11 November 2012
Here I am, working at Sheffield University, the kid born in 1964 in Hull, a town barely recovered from the war years. My parents left the close community of the East Riding in 1967 and moved to York, a place full of history, monuments and Spring daffodils decorating the city walls. By rights, I should still be in Hull (fewer people leave Hull having been born there than any other English town) and remaining loyal to my roots, but academic destiny brought me via the Universities of Durham and Oxford to the centre of the universe itself, Sheffield. I’ve been here 21 years and all is going well. I’m perhaps 2-3 years from professordom if I think arrogantly. I’ve loved teaching students for those years, teaching them in my mad way with lectures full of demonstrations, some complicated, others incredibly simple like a tennis ball tethered to a piece of string – but how the students loved it when I pretended I was going to try to hit them by releasing the ball at just the right instant! I’ve also had a research family from 1991 until 2012 – about 30 PhD students who I have thought of as sons and daughters. Some of them know each other, some don’t, depending on whether their studies overlapped. It’s June 2012 and everything is going swimmingly well in my life, both at home and at work even though the pressures of work are building due to high tuition fee madness. My two sons are growing into fine young men and we are a very happy family.
And then a bombshell ... something has happened that always happens to other people and although you feel intense sorrow for their plight, you carry on as normal because it isn’t you who is directly affected. I’ve been to the doctor’s to sort out a couple of “little problems” to do with my nether regions, largely due to a TV advertising campaign. I’ve been referred to the hospital for further tests. I’ve had those tests and now the bombshell has been delivered – I have bowel cancer. This is just a small issue surely – it’ll be localised and they will be able to gouge it out like you scoop a curl of avocado? But it’s not localised, the primary cancer isn’t even in my bowel but my oesophagus. I’ve not had a single symptom in that region ever. The bowel growth is a secondary and there is further spreading in my liver, the worst place of all for cancers to settle. I am void of all air, words have been sucked from me and my tears are hot stinging flames that burn my face. My family is devastated, my poor wife is lost, we are all lost.
Somehow, I have to carry on and not give in. I want to be shot on the spot at first, selfish though that is. But then something inside me stirs and I feel a fight that I’ve never felt strongly before. I’m looking at everything differently with a renewed intensity and concentration, as if to draw out of every image all the information I’ve never ‘seen’ before. The deep colour of the leaves of trees, the vivid green of grass, the happy laughs of children playing, the clinking of tea cups in a café accompanying the chat and the laughter. I remember that I am still part of this world and no tumour is going to defeat me without a fight. I’m sad, yet I’m happy; I’m angry yet I’m calm and I’m scared yet I’m brave for this new challenge that lays ahead.
I start thinking about what I want to do with the 9 -12 months the doctors have given me. First, I decide that they are wrong and that this estimate is based on averages of Gaussian samples that may include several thousand patients. The mean includes people of all ages - 90+ year old crocks who might die within weeks anyway and very vulnerable young babies. It also includes smokers, heavy drinkers, drug-takers, none of which am I. I start to build a picture of my invulnerability in my mind. I read Stephen Gould’s brilliant essay about living with cancer and the invincibility is enriched with a layer of titanium. What can I do to make my last years count? First I think of my family – there are places to go to with them, there are things to say to them, there are things to leave them such as letters and keepsakes, there is love to give them stronger than any love I have yet given them. There are of course practical things like money and wills to organise and all this is racing through my mind.
And then, there are people beyond my family. There are always people in more need than yourself. I have had 48 years (and counting) of a good life yet there are kids aged less than 5 who have had no real life yet but are in the same boat as me if not worse. I can do things to raise money to help them - to help researchers look for new treatments for them, to give them a nicer time in hospices or holidays before they die and memories for their families. I can also put something back into education. There are so many people who want to understand science but find the traditional way difficult. The public understanding of science approach, using lectures, brimming with demonstrations, to promote this type of learning and motivate such people, is something I can encourage and can raise money to fund. I want to do both these types of things. And then a close friend has the idea of setting up a charity to encompass these ideas. A steering group quickly forms. We call it Inspiration for Life and it will be officially launched soon. I hope to go to some sort of launch party but I’m terrified I will be a quivering wreck who can only cry and can’t speak. It is terrible when your words are forced back by tears, so I have to find strength to stop this happening. The written word on the page suffers no such fate.
So here I am five months on from diagnosis but more than 7 months from oblivion and I am humbled by your interest in my story. I argue with people that I have done little to deserve the enormous support I have had from everyone, from fellow staff at the University, the amazing students, my other friends from outside University and of course my family. They tell me otherwise, but I am right in knowing that I have received so much more from you than I have given and so this charity is one of the ways I want to continue to give what I can, to reward you all for your unwavering help and support. Inspiration for Life will allow health research funding, hospice funding and funding for education for all to be delivered as a result of the very varied range of charitable activities that University staff and students and others beyond carry out. The link between these two unrelated sets of activity is only me, one person whose world has been and has become intimately entwined with both sectors and whose strong desire to do good in both areas is rivalled only by my friends who have joined this venture in order to give inspiration to the lives of those who need it.