'I'd physically shake with fear, I was petrified': Lancashire mum-of-two Jane on her cancer diagnosis at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic
Jane Huddleston started chemotherapy on Friday the 13th.
It was March 2020, the pandemic was just beginning to take hold to deadly effect in the UK, and Jane was convinced there had been some kind of error. "There's a warrior status associated with people with cancer," she says. "I was like 'there must be a mistake, I'm not a warrior. I'm just Jane.'"
It'd been over a year since Jane first started to feel unwell. She'd gone to her GP with a concerning goitre on her neck, worried it may be an issue with her thyroid but assured it was stress-related. "I just didn't feel myself," says Jane, who lives in Lancaster with her husband John and their two children. "Everything was such an effort.
"By September, I thought that, if it was stress, I needed to change something," she adds. She quit her job as partnership development manager at Lancaster University and took up temp work in the run-up to Christmas. But things didn't improve. If anything, they got worse. "I still wasn't right," Jane says.
A consultation with a different GP led to blood tests, an ultrasound, and neck biopsies. "During the ultrasound, the radiologist called a supervisor," she explains. "That's when I thought 'oh no'. Lymphoma. I was absolutely floored. Just like that, I went from being a strong mum in my 30s to someone with cancer on chemo, which put me in two of the three highest-risk categories during a pandemic.
"I'd watch TV thinking 'what's going on?' It was like I was on a beach looking out to sea at this huge tsunami that I knew I couldn't survive. It was terrifying."
Watching Covid cases creep ominously up, Jane and John took Matthew, eight, and Charlotte, six, out of school a week before they officially closed. They dodged a bullet in doing so - the virus swept through the school not long after. With Jane undergoing chemo, John took on the lion's share of the home-schooling responsibilities alongside his own work.
"Chemo's a rollercoaster: after a session, I'd be in bed for days," says Jane. "When I'd get home, my kids would make me a nest in the corner of the sofa with all the cushions and blankets. There'd be times when I could barely walk, so I'd be hobbling around. I remember my little girl slipping her hand into mine and walking with me - that was incredible.
"Having the kids and my husband with me was crucial," she adds. "There were really low times when I felt absolutely worthless, but they were there. It was beautiful. My husband sprayed every single item of food that came into our house for six months. I'd physically shake with fear when I had to go to hospital because that was where I was most at-risk.
"I just felt so vulnerable. I was petrified; nothing was safe from the virus."
Physically cut-off by lockdown restrictions, loved ones did what they could. Every three weeks, when Jane underwent another session of chemotherapy, a family friend would send a magazine each for the kids so they'd have something to look forward to, while another took on the responsibility to do the shopping for the family.
"That meant the world," says Jane. "We'll never forget that kindness and the people who helped when we were at rock bottom."
But there were dark times, too.
"Online, people were talking about five-year survival rates and I'd be thinking 'but a few weeks ago we were living a normal life'," explains Jane. "It was utterly terrifying. But I hate feeling hindered so, when I was feeling rubbish, I'd think of things I could do around the house when I felt better.
"In my darkest moments, I was motivated by legacy because I didn't know if I would be around in three weeks," she adds. "I faced the darkest side of life. We were advised to have a hospital bag packed and that bag sat in my bedroom. I'd see the bag and think 'if I have to grab that bag, I'm not coming back'. So I made a plan.
"I decided that, if I picked up that bag, on my way to the hospital I'd go to a shop we love called Saltrock which does amazing hoodies," Jane continues, her voice wavering. "I'd order a hoodie for the kids for every age until they were adults so they'd have a hoodie from me for every stage of their lives until they were grown up. And I'd buy a hoodie for my husband too.
"By the time that was worn out, someone else would be buying clothes for him."
Thankfully, Jane never had to touch that bag. In August 2020, a week after her 40th birthday, she was given the all-clear. "Full metabolic remission," Jane says. "The best you can hope for. I thought it'd be champagne corks but, surprisingly, I felt quite low because I went from firefighting to reflecting on what on Earth had just happened.
"And remission has been physically and emotionally harder than I thought it'd be," she adds. "It's all about different challenges now: you get what's called 'scan-xiety' around getting bad news and the journey starting all over again. But I'll be forever grateful that I had cancer, not someone else in the family otherwise I'd just be thinking 'I wish I could have that, not you'.
"That's why I didn't want my family to see me when I was low," Jane continues. "I'd try and give them my best when we spoke. It was the same with my husband to a degree: I couldn't share every low moment with him because it'd drag him down whereas we had to try and lift each other up."
After what she calls the 'lonely journey' of cancer, treatment, and remission, Jane says that she felt a powerful desire to get her life back on track.
"There were times when I felt invisible and that other people were getting on with their lives and had forgotten about me, which were hard emotions to deal with," she explains. "After I was given the all-clear, I wanted to get back to it. We live near a hill so I set myself the target of climbing it 40 times in four months.
"I'd forgotten how amazing the view was - it was beautiful and it gave me the perspective I needed to remember there's a bigger world out there," adds Jane. And up on the hill, that profound sense of perspective was joined by a novel pang of inspiration.
"The hill itself looks like a sleeping dragon at the top and, over the years, I've made up stories for the children about 10 dragons who lived there," Jane says. "While I was walking, I decided to write the stories down - 10 stories for 10 dragons. The walking became my physical outlet and the stories became a mental outlet."
Just like that, the adventures of the Sunburst City Dragons were born. Resolving to turn each of the 10 stories about the 10 dragons into a book, Jane has since gone on to self-publish five books in the series with a sixth coming out later this week followed by four more in the new year.
"The books came to life on that hill and it became an all-consuming project, which was just what I needed at the time," says Jane, who - keen to give back to the charities which supported her in her time of need - is donating a portion of the funds raised by the books to Home-Start UK, Lymphoma Action, and Macmillan Cancer Care. "The stories became my happy place.
"I wanted the characters to be strong and empowering role models, especially the females," she adds. "After such a horrific year, I can still say I achieved something tangible: I can pick the books up, read them with the kids, give them to people, and say 'I did that'. And, when I get feedback from friends saying their kids loved the book, I'm just smiling all day.
"There's still that desire to leave a legacy: the cancer's most likely to come back in the first two years and I'm one year in, so there's still a huge worry about what might happen," Jane continues. "But, if I'm not around, then every penny made by the books can go to the kids. I wanted to provide for them even if I'm not around."
With a colourfully joyous vibe to them reflected in the wonderfully retro '70s-inspired illustrations of Preston-based artist David Robinson, the books are a testament to Jane's indelible spirit. They're evidence of a powerful humanity, love, and creativity borne of the darkest abyss life can confront us with.
"I said before that I always thought people with cancer have this warrior status," says Jane. "In the end, I found my own strength, a strength I never knew I had. But that strength wasn't in anything flashy, it was in picking myself up off the floor to do the bare necessities like feeding the kids when I was sick to my stomach and had a mouth full of ulcers.
"I found something incredible inside me and I dug deep for my family, which is what was needed at the time because everything was a team effort," she adds. "And, while the challenges continue, so does the joy."