Steve and Amy
Last night, I learned the horrendous news that Steve Lemon passed away early yesterday morning. I knew Steve, but not well. He was 38, was married to the lovely Anita and they had three children - Joe, Olivia and Josh. He lived and ran a successful barber shop in Rye. He used to live next door to my cousin. He was an amateur boxer. He was, from what I knew of him, an extremely nice guy in a happy marriage and, until he was diagnosed with bowel cancer in early 2017, he lived a good life with many friends and a big family. His disease was discovered after an onset of symptoms that occurred during his training for a charity boxing match raising money for Cancer Research.
In the bowel cancer, we had a common yet somewhat macabre bond. We first met in the chemo unit in Hastings about a year ago. He was diagnosed nearly a year after me and at the time, Steve and Anita were relatively new to the bowel cancer “scene”. His cancer, like mine, had spread to his liver but, unlike mine, it was not resectionable and was therefore more complicated. We spent a long time that day talking, discussing, learning from one another and because we were both comparatively young and local, a bond was immediately formed.
Steve’s death yesterday has come as a horrific shock to both Bekky and me - Bekky immediately burst into tears when I told her this morning, despite her never even having met him. We had no idea his disease had progressed so much nor so quickly. He was in touch less than a month ago to tell me that he had been for a genetic test in Harley Street where they had told him that his bowel cancer had somehow changed to breast cancer. For the last month or so, I’ve had a note on my phone to call him because this was a fascinating revelation about which I wanted to talk further.
Now it’s too late.
And that has really shaken me. Just how quickly it seems that you can go from believing that you are winning, to staring death squarely in the eyes.
Similarly, only ten days ago the delightful Amy Mattingfield also passed away. She was 32. She was originally from Canada but lived in the West Country. She was married, and she only discovered she had bowel cancer after she miscarried early last year. Her story was utterly heart-rending. Amy and I had never met. We had never even exchanged a word. But like many others, I discovered her on Twitter where she wrote enlightening, brilliant, searingly honest posts documenting her journey with cancer. I strongly advise you have a look at her Twitter feed over the last few months. It’s brilliant and hugely sad in equal measure.
Amy’s seemingly sudden death really touched a nerve. Three days after posting a thoroughly normal tweet about marinating chicken for her supper, she posted a link to her Facebook page with the comment “I’m dying actually. Soon.” The Facebook post says simply “I’m in hospital for my last admission. The cancer has grown rapidly and spread to my lungs and peritoneum. My kidneys are failing and liver too. I have excellent care and will go to my local hospice today. Love you all.” It was accompanied by a photo of her looking very unwell in a hospital bed.
She died 4 days later, leaving behind a husband, family, and friends. They have my deepest, most sincere and personal sympathies.
Amy’s death was a shock, but yesterday’s sad, sad news about Steve has hit me harder, obviously – although I didn’t know him or Anita well, when our paths crossed we chatted, we laughed, we caught up, and there was a level of understanding and empathy shared between us which came entirely from suffering a shared, evil disease and which I haven't experienced elsewhere in this horrendous cancer journey. Speaking to someone of the same age going through the same thing was cathartic, and somehow comforting. We were in the same boat. We were not alone. But now, suddenly, he’s gone. So I guess that has left me, and Bekky, feeling more alone than we were before.
And it raises questions. Why were Steve and Amy taken before me if we were all in the same boat together? What have I done to deserve to still be alive if they are not? And if they were taken so apparently quickly, are things likely to change that quickly for me??
I realise I have made their fearsomely sad demise somehow about me, and for that I apologise, but it’s not a situation I have ever found myself in before - people who were on the same team as me, dying. It’s profoundly horrid, not just because I feel so much for them and their families and friends, but also because it forces me to consider my own mortality in a much starker light. It brings my and Bekky's situation crashing home with a resounding bang. I have no idea how long I might have – it could be years, it might be months. No idea. I like to think it will be years. But in truth, I don’t really want to know. I made the mistake of asking for my prognosis in September last year and I regretted it. Yet here I am, still plugging away and, while not being chemo’d, I feel more or less fine. So is that how it works? Marinating chicken one day, taking your last breath a week later?
I guess I kind of figured that one would receive a terminal diagnosis and still have time to live a bit longer. To tidy up. To process the inevitable. To say goodbyes. That said, I don’t know when either Steve or Amy were given their sentence. It could have been a while ago.
But, perhaps slightly weirdly, I also don’t know whether or not I have actually been given a terminal diagnosis. The word “palliative” has been used a few times; my oncologist has said she feels it is unlikely we will “be able to eradicate the disease”. But does that qualify as a terminal diagnosis? Does anyone ever say “I’m sorry, it’s terminal” to your face? Or do they dance around it, leaving you to work things out from their cryptic use of words? Is there still hope that I might see this bugger off? I simply don’t know. Nobody knows. Nobody can know. Yet I suppose that, in itself, is positive. Nobody knows that I am definitely going to die from cancer. Not yet, anyway. It's likely, but not definite.
As you probably know, my own news hasn’t been entirely positive of late. The cancer grew aggressively while I was not in treatment - it’s back in my liver, it’s more prolific in my lungs. But more recently, there has been some potential positivity: my CEA levels - markers in my blood that are used to indicate my response to treatment - have more than halved since restarting chemo a month ago after climbing sharply while not in treatment. So we believe something is working. But is it going to be enough? Again, we don't know and won't know how much damage the chemo is actually doing until my next scans later in May.
I plan to post more of an update soon on my own situation, but I would like to end by focussing on Steve and Amy: they were young, they were fit, they were good people who in absolutely no way deserved to be taken so early. I cannot say that I really knew either of them, yet their departures have upset Bekky and I hugely because it is so close to home. It has touched a nerve and brought everything sharply into focus.
I send every ounce of love that I have to both Steve and Amy's friends and family. They must be utterly devastated. They will have an enormous void where their loved ones once existed, yet life must somehow go on. It's just not fair.
Finally, I ask that if you wish to comment on this particular post, please think more of Steve, Amy and their friends and family than me. I am still here. Steve and Amy are not.
Rest in peace, you two.
And fuck you, cancer. Fuck you.