Everyone has a cancer story. Mine started in the summer of 1994. My wife, Gina, had given birth to our second child – George – a year previously and had been suffering a bit from the blues. She’d been feeling tired, low, generally out of sorts. It was hard to pin down any particular thing that was wrong, she just felt exhausted all the time and there were these odd symptoms that seemed to come and go. For example her menstrual cycle seemed to be out of whack, or at least there were a couple of times when there were unexpected bleeds mid-cycle. Was that the sort of thing that happened after giving birth, didn’t it just take time for things to settle down again? In any event a couple of visits to the GP didn’t suggest anything other than a mild bout of post-natal depression. In the summer we were due to go on holiday to Cyprus, it was where she was born and we always holidayed there so that she could get to see her parents and her sister.
Normally she really looked forward to going on holiday, but this time she was just feeling worn down. Something wasn’t right, but she was only 29 years old and had no history of illness. She’d put on a fair bit of weight in the previous few years but other than that there was nothing to cause concern. A week before we were due to leave I suggested she go back to the GP and explain what was going on. The doctor seemed to be a bit perplexed and hesitant and suggested that some investigations might be in order. It was all a bit tentative. How urgent should these investigations be? Gina wasn’t really sure how concerned the doctor was, so I called the GP to ask the question directly: did we need to postpone our holiday? And the answer was clear enough, there was no reason not to go on holiday.
We spent two or three weeks in Cyprus. Gina’s parents were over-joyed at their new grandson and thoroughly besotted with their grand-daughter, now seven. It was a tiring holiday in many respects. We did a grand tour of family on both sides and for a while Gina seemed back to her old self – always smiling, chatting and enjoying company. Towards the end the tiredness was edging forward again, not that she complained much, though she did let on to one of her cousins that it had been a bad year so far and she couldn’t wait for it to finish and a better year to start.
The blood results came back very quickly, possibly on the same day they were taken. In any case the locum called us immediately. She had arranged for Gina to be admitted to Epsom Hospital, a few miles from where we lived on the outer edge of the South-west London suburbs. Gina was very alarmed. She had never been admitted to hospital before. Something was seriously wrong, she was sure of it. My mum had come round to help look after the kids, which made things easier. It couldn’t be that bad, we both said, trying to reassure Gina. It was probably some bug she’d picked up in Cyprus, we reasoned, some kind of liver infection that they would clear up in hospital in a few days. I was so desperate to believe this that I put out of my mind the fact that she had been feeling bad before we’d even gone on holiday.
Just before we left for the hospital Gina went to the toilet. There was something wrong. Her stools were black, staining the water in the toilet a dark and bloody red. Was it blood? She looked scared and I sort of smiled and told her that a screwy liver can have all sorts of effects. Look how it had yellowed the whites of her eyes and, increasingly, her skin.
It was still summer, and consequently lots of hospital staff were on holiday, including a number of the consultants. The next few days were a blur of tests and long, boring waits. I was commuting between hospital and home and phoning in to work to keep them updated on Gina’s suspected hepatitis. I took the children to see their mum but it was difficult, she didn’t want to be there and neither did they. Gina didn’t seem to be improving. She was finding it difficult to eat and there was an odd lump in her throat that was disturbing.
I was at home when I got a call from one of the registrars at the hospital. She told me I needed to come in immediately. I was at home waiting for visiting hour to come round, so coming in wasn’t a problem. Could she tell me what it was that was so urgent? Was Gina OK? What was wrong? The registrar would reveal nothing, she repeated that I needed to come to the hospital and didn’t need to wait for visiting hours.
I had a horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I drove to the hospital. The traffic was bad and I felt like I was going to be physically sick in the car. Gina was surprised to see me. Pleased too. She had just managed to eat a little of bread and jam and was feeling bored. She wanted to come home; she really didn’t like it in hospital. I was only there for a few minutes before she was sick. The nurses were very efficient, they cleaned it all up, took a sample away for testing. There were red streaks in the watery fluid she’d brought up. Strawberry jam, Gina suggested hopefully.
The registrar arrived, with two other people in tow, not that we really paid much attention to who or what they were. The registrar, a youngish woman possibly only a few years older than Gina, spoke very calmly. Normally, she explained, a consultant would be doing this, but the consultant was on holiday and so she was doing it. Gina, she said, had cancer. It was serious but treatable. A full treatment plan would have to be worked out, but it would probably include chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She knew that this was the worse news she could deliver, but did we have any questions?
We were stunned. How could Gina, 29 years old and never sick in her life, have cancer?
We asked no questions, or if we did I can’t remember them. All I remember is the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It couldn’t be true. It just couldn’t.
The registrar and her retinue excused themselves. We were on our own and faced with an eventuality that we had discounted as too remote a possibility to even seriously contemplate. Gina started crying first. I don’t want to die, she told me. I’ll never live to see my son a man. I cried too, but told her not to be silly. How could she die? She was only 29 years old. And besides, the doctor had said it was treatable. It would be OK. She would get through this, we would get through it, it would be OK because it had to be.
I needed to get back to get the kids. Just before I left the ward the nurse returned. The stuff that Gina had brought up did contain blood, the strawberry jam was wishful thinking in the same way that the jaundice was a spot of infection.
This is how my cancer story starts. Gina died less than a month later. And, ten months after that, in July 1995, Georgie was diagnosed with cancer too. We received the diagnosis at Great Ormond Street Hospital on the day of his second birthday.
While dramatic and traumatic, much has changed in the years since those events. Back in 1994 many people wouldn’t even say the word cancer. Gina, for example, would only ever call it ‘that disease’, as though refusing the word would somehow shield her from its malign influence. Now cancer is out in the open and perhaps, hopefully, the fear has started to recede a little. Back when Gina was diagnosed cancer was seen as a guaranteed death sentence, now more and more people survive the disease for years on end. But for some types of disease, like the ovarian cancer that killed Gina, progress has been slow and fitful and shows little sign of improving. It's still the cancer called the silent killer.
It’s hard to believe that twenty years have gone by. In that time George suffered his three cancers before the disease took him too. I now work almost full-time as a researcher and I know more about cancer than I ever imagined I could. But the enormity of what we don’t know about this disease is astounding. As is the number of people still dying. And I ask myself – why haven’t we got further? For all the trillions of dollars spent on research and development, why haven’t we got more to show for it?