Mum and Dad helped me survive cancer

"At the clinic someone said, 'It's good that your parents are around you. Long may it continue.' When I heard that I just knew." Lisa Lynch is remembering waiting for the results of her initial tests for breast cancer. Her husband – and her parents – were waiting with her.

A diagnosis of invasive breast cancer at the age of 28 is devastating. But is it any less painful for the parents of an adult child to have to cope with this news? "I felt guilty that it wasn't me," says Lisa's mother, Jane. "Why was Lisa picked and not me? It seemed so unfair. Just because your child has grown up and left home, it doesn't mean they are not your child. If your child is ill you do everything for them." Her father Ian adds: "As a parent you feel totally helpless."

Lisa's illness marked the beginning of a two-year journey for her family. They lived in each other's pockets for weeks on end during her treatment, their roles frequently reversing. Sometimes, Lisa treated her parents like children, nursing them through their grief over her illness. Sometimes she was reduced to being a child herself, as her mother cared for her during the worst of her chemotherapy.

Now healthy and well – if missing a right breast, she jokes – Lisa Lynch, now 30, is already something of a legend online. Her clever, heartfelt blog – Alright Tit – which she started two days after her cancer diagnosis, had 140,000 hits within a year and soon attracted the attention of Stephen Fry, who called her "funny and brilliant", adding: "I don't think she'd mind me calling her the web's No 1 cancer bitch." Now the blog is a book, The C-Word, which reveals in detail "the frustrating, life-altering, sheer bloody pain-in-the-arse inconvenience of getting breast cancer at 28."

It is as much the family's story as it is Lisa's. I meet them all at her parents' house in Derby, although Lisa, an editor at a contract publishing house, lives in south London with her husband "P", as he's known on the blog who is 35, and works in sales. Her mother, Jane McFarlane, 54, is a data manager in the NHS. Her father Ian is also 54 and a sales director. Over 18 months as she had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, both couples drove back and forth between London and Derby, looking after each other.

Lisa's parents say it was strange for them to accept that this was a situation in which they could do nothing for their daughter. "We had to accept that Lisa could make her own decisions about her treatment," Jane says. "I think I would have found that more difficult if she had been younger and not married."

Jane and Ian were involved from the start. In May 2008, Lisa found a lump in her breast. Her GP said it was probably a cyst and to come back in a few weeks. Shortly afterwards, she showed it to Jane: "I remember it being very noticeable." On a second visit to the GP, the message was more serious. "She said, 'I'm sure it's nothing, given your age and that there is no family history, but we'll do a biopsy just in case,'" says Lisa. "At that moment I thought, oh, maybe it isn't OK."

Within days she learned that the cancer was aggressive and she would need a mastectomy immediately. Lisa's husband phoned her family – who were waiting for the news. Ian was at home alone: "P called to say it was breast cancer. I remember putting the phone down, staring out of the window and breaking down." He had to pick up his wife from the station. "I knew by the look on his face. I just screamed and went into shock," recalls Jane.

Lisa's parents immediately drove down to London. What they call "hopeless" days followed where they distracted themselves with "all kinds of ridiculous shopping missions". Lisa laughs: "Mum's priority became to get me the right pyjamas for hospital."

Jane: "I don't remember eating at all during that time."

Lisa: "I don't either."

Ian: "Time moved so slowly."

There were times in the following months when suddenly Lisa did not want her parents around. One of the most difficult things as an adult child is working out how much you need your parents, she says: "It was the most desperate time, and I felt suffocated. I remember them saying, 'If you need us to bugger off, we'll bugger off.' And I said, 'Yes, bugger off.' So they drove back to Derby. Then the next morning we drove straight up there because we realised that we couldn't be on our own," she says, laughing.

For parents, the difficulty is finding a compromise between wanting to do everything for your child and recognising that they are an adult – and in a relationship of their own. (Lisa had been married for two years.) "We were thinking, how will they cope?" Both Jane and Ian took time off work to look after Lisa and to give her husband a break. It was invaluable, says Lisa: "We were not thinking about doing the washing and feeding ourselves. Stupid things like keeping the flat going meant so much. Practical things. Like the first night I can home from chemo and was being sick. Suddenly my mum produced this bowl from under the bed. I thought, where did that come from?"

There was a decisive moment, early on, where Lisa took charge and showed her parents the boundaries. Jane remembers: "On the day we found out it was invasive, I flipped out. I was shouting, 'Why wasn't this found sooner?'"

Lisa couldn't cope with her parents' anger: "My dad was inconsolable, his head in his hands. I said: 'Right. I can't deal with your problems too.'"

Ian sees this as the moment when he realised that his daughter had grown up. The hierarchy had changed. Before it had been, 'We're your mum and dad and you do as we say.' Now it was as if she had made herself the matriarch of the family and we became little kids. We wanted to be parents and sort things out. But we couldn't."

Not many adult children would have permitted the closeness that Lisa allowed her parents. And not all parents would have wanted to help as much as Ian and Jane. They have always been close, they say. (Lisa also has a brother, Jamie, 27, who lives around the corner from his parents. He was due to get married not long after Lisa's diagnosis and the goal of attending his wedding became a key focus for her recovery.)

The blog was a factor in her changing relationship with her parents, Lisa says. "They always knew everything about me, but now they really know everything." Jane adds: "The blog really helped as we could read it and so could our friends – so we knew what was going on with Lisa and we were not fielding phone calls all the time."

Lisa has made a full recovery, and is on a five-year course of Tamoxifen. She has accepted that it would be unwise to conceive. As it is, two pregnancies that resulted in miscarriage in her mid 20s could have exacerbated the cancer – she will never know.

Now that Lisa is feeling better, her parents can see how the experience has changed them. "It takes a lot for me to get excited about anything these days," says Ian. Jane finds that she is "less tolerant of trivia" and has stopped "worrying about silly things".

In some ways, recovery has been an anti-climax: the parents no longer have an excuse for being so close to their adult daughter. Jane adds that she is fiercely proud of her daughter having overcome the diagnosis – and at the fact that she coped with it all so well. "You haven't moaned at all."

"Oh, but I have, Mum," Lisa shrieks.

"You'd be amazed," her mother says quietly, "Not everyone would have got through this like you have."

The C-Word by Lisa Lynch is published by Arrow, £7.99. To order a copy for £6.99 (including UK mainland p&p), go to or call 0330 333 6846

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