Ruby in the Rubble submission by @lovesweatandtees
A note from Anna: As someone who’s world has been changed by a cancer diagnosis (of my Sister), I know how it can shake the very foundations we stand upon. Hayley brings us her ‘Ruby in The Rubble’ story. Her husband’s cancer diagnosis bought with it a reason to jump into some of the things that had only until then, existed as dreams. Be encouraged and inspired as you read her words, and then enjoy a browse of Love Sweat and Tees, her business that was birthed from a tough time!
“Just bad luck”. That was the explanation provided by my husband’s wonderful surgeon when we asked how it was possible that a sporty, fit, healthy 40-year-old could have been diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer. It was April 2017. My husband Ben had been feeling unwell for around six months. He was passing blood in his poo, had stomach pains and night sweats. Many visits to the GP and a couple of blood tests during that period had seen him diagnosed with nothing more severe than a urine infection and piles but after insisting, he was finally referred for a colonoscopy to enable a camera to take a closer look at the inside of his bowel. The colonoscopy identified a 5cm tumour in his lower intestine that we were soon after told was cancerous and had spread to his lymph nodes.
The initial diagnosis left us in total shock. Ben was super sporty; you name it he could play it, from tennis to rugby. He didn’t smoke, wasn’t a big drinker and ate well. Not a normal profile for bowel cancer. Until then we had both led very happy, healthy lives with few bumps in the road that we hadn’t been able to overcome with hard work and the support of those around us. We’d both grown up with wonderful families and a close knit group of friends. The two of us had become friends at university, stayed in occasional contact as we both lived in London and got together in 2003 in our mid-twenties. We moved in together after six months, got married a few years later, moved out to the leafy suburbs of Buckinghamshire and had two wonderful happy, healthy children, Max and Arthur.
To be faced with something so totally unexpected that could not be solved through trying / training / working hard, and that was totally out of our control was devastating for both of us. It turned our lives upside down. It felt bigger than the diagnosis itself – it took away the certainty that we’d both taken for granted until then that life would be OK, that anything was surmountable, that we would bring our children up as a happy unit of four.
Our children were 9 and 6 years old at the time. Ben was a very hands-on daddy. While we both worked long hours during the week, our family time generally revolved around sport, largely led by Ben. He coached our 6-year old’s football team. He’d spend hours with the boys teaching them how to pass a rugby ball or bowl a cricket ball (and teaching me too!). He was the centre of our world. Trying to explain to the that daddy had cancer, that he’d need a big operation and medicine called chemotherapy and that he would be feeling very poorly was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do.
Just three weeks after his diagnosis, Ben underwent a bowel resection. The tumour and lymph nodes were removed and Ben spent the following three weeks in hospital recovering from surgery. The children were desperate to see him but seeing him with many tubes, attached to monitors and often semi-conscious due to the pain medication left the children worried and confused. The worry about Ben and about the impact on the children as well as the practicalities of lone parenting, visiting, organising left me exhausted with little time or emotional energy to do much more than just keep going, let alone really process anything that was happening.
In the months that followed, Ben underwent chemotherapy that left him weak and sick. He did what he could when he could but was often unable to do more than lie on the sofa. A short walk each day left him exhausted. He was thin and weak and often looked a worrying pale yellow-grey colour. On top of the physical stress was the worry that the chemo wouldn’t work, that the cancer would come back and that he wouldn’t see the boys grow up.
Before Ben’s cancer diagnosis, our lives had followed a steady, tradition path: university, stable jobs, marriage, children, suburbia. We were conservative with money – always saving for the future when we thought we’d do something more fun, more meaningful that the steady 9-5. We had often talked about what we’d do when we had the money, the time, the freedom from mortgage payments and expectations about our careers. We often used the phrase “this time next year Rodney” – a phrase from Only Fools and Horses that basically referenced the fact that things would be different “next year”, “in a few years” “at some point in the future”. I had always dreamt of running my own business. We’d always planned to run the London Marathon. Our holidays had generally been UK-based to conserve money “for the future” but we dreamt of travelling with the boys. Until Ben’s diagnosis we’d always felt comfortable in the knowledge that we could do all of these things when the time was right. Cancer changed all of that. It took away the certainty of a future. “This time next year” might never arrive. But among all of those feelings was something positive – our ruby in the rubble. It was the sense that life is short and it’s for living now and despite the exhaustion for both of us it drove us to do more with 2017 than we could have ever imagined possible.
Fast forward to April 2018, just six months after Ben finished chemotherapy and Ben I found ourselves on the starting line for the London Marathon, having raised over £10K in sponsorship for Bowel Cancer UK, a charity that offered us support and advice throughout Ben’s treatment. I trained from June 2017, throughout Ben’s treatment. Ben started training in November 2017, just after his last course of chemo. He ran it in just under four hours. I took slightly (a lot) longer. He always was annoyingly good at sport. Had it not been for Ben’s cancer diagnosis that would have been a dream, something on our “this time next year Rodney list” even now.
The bigger ruby in the rubble for me was the launch of my business, Love Sweat + Tees. It had always been my dream to run my own business. I had worked in fashion retail for many years and I knew a thing or two about the power of a good outfit as confidence-giving, mood-changing expression of self-worth and self-care. When I had children I increasingly found that, while my work wardrobe expressed me and my sense of style, I relied on the same couple of pairs of jeans and plain hoodies whilst running around with the kids. A rare night out required serious thought to find an outfit that ticked the “cool, stylish but not overdressed box”. There were no effortlessly stylish outfits to hand. Growing ever more frustrated with the lack of good quality, hardworking “forever” pieces in my day to day wardrobe that expressed my sense of style outside of work, I dreamt of one day creating my own independent brand. I had business plans and roadmaps but it never felt like quite the right time to make that jump. Ben’s diagnosis gave me that push.
Despite a juggling a full time job, caring for two young children and a poorly husband, managing the cooking and cleaning solo, I decided that 2017 was the time to go ahead and start my business. I started Love Sweat and Tees in October 2017, after months of researching ethical production, testing the quality of sweats, poring over colour charts and learning about printing techniques. I launched with a small collection of six sweaters. Looking back, it was total madness to try to do this while Ben was ill and I don’t know what I was thinking. But Love Sweat + Tees has gone from strength to strength. I now have a collection of over fifty products, a huge number of wonderfully loyal customers and sell to eighteen wholesale boutiques. I still run the business alongside a full time job and plenty of games of football with a (now healthy) Ben and (now slightly older and more boisterous) boys. It took Ben’s diagnosis to make it all feel not only possible but necessary to get on and do the things that we knew would make our lives happier and more fulfilling.
That’s not to say that we don’t still have dreams that we put off, that now that Ben has fully recovered we don’t find it easier to add things to our list than to live in the moment. I think that most of us are like that. But I think the change of perspective that cancer brought with it will forever give us a little push whenever we get to comfortable with putting things off until “this time next year, Rodney”.