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2nd September 2015

Mum, cancer patient’s wife and cancer doctor: one-woman’s juggling act

Oncologists have to break bad news to patients and their families all the time. But last year, cancer doctor Lucinda Melcher found out what it’s like when that patient and family are your own.

Lucinda’s husband Adam had been complaining of recurring headaches, which she thought were probably just stress related. Nonetheless, after Adam had a particularly bad headache one day, Lucinda took him to the Accident & Emergency department at her hospital so they could put it to rest and move on.

The A&E doctors arranged a Computed Tomography (CT or CAT) scan ‒ a special type of X-ray that uses a scanner and computer equipment to allow doctors to view cross-sectioned pictures of the brain ‒ but Lucinda never dreamed that it would amount to anything more than an exercise in precaution. A few hours later, however, their lives would never be the same.

Because her colleagues were up to their eyes with work and Adam, a busy corporate lawyer, was itching to get back to the office, Lucinda thought she’d quickly check the results of the scan herself so she could send him on his way. Unfortunately, a very different scenario played out.

Lucinda was horrified at what she saw on her computer screen. “I’d expected to see nothing. Instead, I saw a glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain tumour, which has an average survival time of just 15 months… How I wished, in that brief moment, that I had no idea what the lines and shadows flickering on my monitor meant. It would have bought me a few more moments of blissful oblivion,” she wrote in a recent article.

Telling Adam was hard enough, but giving the news to her three young children was utterly heart breaking. Lucinda says that talking about Adam’s situation with the kids continues to be one of the biggest challenges for her, particularly because of the spread in ages from five to 13. “They want to know what’s going on, but it’s quite difficult to tell them in an age appropriate way, especially because they all talk amongst themselves,” she explains.

As a mum and wife to someone with terminal brain cancer, Lucinda feels an immense amount of pressure to put on a brave face for the sake of the family. On one parenting blog, she writes that it’s “a struggle to cope with the kids when I am emotionally tired, to support Adam, and to be there for my patients. I think in some ways I am a better doctor for being a patient’s wife, but I am not sure I am a better mum. The kids have their own worries and anxieties and I need to understand and manage these while trying to manage my own. I feel like I am the glue holding the family together, and we may come unstuck if I don’t do my job well enough.”

Despite Lucinda and Adam’s trepidation about what the future holds, they’re keen to focus on the positive and they certainly aren’t sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. In fact, Adam has written a book, Pear Shaped, which tells his story in a brutally honest and unbelievably hilarious way that’s helped other cancer patients to cope ‒ and even laugh out loud ‒ under the most tragic of circumstances. Using a large dose of wit and humour, he gives unique insight into how a patient can feel when his/her life suddenly becomes completely medicalised.

For example, here’s how he describes his first experience with radiotherapy, which he began about a month after surgery to remove his tumour that doctors described as “the size of a pear”:

They don’t want you to move at all, so that the X-rays can be aimed at exactly the right spots. You must be thinking that this will be achieved with a series of clips and straps? But no ‒ in a scenario that’s more Ann Summers than NHS, this is achieved by tightly attaching your head to a gurney using a specially modelled, rubber gimp mask…The whole set-up looks like a cross between the Goldfinger ‘laser’ scene and Fifty Shades of Grey.

After the surgery, six weeks of radiotherapy and two courses of chemotherapy, Adam is back at work full time and the family is trying to live life as normally as possible. Every three months he has a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, a radiation-free way to let doctors look at his brain. As for living a ‘normal’ life, Lucinda says “We remember to treasure each moment, we make sure we tell each other how much we love each other, and we live each day as best we can.”