I can remember quite vividly the point at which our lives turned upside down.
I’d just been out to Zambia in Africa to be best man at my lifelong friend’s wedding. I was away for a week and being 6,000 miles away from Nicola and Grace (who was 10-months-old) was very hard as it was the first time we’d been apart for more than a couple of days.
However, things at that point were great. Grace was thriving, my own job was going well and Nicola, who was heading towards the end of her maternity leave, had just been appointed in a permanent role at a nearby primary school.
As I sat on the long flights home, I couldn’t wait to get back to them and continue where we’d left off and genuinely felt thrilled with how life was going.
I’d been back home for just a few days when Nicola first mentioned she’d noticed a lump in her right breast. This wasn’t entirely unusual, as she’d had the occasional cysts in the past and whilst initially we were keen to put it down to being another, I did tell her that a trip to the doctors was probably a good idea. She was never one to go running to a doctor, but I told her that if she didn’t book an appointment I would!
We had a weekend away with my family in Essex, then when we got back Grace was a bit poorly so she ended up being taken to the doctors first.
Eventually, Nicola got an appointment and sure enough the GP wasn’t entirely happy and referred her to the breast unit at the hospital so Nicola could have a biopsy.
At this point we weren’t all that worried. A large majority of biopsies result in lumps being confirmed as benign and even while Nicola was having it all done I wasn’t concerned.
However, when she returned to the room I was in her face told a different story. The docs had said that her lump was ‘highly suspicious’, to the point where they felt nigh on certain that it was cancerous and that we were to return the following week to discuss a treatment plan. To say we were knocked for six would be an understatement.
The following days were horrendous, mostly because at this point we didn’t know just how bad things were, whether the cancer was prevalent anywhere else and just what the prognosis would be.
When we returned to meet with the surgeon, she confirmed it was cancer but that she felt it was treatable and that Nicola could be cured. Strangely, this actually ended up being a big relief. A plan was put in place to give Nicola several bouts of chemotherapy in order to try and shrink the lump to the point where the more drastic surgery options may not be necessary.
I won’t go too much into what followed in the next few months, but it was very tough for Nicola as the drugs she was given were very strong and at times left her in a lot of pain and very tired. Her young age meant the assault on the cancer was that bit more aggressive given she could theoretically cope better with the drugs.
Eventually, with all of her hair gone and her body hammered by treatment, it was decided that a mastectomy was the best way forward after all, including the removal of the lymph glands under one of her arms, and that was then followed by some radiotherapy over the course of two or three months.
Finally, in May 2016, it was revealed that Nicola was finally ‘cancer free’. They could find no further trace of it and she was told to go on and live her life and enjoy herself. Clearly, we were overjoyed and enjoy ourselves we did, with trips away and a great summer had by all of us, including Nicola belatedly starting in the job that had been held for her at the nearby school.
We even bought a new house. It was a bit of a project, but it was one we’d get our teeth into straight away and having got the keys and done a bit of initial work, we moved in during October.
Nicola was loving life at her school and things were going well, but one day she complained that she was feeling quite breathless and the symptoms got worse quite quickly. We’d only been in the house for four days.
Another trip to the GP followed, and although he said it could be a chest infection, he also dangled the possibility that the cancer could have returned – to Nicola’s lungs this time in the form of a pleural effusion which is where fluid builds up in the lung’s lining, making it difficult for it to fully expand.
We always knew there was a high risk of the cancer returning one day, but for it to seemingly be happening just four months after Nicola had been declared cancer free was tough. Another hospital visit confirmed the worst, but with this being secondary breast cancer, it wasn’t just any old diagnosis.
This time Nicola couldn’t be cured. The treatment they put in place was merely to try and contain things and improve symptoms, with the hope that the cancer wouldn’t spread anywhere else too soon.
It was tough to handle. Going through it all once was bad enough, but to be told this was now a terminal illness clearly affected us all. We tried to keep optimistic as the treatment had positive effects initially, but Nicola was not only having to cope with the physical battering but also mentally, not knowing how long she’d survive and how much she’d see of Grace growing up.
Again, in an attempt to summarise given the horrendous months that followed, things were very hit and miss and it was then revealed in February that the cancer had spread to her liver. That left Nicola very weak much of the time, needing a wheelchair whenever we went out and requiring a garage conversion to give her a downstairs bedroom at home given it was hard for her to use the stairs.
There were times when she amazed us. A birthday party we threw for her in April saw her energised and loving every minute of having loads of people around – she even managed a boogie on the dancefloor!
She was then adamant we throw Grace a memorable third birthday party in July which we did, with a house and garden full of people and even professional performers hired to sing and dance as the characters from Frozen – with Nicola again joining in with the dancing at one point!
But just three weeks later things took a final and dramatic turn. I was awoken in the middle of the night by Nicola shouting for me and when I walked into her room her eyes were wide open but she couldn’t see. Unsurprisingly she was panicking but as I attempted to calm her down she suddenly went into a considerable seizure.
It was terrifying to watch, mostly because I knew neither what was happening nor why. Grace was asleep upstairs and at one point I had a 999 call on one phone and my mother-in-law on another trying to get Nicola’s dad over to watch our daughter – who ended up sleeping through the entire drama.
Nicola gradually came round as the ambulance crew arrived about 20 minutes later, although it took a while for her to come out of her confused state.
Once at hospital, a CT scan confirmed that the cancer had spread to her brain. Another seizure followed later that morning but with the doctors talking me through it, this one wasn’t quite so scary even though they’re never pleasant to watch. No long-term damage was being done, not to the brain anyway.
However, Nicola was now in a lot of trouble and over the coming days she would get weaker and weaker as the cancer in her liver (which had been initially due to get more chemo thrown at it the day after her seizures) started to take hold on her body and the issues in her brain started to leave her confused and tired.
The hardest bit for all of us was not just seeing her suffer (again) so much physically, but her well-renowned and much-loved personality and sparkle began to fade and were gone entirely in her final days.
Two days before she died, she was unable to even make her own way to the toilet anymore and at that point I saw, for the first time, her fight was gone. It was heartbreaking, particularly watching her hug and kiss Grace for what I just knew would be the last time, although Nicola wasn’t particularly lucid at that point so it didn’t affect her in the same way – which was perhaps a good thing in some ways.
I’d spent ten hours a day, every day, in hospital with Nicola for a week-and-a-half, but it was the last one that will live with me forever.
Gradually her body was shutting down and in the final hours her various faculties went too. In some ways I’m glad she wasn’t fully aware of what was happening. She knew she was dying, but seemed to just let it happen. She knew there was nothing else that could help her and her body simply couldn’t fight anymore.
Late on a Thursday night, she passed away with her mum, dad, sister and I all around her. She knew we were there and managed to talk a little, slipping away in no pain at all and with us holding her hands. Even though we’d known for a while the moment was coming, nothing could have prepared us for it. I’m only glad she was pain free and that we were all there.
I couldn’t face staying in the room with her for too long. My mum was at home with Grace and I felt I needed to be with them. Having done everything I possibly could to help Nicola over the course of the previous two years and make her more comfortable, for the first time I suddenly realised that neither I or anyone else could do any more.
The next blog will focus on the immediate aftermath of what had happened and the very first steps on the journey that inspired this blog in the first place.