Where’s our victory parade?

Optimism and realism during my wife’s cancer treatment

Cancer Husband
Human Parts
4 min readMay 8, 2024


Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

Something finished today. It was the final radiotherapy session, and I was feeling good. I thought it was a big moment, but my wife disagreed, giving me a mild telling off as we drove home. She could still feel the Sword of Damocles above her head, and there was to be no celebration.

It was the last of 15 radiotherapy cycles, coming after a mastectomy, and eight chemo cycles. This exhausting, active stage is complete, and now she need only take (many years of) medication. By the standard of her oncologist, she’s cancer free. But people fighting for their lives will listen out for caveats, and see if you can spot this well-hidden one. What the oncologist actually said was:

We’re working on the basis that you’re cancer free.

These words seem machine-tooled to keep my wife in a permanently anxious state.

We’d driven to the hospital in the middle of the afternoon. It was her 15th trip to the radiotherapy unit and for me it was my 12th time driving her. We talked, trying to unpack what finishing all this difficult treatment really meant. I was trying to find out if she’d ring the bell that’s on the wall near the entrance (or exit?) to the chemotherapy ward. In truth, I knew she wouldn’t ring that bell. It would mean drawing attention to herself, which she’d never willingly do, and it would be an uncomplicated declaration of victory, which is something beyond my lovely, but generally pessimistic wife. If the bell was ruled out, could we go out for a celebratory dinner? Could we post some good news on our socials? Could we agree that as far as we can know, this fucking cancer is gone?

She told me that no, she didn’t feel the cancer was gone. She just felt it had been beaten back, but was probably lying in wait. I was caught cold when she said this. Normally it’s up to me to bring the optimism in our relationship, but I had no idea how to respond. My first reply was “so are you going to live the rest of your life thinking you have cancer?” And then, quieter this time, “I think you should repeat what you just said to a therapist”.

We’ve driven to the hospital so often that I’ve taken to saving the £6 parking fee, and the ten-minute walk from the multi-story car park to the radiotherapy unit. I drop her off at the door, then drive off the hospital estate, wait for her radiotherapy to finish, then go pick her up. This conversation in the car had drained my optimism, and I parked up in a housing estate, feeling sad, playing chess on my phone.

A woman knocked on my window, asking “are you waiting for someone?” It took me a moment to realise this was an officious old lady, unhappy that am unfamiliar car was parked near her house. I got halfway through a lie, that I was waiting for someone to arrive, when I lost heart and told her “just leave me alone”. She disappeared for a moment then returned and made a show of filming my car from every angle. I glared at her.

Have you ever felt tumors? There was a time, only a few months ago, when I cupped my wife’s breast and felt the horror and the banality of two living, growing tumors. There’s no great mystery to it. Lumps feel like lumps, and we’d known for weeks that they were there. But I’d never touched them until then, because I’d never wanted to. Now, in an intimate moment, I’d touched her breast and discovered the world’s most immediate turn-off. But those tumors are long gone, along with the breast that carried them. The chemo and the radiotherapy were designed to “mop up any stray cancer cells”. So have they worked? Are all those cancer cells gone? The answer, as far as we can tell, is probably.

The treatment certainly hasn’t finished. She has a decade of hormone-blocking medications ahead of her, and a chemical menopause that’s only just begun. We don’t yet know how tough all that will be. She hasn’t yet recovered from the chemo and radiotherapy. Her hair is half an inch long, her chest is pink and burnt, her limbs ache and she’s tired most of the time.

So what we can say is this: the worst of the treatment is over. We’ll make fewer trips to the hospital. We’ll talk less about cancer, to each other and with our friends and family. These are positive developments, and damn it, I’m taking the win. Some normality is on the way: She’ll go back to work in three weeks, in a staged return, and I start a new job at around the same time. But the state of uncertainty is permanent, and we must learn to live with it.