Quite often, I find myself recalling things that happened to me when I was a much younger man. Usually to do with ex-girlfriends to be honest and I’m sure there’s a reason for that. Sometimes small memories like how we met or how we split up (or how we got chased by their angry boyfriends or husbands but that’s another lengthy story right there…) but occasionally a memory of something bigger. Something life changing.
Julie was beautiful, fun, exciting and forbidden (she had a boyfriend and for me at that time that was almost a pre-requisite. I enjoyed the challenge). She probably saw me as a laugh, down-to-earth and a bit cheeky. We talked a few times and got to know each other, the boyfriend was dispensed with, other admirers politely declined (she worked behind the bar of the pub where we’d met so there was no shortage) and we began what was generally a very good time for both of us. It was a happy and enjoyable relationship for most of the time but in 1986, when we’d been together for about 18 months, we were, in reality, drifting apart. The spark had gone. I think by this time we were both thinking that the end was probably coming sooner rather than later.
She loved horses, and had one of her own. A few months previously I’d encouraged her to give up her boring job in a bank and start working in a local stables, but after a while she developed a persistent cough. We thought it may have been from the fact that as she worked with hay a lot and perhaps she had developed an allergy. The doctor did some tests and said that it wasn’t an allergy, probably just a virus and should clear up in a couple of weeks. It didn’t. We went back to the doctor for another look. This time he said it was whooping cough. He gave her some medicine and sent us away again saying it would probably clear up in a couple of weeks. It didn’t. Back we went again and asked for a second opinion. We were sent to a specialist at another surgery and he – maintaining doctors’ solidarity – confirmed that it was whooping cough and prescribed a different medicine. We guessed that it would “probably clear up in a couple of weeks”.
We didn’t need to wait a couple of weeks to find out. One night in bed the coughing got so bad that she could hardly breathe. She was gasping for air and going red in the face and a vein on the side of her neck was bulging from the stress of it all. Bundling her into the car, remarkably against her wishes, a trip to A&E seemed the only thing to do. I was worried and felt pretty helpless. We were absolutely certain it wasn’t whooping cough so this was probably a good chance to find out once and for all what the problem was. She was in quite a state when we arrived and refused to get out of the car. We almost drove back home but eventually I managed to get her into the A&E reception by almost dragging her in. She was stressed, upset, angry and exhausted. Partly because she really didn’t want to be there and partly because she could hardly breathe. She obviously looked in a bad way because she was taken straight to a bed and checked over, straight to X-Ray and within an hour we had a doctor standing over us with what we hoped was some information or advice on what to do to clear up this cough and allow us to leave.
“We think you have a form of cancer”.
The way he came straight to the point was a bit of a shock, to say the least, but I think they know that there’s no point in being fluffy and beating around the bush. It’s still going to be a bombshell when you hear the words “You. Have. Cancer”. We froze. That can’t be right, she’s only 23 years old. I wasn’t expecting that. She was, apparently. That’s why she didn’t want to go in the first place, she was scared that it would be something bad.
“We’ve arranged a bed for you in the cancer ward of St Bartholemew’s hospital in London. You can go in an ambulance or you can go in your own car but you should go there right away” he continued. We could barely hear him for the fear filling our heads. In fairness he was great. He stayed with us answering as many questions as we could ask, and was as reassuring as a doctor can be to someone who thinks they’ll be dead by the weekend.
The next ten months were an amazing roller-coaster ride of emotions, feelings, good and bad health days, awful treatment, lost hair (and the near joy of the fabulous real hair wig we had made to match her usual style, which replaced it), horrible, horrible down times and watching fellow patients who we had got to know either dramatically improve or die. There were many trips to the hospital for chemotherapy sessions. Some were a breeze. She’d be in for treatment, have a fairly quiet night and we’d be out the next morning. Some were hell and meant two or three nights for me on a chair next to the bed holding her hand as she puked and retched and puked some more whilst crying in pain. I always stayed on the chair next to her bed, catching sleep when I could, and I learned on many of those nights that the sound of a person drifting from life to death in immense pain, blurred only partially by drugs, is not pleasant. Not pleasant at all.
Possibly the most important thing for me, as someone trying hard – and struggling at times – to understand how to support someone going through such a tough time, was the help which Julie, her family and I were offered by an organisation called – at the time – Cancer Bacup. Now merged with Macmillan Cancer Support as Cancer Backup, they produced numerous information publications which covered all the questions we wanted to ask, and many we hadn’t even thought of, in a simple yet comprehensive way. In addition to the invaluable information sheets and booklets, Cancer Bacup also had staff available to us to discuss any aspects of the cancer, its treatment, the future prognosis and the long term effects. Much more than that, however, was that they were also there for us to discuss the immediate issues which were more apparent, such as the effect on relationships, the feelings of helplessness, what friends and family could do to keep Julie’s and our own spirits up… so many things. In fact I remember even getting advise on the best takeaway near the hospital to get Chinese food from!
The staff had been exceptional during Julie’s treatment at Bart’s, Hackney and Homerton hospitals in London at all times but without Cancer Bacup we would have found it very difficult to maintain some optimism about the future and some understanding about what was going on at the time.
Ten months flew by in a blur. We couldn’t plan for anything and we couldn’t really do anything off our own backs as we never knew how she’d feel from one day to the next. An infection of any kind, even a cold or a bug carried by a baby, could have been life threatening. Despite this, we tried to live as normal a life as we could but it was very, very tough. Her family had tried, but initially failed, to keep themselves optimistic about the future. Their belief that she was going to die was quite apparent and they found it hard to help keep her spirits up (they’d be the first to admit this) so, as the person living with Julie day-to-day, it had been largely down to me, and that had been a massive emotional strain. A person who is convinced they are not going to get better and are going to die can be very unreasonable at times. She tried to split us up as she said it wasn’t fair on me. She tried to walk out, had wild mood swings and would, at times, be almost suicidally depressed. But we got through it. We got engaged after about six months of treatment and we bought a house. I may not have been totally convinced that either of these things were the right things to do at the time (I honestly can’t remember) but they were the right things to do for her. They kept her spirits up and gave her belief that there would be a future for her. I wasn’t going to give up on her, and if I wasn’t giving up on her then how could she?
Like I said, those ten months flew by in a blur and then it happened. “The cancer is gone” said the doctor on one of our hospital visits for treatment. We knew the treatment had been quite successful and that the tumor had been shrinking for a while. We’d been told that we had good reason to be optimistic, but you never know what might happen. Optimism’s difficult when you find it hard just to get through the day sometimes. Some people get to that stage then suddenly take a turn for the worse and can be dead within a couple of weeks. Days, even. I know, I’d seen it happen. The tubes which had been semi-permanently attached to her chest and wrist – so she could receive her treatment without a new hole being made each time – were removed, a check-up schedule was arranged and we were off. Shaking hands with anyone we could find, thanking them and wishing the other patients well. I got a pat on the back and a “well done” from the head oncologist who knew how important my role had been. Even though I knew I’d rather have had that role than my girlfriend’s it made me feel good. We stopped and booked a holiday on the way home. We both needed it.
Wow! What a roller coaster ride. We were engaged, we had a house to live in and she was healthy. We were the happiest people alive.
It took about a year but all the feelings, the problems and the reasons not to stay together that had been there two years ago, before the illness, were back again. In fact they’d never gone away, they’d just been put on hold. It was a shame as we’d been through so much but, eventually, we split up. Because of what we’d been through together it was probably a much more amicable split than it would have been otherwise but we were both pretty devastated even though when you know it’s not working there’s no point hanging on.
So there it is. There’s so much of that time which I’d change if I had the chance. Julie getting cancer in the first place affected and ruined so many people’s lives temporarily and it’s very hard for anyone to fully recover from that. For us, well we were going to split anyway, all the cancer did was delay the inevitable. For her, a few years later I heard from her brother that she’d just had the first of her children. I was hugely pleased for her because the hospital had warned her at the end of the treatment that there was a good chance she would never be able to conceive.
Perhaps it should have been mine.