Two years ago I was pregnant with my first baby. I had no idea what to expect. Nervous and excited, I discovered my colleague at work was also pregnant with her second (great — an expert, I thought.)
When no one else knew, we identified each other early on in the pregnancies by the baggy clothes and tubs of hot chocolate we had perched on our desks along with the multiple packets of flavoured crisps. We had plenty of water cooler moments, spending the rest of our pregnancies bonding over our tales of morning (or all-day) sickness and exhaustion, shared over café lunches that involved lots of chips.
That colleague of mine was Alexia Baron, who you can read about on page 26. What neither of us knew at the time was that in the months leading up to our babies’ births, the world would be plunged into a global pandemic.
Times would get scary for all of us, but none more so than for Alexia and me, in ways that are frankly unimaginable.
At 34 weeks pregnant, days away from a national lock down, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. That is cancer that has spread from its primary site. I know that because, months before, my mum had received a similar diagnosis.
Understandably, as the world descended into lockdowns and circuit breakers, Alexia and I lost touch. But I’ve spent the last two years often thinking about how horrifying her ordeal must have been and wondering how she was.
Fast forward two years to that same café in north Finchley, minus the chips, and there she was, telling me how she’d coped. We both have two-year-olds, who could believe it?
It felt like yesterday that she was emailing me John Lewis links to the best breast pumps and feeding bottles.
In the two years that I’ve become a first-time mum, gone back to work and dealt with the challenges of day-to-day life, she has undergone intensive cancer treatment, had a double mastectomy and reconstruction and lost her hair — while also looking after two children, one aged four and the other two.
But that is not all. She has also just launched a product that will help to make cancer treatment more comfortable for others. And I couldn’t help but listen in amazement, and also disbelief.
How on earth did she survive having her second child and going through treatment for aggressive cancer during a time when people couldn’t even pop over and hold the baby?
I thought my past two years had been hard, but she had it far worse. How are you sitting here in front of me, smiling and laughing, I kept asking her? How are you doing it? Confused, I imagined myself curled up in a ball on my floor, rocking back and forth.
The human spirit and why some of us are more resilient to adversity than others is something that has always fascinated me. It leads me often down social media rabbit holes, obsessively following the traumatic journeys of people who have experienced horrible things but found a way to triumph. Call it the ambulance chasing of modern times.
But a quick look at social media shows that triumph over tragedy is almost expected. As if getting terrible news in this day and age was not bad enough, you’re expected to take your trauma and turn it into something inspirational and extraordinary.
Don’t you hate the pressure put on people who get diagnosed with a horrible illness, or experience a horrible loss, to respond by doing something amazing, I asked?
“Oh I get it 100 per cent,” Alexia told me, explaining that it has taken her nearly two years to be able to talk about what she has been through, never mind replying to the hundreds of WhatsApp messages from family and friends that were still sitting unread.
So where did she find the motivation to re-launch her life and develop a product to help others suffering ongoing cancer treatment? “My kids,” she told me.
As a mother, I get it. But would I be the same? I just don’t know.