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Marking World Cancer Day

February 2021

February 4 is World Cancer Day. To mark this day, we asked WAY Widowed and Young's members to share photographs of the loved ones they have lost to cancer. We were overwhelmed by responses and received more than 180 photos, which we have woven into this poignant and heartbreaking tribute. They are aged from 25 to 72.

More than 45% of WAY members sadly lost their other halves to cancer - and on Thursday, 4 February, throughout the day, we will be sharing some of our members' stories below...

Amy’s story

"Monte and I met in 2015 on Tinder. We fell in love within weeks and moved in together 6 weeks later.

On Mother's Day 2018 we were thrilled to find out I was pregnant. Later that year, I gave birth to a gorgeous little boy.

On Mother's Day 2019, only 4 months after the birth of our son, his Daddy, Monte was very weak and had swollen lymph nodes all over his body. 

On 10th April 2019, Monte was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer called, 'Adult T cell Leukaemia Lymphoma' (ATLL). The median survival of this cancer is less than one year. 

We were just getting used to parenting: the sleep deprivation; the lack of couple time and all the responsibility that comes with being blessed to have a child. This diagnosis was something we couldn't have prepared for, not in a million years. How could this happen to him, to us?

I found myself returning from the hospital alone to take care of our son as Monte had to start treatment immediately, with a chance he may not survive the week.

I remember feeling utterly alone and scared. I felt my whole world had collapsed around me as I was caring for our 5-month-old baby whilst trying to make it to the hospital to see Monte as often as possible. 

Without believing things could get harder, I was informed that ATLL is caused by a virus, which I and my son may also have. After screening we were found to be negative.

I was angry, scared and upset that our future was taken away. I couldn’t contemplate a life without Monte and refused to accept what was happening. Our plans for another baby were not possible. Our son would never have a sibling... I had full responsibility financially, despite being on maternity leave, and full responsibility of our growing little boy. 

In December 2019, Monte went into hospital for a bone marrow transplant in the hopes of improving his prognosis. This was not successful. 

In March 2020 Monte’s cancer spread to his central nervous system and was given weeks to live. He had started to prepare letters and cards for our son but was too weak to complete them all. We never believed the cancer would take him. 

On 16 April 2020, during the first national lockdown, our son and I were allowed a one-hour visit to see Monte in the hospice. After being asked to leave several times I had to walk away from Monte’s room with our 1-year old son, knowing we would never see him again and that he would die alone. 

Monte slipped unconscious within the hour after we left and passed away the next day.

As there was a national lockdown, I spent the next month and countless weeks mainly alone with my son trying to come to terms that Monte had died.

Over 6 months later I know I am suffering from complicated grief. Widowed and Young offer a peer support system that is invaluable when I felt like no one could understand; a death during a lockdown was unheard of before March 2020, to be a widowed parent to a toddler and be in my 20s was just unthinkable. 

I have made a petition to try save other families from a loss caused by ATLL and hope to make screening for the virus in expectant mothers routine https://www.change.org/ScreenForHLTV-1.

I have been on a journey and will continue to be on one. Grief is now a companion following me for life. I have become a different person. This person refuses to let these events define their life or their son’s life. I miss Monte more than words can describe and I will love him forever and always.

I made promises to Monte and will stick to them. We will be happy, and I will raise our son to be a man that Monte would be proud of."

Amy and Monte

John's story

"You could say it started in 1996 when I first met Emma. That was in a friend’s room at Castle Irwell Student Village as we were both starting our final year at the University of Salford. We soon fell in love. For me it was her smile; it started with her mouth but immediately spread to her eyes, they just were so expressive. We were married in 2000. Bought our house in 2001 where I still live. We were in love and life was good.

Then in 2013 Emma was diagnosed as having a large ovarian cyst. There were a couple of options but for one of them we needed to answer the question as to whether our “family was complete”. Emma was my family so yes, our family was complete. Inside that cyst we were later to find there was early stage ovarian cancer. Six cycles of chemotherapy later we got back on with living, with being in love.

But a cough that Emma developed in late 2016 led to multiple tests and scans. The eventual biopsy found that some of the cancer cells from 2013 had managed to stay in Emma’s system and survive the chemotherapy before finding a new place to settle in her lungs. 

Surgery was not an option but there was still hope that chemotherapy could extend the average life expectancy that this type of cancer has. After the initial shock, Emma, amazingly, reclaimed her smile; that same smile I fell in love with…her eyes might not be framed by eyelashes or eyebrows but those eyes were still conveying the joy Emma found in life.  

After nine cycles of chemotherapy we entered 2018 with hope; the cancer had shrunk considerably, the cough was gone but Emma was about to have one more cruel blow. Emma’s father died just a few days after her last treatment.

Again Emma rallied, I cannot understand where she drew her strength from but it was some store she had. She wanted to live as much as she could. We made the most of each day, we went on holiday, we held hands. Emma managed to take part in the Jurassic Coast Challenge to raise sponsorship for The Eve Appeal, even though the cancer had already started to affect her. She struggled, she wavered but she wouldn’t give up.  Aided by two of our best friends she made it to Corfe Castle, the joy in her voice as she tearfully said, “I can see the finish line” still brings a tear to my eye and smile to my face.

Just as she was about to restart chemotherapy in early 2019 Emma had a seizure whilst at work.  The cancer had spread to her brain but there was still hope in the form of radiotherapy. There were side effects; the clearest to me was seeing Emma struggle to have the coordination to knit, which had always been her favourite hobby. 

A period of reflection and she asked me to help her set up her old sewing machine.  It was old, it was heavy but it worked and in Emma’s hands quilts, bags and numerous other creations soon started to appear. Chemotherapy could then be started after the radiotherapy but wasn’t to be successful.

Emma became weaker, had less energy and was eventually taken to hospital and shortly after to our local hospice.  The cancer had spread again to Emma’s brain once more but this time there wasn’t a treatment that could make a difference.  Emma wasn’t concerned about herself; “I just have to die, it’s my mum and John I am worried about. No parent should bury their child and John is too much my other half.”

We had thought Emma was one of the lucky ones. In a way she was; we had six incredible years where we lived and loved but all happy stories have to come to an end at some point. Emma even said that she was lucky, that back in 2013 if the cyst hadn’t formed she wouldn’t have known about the cancer that was forming. If she hadn’t developed the cough in 2016, she wouldn’t have had the warning sign that she needed to speak to our GP.

Our story, like so many other I’ve heard since joining WAY, ended too soon. Metastatic Ovarian cancer ended Emma’s life on 27th November 2019. But it couldn’t take away her smile, her positive outlook or her overwhelming care & concern for others.  She was determined that cancer wouldn’t define her and, in that, she won."

Here is a video John made of Emma's Jurassic Coast Challenge: https://youtu.be/pZcXvndRh1Q

Emma

Claire’s story 

"Rich and I met in 1999, had our son in 2000 and married in 2001. I was his second wife and he was 22 years older than me. He was a smoker and over time was diagnosed with COPD, but didn’t think it a serious issue. 

He seemed healthy enough and had a physical job, being a postman. He had developed industrial asthma before we married but after changing careers to his postie job, he wasn’t troubled with the asthma any more and didn’t need an inhaler. So when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in July 2017 (the day before my birthday), it came as a complete shock.

We were told that the tumour was aggressive and was in a tricky position, growing around the top of the aorta and strangling the heart. It was stage 4 and it was terminal. Rich underwent a pneumonectomy in December 2017, which left him with just his right lung. Unfortunately, the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes but the pressure of the tumour on his aorta was resolved.

Rich had chemo between March and May 2018, the oncologist carefully timed the sessions so he could still attend my stepson’s wedding. His hair thinned and he became noticeably unwell, but until that point you wouldn’t have known he had cancer. He never complained about anything. He had stopped smoking the day he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia in 2017 – after smoking for 50 years, and eventually became very anti-smoking – but it wasn’t enough obviously.

During 2018, we tried to fit in as much fun as we could while we still had time together and he was well enough to do things. We had lots of weekends away, a holiday to Devon, went to London a lot (he would meet me from work sometimes unannounced, and we would have a night out and get the last train home). We even managed to go to Germany for the Christmas markets and Alps with my family, after he passed his fit to fly test in December 2018. We had to adapt, obviously – using mobility scooters where necessary, and the airline’s disabled passenger scheme, and Rich got a Motability car, the first brand new built to his spec car he owned. It was his pride and joy.

Because things had been so positive, it was really hard when, just a couple of weeks after the Germany trip (just after New Year 2019), Rich started speaking unclearly, driving erratically and aggressively, and dribbling. I thought he had had a stroke, but the cancer had spread to his brain and, from that point, aggressively took it over. He was in and out of hospital for his last month, and eventually died holding my hand in the hospital room, which I had moved into for his last week. He died on 4 February 2019, which I found out later was World Cancer Day. It is also my father’s birthday.

In the aftermath I went to pieces. I stayed with my parents because I couldn’t face going home without Rich. When I did feel ready to go home, I decided to go back to work (working from home mainly), so that I had a distraction from being in the house alone with nothing to do. Our son lives at home with me, but had just started a new job himself.  I went back to work and for a long time did not function in any meaningful capacity. My line manager and colleagues at the Department for Education were so supportive, and just quietly got on with enabling me to return to work at a much reduced workload. Over time that picked up and I was back to full capacity. 

During this period, I felt that I wanted to use my experience to help others, and came up with a vague idea of a staff network for bereaved colleagues, where we could talk to people who had experienced grief. A bit like WAY really but in the office. Two friends at work who had been bereaved really helped me to develop the idea and launch it, with the aim of providing a safe space to talk and listen, to help line managers to deal with direct reports who were grieving (or were caring for someone with a terminal illness and were likely to be bereaved), working with HR to develop person-centred policies and support for bereaved members of staff, and to advocate for change. 

We launched in January last year with just the 3 people, and we now have nearly 200 members. We devised and held a programme of events for Baby Loss Awareness Week and Grief Awareness Week, and have won awards – I won a diversity and inclusion award for my work with the network, and our committee also won a Chief Executive’s award for the same thing. We work closely with the Department for Education Working through Cancer, Carers and Interfaith networks, and although I personally do not have a faith, I have been really inspired by listening to how colleagues of different faiths deal with bereavement.

I’m still frankly a bit of a mess. But using my experience to do something practical to help others is my way of honouring Rich’s memory and being inspired by him to try to change the world around me, a tiny bit at a time. For years I have been a union rep, and Rich was always so proud of me for wanting to help others, that I’m fairly sure that he would be proud of what I’ve accomplished here. I am invited to speak about my grief story a lot at work, because my role as Co-Chair of the Bereavement Network and my involvement as a founding member interests people and grief is a universal experience. I used to loathe public speaking but have become much more comfortable with it, and now can talk about Rich and what happened to us, and even personal anecdotes about my grief experience, openly and without crying. It is true that talking about it helps you to process it."

Rich

Jehan's story

"My husband Omar died aged 34 from lymphoma on 5th November 2016. He was from Iraq and survived against all odds during the worst violence of the civil war that ravaged the country in 2005. After multiple threats to his life and too many close calls, he came to the UK as a student to finish his university studies.

We met in London while we were both Master’s students at King’s College London. He seemed to know immediately that I was ‘the one’. I wasn’t sure at first. We stayed in touch but pursued different paths. I worked abroad for a couple years, he continued to work hard and study hard, earning a PhD in Game Theory from Brunel University. 

I moved back to the UK and settled in Scotland to pursue my own PhD. We re-connected and he would take the train from London to Edinburgh every weekend to see me. We married in September 2012 and life was wonderful. We welcomed our daughter into the world in July 2016.

Omar became ill soon after. By the time we knew what was wrong, his cancer was already Stage 4 and very serious. It was simply unbelievable to us that this was how his life was going to end, after all he had been through, after all the things he had survived. From the moment he stepped foot in the UK Omar worked hard and paid his own way, never relying on anyone here or at home to support him. He was admired by all who knew him. He was the kindest most gentle soul you could ever meet. He was desperate to become a father. He died 3 months after the birth of our daughter. It was the single most devastating experience of my life. I will love and miss him for as long as I live. And so will his daughter whom he absolutely adored from the moment he knew she existed."

Please tune into our Instagram Live series Talk aWAY with Kate on Sunday, 7 February to hear Jehan share her story here...

Omar

Jason's story

By tragic coincidence, 4 February marks the day when Jason's wife and soul partner of 32 years, Lorraine, passed away at the age of 48 after long battle with leukemia.

We are thinking of everyone who has lost a loved one to cancer - today and every day...

Lorraine