the doctors don't know, no one knows. But there are a lot of people in this house, big and small, who are depending on me. They need me and they'll need me for another good few years. In my head, I can't go anywhere. It's very simple. I just can't.

In conversation with Chrissie Russell

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Irish Independent

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