The saddest secret

As we discovered, some news was better left unspoken...

Published by: Laura Hinton
Published on: 27 September 2012

Just when you think it can't get any worse, life has a way of knocking you back down again...
Our son Mark, 11, was battling cancer. And now we'd just been told he only had a five to 10 per cent chance of survival.
‘I can't believe it,' I gasped.
Mark had been diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, a few months before.
He'd had one round of chemo, but a recent MRI scan showed the cancer had now spread to his pelvic bone.
‘Mark could be in that 10 per cent who survives,' my husband Jim, 47, said. ‘You're right,' I sobbed. ‘We can hope.'
Mark was such an active lad. He went to football training and was a member of the local swimming club. If anyone could beat cancer, he could.
In fact, it was when me and Jim were watching him swimming that we'd realised something was wrong. He'd climbed out of the pool in tears.
‘My leg,' he sobbed. ‘It hurts so much.' We'd taken him to A&E for tests, but the consultant called us back for a meeting.
‘Mark, you have bone cancer on your left leg,' he'd said, gently. ‘But I want you to know that it's curable...'
We were all crushed, but Mark had been so mature. Just five days later, he started the chemotherapy. We thought he'd been doing really well, but now we had to deal with this.
‘There's no need to say anything to Mark,' I said.
‘No,' Jim agreed. ‘They said it was treatable anyway.'
What was the point in scaring him? We would carry the burden ourselves.
Amazingly, Mark had taken to the rest of his chemo well, and didn't lose his hair until the third course of treatment. Of course, I fussed constantly, paranoid he'd catch an infection. ‘Wash your hands,' I barked at my girls, Alison, 17, and Lauren, 19.
We'd been thrilled when Mark started to pick up. His energy levels were higher and he kept more food down.
A check-up a couple of months later had confirmed what we'd already suspected. There was no trace of cancer in his body.
‘You're all better now,' I'd smiled, wrapping my arms around him.
‘Great news,' he'd grinned.
Soon, Mark started swimming again. He'd even gone to a footie game with Jim to watch his beloved Celtic play. Life had been getting back to normal.
‘Let's just go mad this year,' I'd told Jim. ‘Life's too short.' So we took a trip to Center Parcs. We'd gone with the kids nearly every year. ‘Race you to the swimming pool!' Mark had screeched at his sister, before whizzing off on the bike we'd hired.
‘But you've got a head start,' Alison yelled.
I'd looked at Jim as we pedalled along behind, his smile as big as mine.
A month later, we'd had a whale of a time at Disneyland Paris. Then, we'd booked a holiday to Portugal for later in the year.
But soon, it was time for Mark to have another check-up. We'd been waiting for the results when the consultant called just me and Jim into the room.
Alarm bells rang in my head. No, surely we couldn't be that unlucky...
My heart sank as the consultant told us Mark's cancer had returned - and this time, it was in his leg and lungs.
‘I'm sorry,' he'd continued. ‘There's nothing more we can do.'
‘What do you mean?!' Jim had gasped. ‘Can't we go abroad for specialist treatment?'
The consultant shook his head.
‘How long?' I'd asked, instantly regretting the words.
The doctor had paused. ‘Just a few months...' he said.
‘No, it's not fair!' I'd sobbed, collapsing on Jim. ‘How are we supposed to tell him?!'
‘We're not,' Jim said suddenly.
Instantly, I'd known he was speaking sense. Mark had kept fighting because he hadn't known his chances were so weak. What would he gain from knowing now?
Together, we made the decision not to tell him. As his parents, we'd have to carry the weight of that truth with us.
Outside, I'd choked back my tears as Mark looked up at us expectantly. ‘The cancer's back,' I whispered, sitting next to him. ‘But the doctors are going to help you again.'
There was the briefest flicker of sadness in his eyes, then a smile lit up his face.
‘I beat it once so I'll do it again,' he'd said, defiantly.
But, sadly, his strength wasn't enough to help him this time. Mark deteriorated quickly.
‘I can't eat,' he'd said a few days on. He was so weak he couldn't even lift his fork.
Of course the girls noticed. ‘Just tell us what's going on,' they'd pushed.
‘I've only wanted to protect you...' I started, taking a deep breath before explaining to them.
But amazingly, they were incredibly strong. ‘We'll carry on just the same,' Alison sobbed.
A few days later, Mark had asked if we could go back to Center Parcs. Now wheelchair-bound, he wouldn't be able to do any of the things he used to. But I glanced at Jim. He was thinking about our secret. Mark might not have another chance.
So, we'd gone away for a long weekend. It was tough. Mark couldn't ride his bike, swim, or kick a ball around with his sisters. But, just seeing the excitement on his face when he managed to go down a slide in the park made it all worthwhile.
‘Woah!' he'd laughed, landing at the bottom in a heap.
I couldn't stop grinning. For that moment, he was the happy little boy he'd always been.
Soon, his 12th birthday rolled round. It was only when I was in the kitchen putting candles on his cake that the burden of Mark's death sentence suddenly hit home. I realised he'd never blow out his candles again.
Later that day, we'd surprised Mark with a helicopter ride.
As Jim carried him aboard, I felt a lump catch in my throat, watching his little grin stretched from ear to ear.
A couple of weeks later, he'd suddenly started talking about Portugal. ‘I bet I can make a bigger sandcastle than Alison this time,' he grinned.
Tears stung my eyes. He was living in a fairytale world, thinking he'd make it to the summer... but that didn't matter because
he was happy.
All too soon, though, reality caught up with us. It was just two weeks after his birthday when Mark's breathing became laboured in the middle of the night.
Me and Jim were by his side as he slipped away, peacefully.
Despite our pain, we took some comfort that he hadn't been scared, even at the end.
Later, we buried him in his beloved Celtic shirt and scarf. We also asked that all donations went to a Ewing's sarcoma charity.
Now, five months on, not a day goes by when I don't think of my bright, bubbly boy.
Neither me or Jim regret not telling Mark he was dying. We still believe it was the kindest thing we could have done.
Pauline Hughes, 45, Kilbirnie, Ayrshire