My mum was publicly humiliated and shamed because she had cancer and couldn't eat like normal people. Because she had cancer and could no longer function like everybody else.
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I’ll never forget where I was the moment I found out my mom had cancer. I was waiting for a flight back to the UK in Alicante airport in Spain when the phone rang. Mom was shaky on the call, with tears choking up her voice. She’d had stomach problems for over a year, and then finally a PET scan revealed a huge tumor blocking the exit to her stomach. This explained the sickness, the weight loss, the lack of appetite, the depletion of energy.
But this wasn’t just anybody, this was my mom! I still called her mommy at 31: I even spoke to her most days. I was just about to get married, but at heart, I was a mommy’s boy. She would still come to the wedding, she was going to be ok, right? She was a fit and healthy 73-year-old, her mom had lived to be 77. You’re supposed to outlive your parents by a decade, aren’t you?
She would need surgery almost immediately, but her chances of survival, her chances of complete recovery were good, minus 75% of her stomach.
But that didn’t matter … What mattered most was that she was going to be OK. We were going to get through this, she wasn’t going to die! Mom wasn’t going to die!
Within six months I was receiving a call to tell me mum had passed away. We had been unlucky throughout her illness. The operation to remove the tumor was a success, but unfortunately, during the surgery, they had discovered cancer on her lymph nodes. This meant she had to start chemo immediately. The chemo failed, and within 12 weeks of her diagnosis mum was in a hospice with nine tumors. Eight weeks later she was dead.
Due to a medical condition, I am unable to eat normal portions of food. Please provide me with a child's sized portion.
My mom was unable to eat normal portions
I say the operation was a success; they had successfully removed the cancerous tumor, but in doing so, they had to take away over two-thirds of my mom’s stomach. This was to try and ensure nothing cancerous would grow back.
Mom would never be able to eat in the same way again after her surgery. She would eat little portions complemented with nutritional supplements. She would also have to carry a medical card from the Oesophageal Patients Association that she could show in any restaurant or pub that stated the following.
“Due to a medical condition, I am unable to eat normal portions of food. Please provide me with a child’s sized portion.”
One day, about a month after mom’s operation we decided to go out for lunch at the local ‘Toby Carvery’ a popular UK chain that offers carved meat and a buffet style spread of roast potatoes, vegetables, etc.
Mom was a little nervous about the portion sizes there, although it is a buffet set up, mom had always been a big eater. Before her operation, she would usually stack her plate high and finished it long before me, leaving room for pudding. Sadly, after the surgery, mom struggled to hold down even small portions and had been terribly sick at the table on her last trip out. So this time we needed to take extra care to ensure she didn’t overindulge and was as comfortable as possible. For that, we would need a small plate, as the meat was portioned out according to the size of your plate when you went up to collect your food.
At this restaurant, there is the option for a child’s portion, so when the manageress came over to take our order, my mom got out her special medical card. The conversation went as follows.
Mom: I’m sorry but would it be possible for me to order a child’s portion. (Produces card)
Manageress: (Talks in a standoffish tone) That won’t be possible because you are not under 12 years old.
Mom: (Visibly nervous) Yes but I am a cancer patient, and I have a stomach smaller than a child’s due to major surgery.
Manageress: That’s fine, but you won’t be getting a child’s portion because you’re not a child.
Mom: (Visibly Upset) But I carry a special medical card that states that I’m a cancer patient, I’ve not had any problems anywhere else. (Offers the manageress the card)
Manageress: I don’t want to see your card, it’s company policy that we don’t serve child’s portions to adults, I’m afraid I can’t help you, if you want to eat here you’ll have to order an adult’s portion.
Mom: (Visibly shaken) Will you look at my card?
Manageress: No, I don’t need to, I will not be serving you a child’s portion. (walks away from the table)
As this cold-hearted, insensitive woman walked away, my mum started to cry. I was shaking, she was shaken, the people on the table next to us were furious. They had seen and heard the whole conversation and were disgusted that when mom said she had cancer, the manageress said…
What the fuck is “Fine” about having cancer?
What people tend not to realize is that when somebody is suffering from cancer, they just want to be normal, they just want to feel normal. They are always aware of how sick they are, and how their life will probably never be the same again.
I wanted to scream, I wanted to drag the manageress outside and ask her what was fucking fine? I wanted to parade her around the restaurant asking every single customer what they thought about her response.
I asked mom if she wanted to leave, but she was OK. She said we would order normal portions and she would call the manager over at the end to show her how much she had eaten.
This wasn’t about saving money. It was about feeling comfortable.
At the end of the meal, mom had managed about three mouthfuls of her dinner. We both felt deflated and sick as we walked back to the car after dinner.
“When we left the restaurant I just sobbed, it's not about the money, it was the way I was treated that was unacceptable”
What I didn’t know then was that this would be the last meal me and my mom would ever have at a restaurant together.
Being a journalist, I wanted this manageress called out. I never wanted anybody to have to suffer the embarrassment and shame that my mother had experienced that day.
My mom wanted a public apology and a companywide change of policy that stopped cancer-shaming by this large, brewery owned chain.
When we got home, we rang the area manager and explained the situation. They were full of apologies over how mom was spoken to and treated. They said they were sorry, but this was a company policy. However, because of how rude the manager was, we were told that we should expect an apology over the phone from carvery manageress.
But this wasn’t good enough.
So we decided to contact both the local and national press, to really get this story out there, to really show the public that my mom was publicly humiliated and shamed because she had cancer.
Because she had cancer and couldn’t eat like normal people, because she had cancer and could no longer function like everybody else.
Not only this, but also because she was my mom, and nobody would get away with treating her like this.
We were inundated by messages of support on social media, with several restaurants offering us free meals to give us our faith back in the hospitality industry.
People wanted to know who this manager was. How dare she treat a cancer patient like that. But we kept her anonymity, as to not be as horrible as she was.
She called mom up to offer a half-arsed apology, to which mom refused to accept and hung up the phone.
Four weeks later we received a call off Toby Carvery to say that due to my mom’s cancer shaming, and the subsequent bad press that they had received, they were changing their small plate policy nationwide. This was a victory for all future cancer patients who simply can’t eat a large portion. It gave mom a sense of pride, but it didn’t make up for the way she felt that day.
Although this was an incredible achievement for a very sick pensioner, it doesn’t change the fact that cancer shaming still goes on. It’s up to all of us, especially those affected by cancer, to raise awareness and try and stop this behavior on a national and global scale.
I’ll never forget that this experience was the last time we ever sat in a restaurant together. I’ll also never forgive.