Cheryl Smith, 18, had suspicions about hermum’s cancer. Butwhenthe lies began to unravel, even shewasshocked bywhathermumhad done
‘It was easier to say to the kids their mum isn’t dying – she’s just a liar’.
Cancer is just one of those things you think will never happen to someone you love. Until it does. For my dad, Chris, 44, it seemed to be happening to everyone he held dear. First his grandmother died of lung cancer. In her final days, Dad used to sit by her bed all night, holding her hand while she was hooked up to the breathing machine.
A month after Dad’s grandmother died, his mum, Sue, then 59, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She suffered for an agonising year before succumbing to the disease.
Dad was overwhelmed with grief at having lost two people he loved so much. I think that’s why it hit him extra hard when in 2010 Mum told us she too had cancer.
I was 14 and came home from school to find Mum waiting for me, solemnly. Dad was in the sitting room, his eyes glazed with tears. “I can’t go through this again,’’ hewept. I looked at Mumfor an explanation of what was going on and she said: “I’ve just found out I’ve got cancer.’’
My mum, Claire, now 37 (then 34) explained that she’d been having regular check ups and doctors had discovered cancer of the blood.
“I’ll need chemotherapy,’’ she said. Dad put his arms out to her. “I’ll go with you to every appointment,’’ he said. But Mum assured him he needed to put the kids first. “You should be with the kids,” she said. I was the eldest, then there was my three younger siblings, then just 11, five and one.
Dad was a long-distance lorry driver but if Mum was going to be going through such a difficult time, we were all going to have to pitch in.
Mum amazed us all with her inner strength, assuring us she’d beat it.
My parents had been together since they were teenagers but had never got round to marrying. They settled in Boston, Lincolnshire, and were happy. They never fell out and had one of those relationships that just worked. Every weekend, we’d all pile into the sitting room and watch Saturday night TV while having a takeaway.
Now, family life was centred around making sure Mum got to Lincoln Hospital twice a week for her treatment. Dad would drop her off but because he had the kids in the car, she’d never let him go in with her.
Instead, he’d take the kids to town and pick her up later. She always had a plaster on her arm when they got home. She’d tell me it itched where they put the drip in.
I used to hug her when she would bring her pillow downstairs with her hair all over it telling me that it was falling out in clumps. Then one day, she decided to use Dad’s clippers to shave her head and Dad bought her a wig and some bandanas.
Some days she was full of energy, others she’d just lie on the sofa
‘The look of relief on Dad’s face was so sweet. I was so happy that mum had fought hard and won’
watching TV. Dad did everything – the housework, cooked all the food, but we all helped. She used to take a lot of oral medication. But surprisingly she never lost or gained weight – something I was told those with cancer experienced.
Other than the fact that she had shaved her head, she looked absolutely the same.
There were also some other things that surprised me. If I refused to clean the house, she’d say: “But I’ve got cancer.” It seemed like a strange way of making me do things for her but it worked.
Then one day, Mum sat us all down with good news.
“I’m in remission!” she exclaimed. The look of relief on Dad’s face was so sweet, I’ll never forget it. I was so happy that Mum had fought cancer and won.
But a few months later, in August 2012, the tides turned again. Mum told us the cancer was back. “It’s terminal,’’ she said. She was crying and asked me: “How do you feel about it?’’
I thought it was a strange question. I didn’t give her an answer because I didn’t know what to say, I was in shock. To talk about it was to make it real. I didn’t want to be told my mum had terminal cancer, and then to be asked how I felt.
She went around each one of us in the family, saying it was terminal and asking how we felt.
Kristie was too young, Karl was crying. What he understood was simple – if you had cancer, you died. Katie was quiet, but cried a lot. Dad was so upset, his eyes were constantly red with tears. I would ask her what the chemo was like. At first she had no answers and I guessed she just didn’t want to talk about it. But then she started reeling off information about it, saying the chemo would stop her being able to walk.
Soon I realised that it was eerily similar to the plot of a soap opera we were watching. She made a memory board with my little brother. They chose photographs together and it helped him understand what was happening.
Fearing that he was losing the love of his life, Dad arranged a wedding. They’d been together 19 years, but it was time to make it official, he said. Mum managed to grow her hair back into a crop for the wedding day. It was weird because she’d been using Dad’s clippers to keep it bald, but it kept growing back stubbly. Whereas when Grandma had cancer she never had to keep shaving her head.
All cancers were different though so I didn’t question it.
All four of us kids were there for the wedding and Mum wore a beautiful white dress.
As the registrar announced Mum and Dad were man and wife, I heard Mum whisper in his ear: ‘Gotcha.’ Bless – they had waited a long time.
She looked so well, but Mum told us that was because of a new trial drug she was on. It was apparently slowing the cancer down. She’d go into the kitchen to the cupboard where we kept all the medication. She’d bite open the packets and I’d think, surely if it’s prescribed it would have her name on. I’d look through the tablets and it was just old medication from years before when she had gall bladder problems. That and paracetemol.
“That just looks like you’re taking paracetemol,’’ I told her one day.
“Oh no, it’s much stronger than that,’’ she replied.
I kept asking Mum if she wanted me to come to hospital with her when she went for treatment but she’d always brush me off.
“Well if you want to help, you can just look after Kristie.’’ “No, I’ll come in with you.’’ “I don’t want you to see me like
‘She’d been exchanging passionate messages with a guy formonths – it would break Dad’s heart’ ‘Then it hit me – Mum’s description mirrored a soap opera storyline – it was exactly the same’
that. Just look after your sister,’’ she said. Then one evening she started telling me about chemotherapy and describing the bed and the nurse drawing the curtain around her.
Then it hit me. Mum’s description mirrored a soap opera storyline from just a few weeks before. It was exactly the same, down to the tiny details.
“That is exactly like that TV show,’’ I said.
“Well, yeah, it is a bit like that,’’ Mum said. That was all she had to say on the matter.
Surely Mum wasn’t lying to us? At first the thought seemed absurd. But in bed that night, I started thinking about how her hair kept growing back and how she was able to grow a crop for the wedding. How she never let anyone go to hospital with her. It just didn’t add up. I kept my thoughts to myself but started to watch Mum more closely. I had a good friend at school and I started mentioning little things to him. He couldn’t believe I could suggest something so horrific. In May 2012 I started a relationship with Connor, 18, and I told him everything. He agreed it didn’t add up. But I had no proof, just a feeling. So I was helpless. I felt nervous telling Connor my hunch because I thought he’d think I was a terrible person for thinking my mum was faking the cancer.
One time a friend’s mum who also had cancer came to help at the house. She told me the things Mum was saying about stem cells weren’t right.
A few weeks later I was on the family computer when a message from a man popped up on the screen. I realised Mum hadn’t logged out of her Facebook account. As I scrolled through the messages, I saw Mum had been exchanging passionate messages with a guy for months.
Even though I knew it would break Dad’s heart, I had to tell him as soon as he got home.
I expected him to be angry with Mum, but instead he was angry with me.
“Your mum has cancer, Cheryl,’’ he snapped. It was her trump card – she could get away with anything because she had cancer. But did she?
I called the hospital and asked for her, but they had no record of a patient with her name. Nor did they know the name of the nurse Mum always talked about. I called every other hospital in the area too – no knowledge of Mum.I tried to tell Dad that I thought Mum was lying, but he refused to listen and it was destroying our relationship. I had no choice but to move out. I couldn’t live in the same house as her anymore.
Before that, mum and I had a huge fight. We started an argument about my suspicions that she was cheating. Then she started saying she felt ill and had I forgotten she had an appointment on the Tuesday. I looked at her with a new found pity.
“I really don’t care,’’ I said. I had had enough.
I stayed with my boyfriend about 5km away from home and hoped that Dad and the kids would be OK. But just a few weeks later, Dad called in tears.
“I’m sorry Cheryl,’’ he said. “You were right. She lied.’’ Dad explained that Mum had been staying with a friend closer to the hospital as it was easier. That friend’s father had called Dad after becoming suspicious that Mum’s ‘hospital appointments’ were always late at night. He’d followed her and seen that she didn’t go to hospital at all, she went into town.
Dad confronted her in October 2012 and at last, after three years of lies, she admitted it.
“We need to talk about this cancer of yours,” he said. “What about it?’’ she said. “Just stop lying to me,’’ Dad said. “I know everything.’’ She realised Dad had been told everything and she’d been caught out. There was nothing else she could do.
“I don’t have cancer. I’ve never had cancer. I haven’t been going to appointments, I’ve been staying at a friend’s house,’’ she said.
Mum moved out and I moved back in to help Dad with my siblings as he had to quit his job to care for them. The divorce is not yet through but she lost custody of the children in court in August this year.
The younger ones cling to us, as they don’t understand why Mum did what she did, so it’s important we rebuild our family as best we can.
My little brother vividly remembers the day Mum broke it to him. He was in floods of tears, as any child would be if they thought their mum was about to die. He’ll never forget those tears.
Dad is doing well. He does talk about her a lot but is doing a great role as dad to the little ones.
I just feel so sorry for Dad. He’d seen so many people he loved die from cancer. I understood why he refused to acknowledge that Mum could make up something so awful because it just didn’t seem like something anyone could do to the family they’re supposed to love.
But she did. And for that I will never forgive her.
somethin not right with g was her mum’s
Cheryl (middle) with her younger siblings
Claire (left) used to shave her head to fake cancer