IN­STEAD OF A FU­NERAL, I WANTED TO HAVE A LIFE PARTY

When Dianne was di­ag­nosed with cancer and given just six­months to live, in­stead of be­com­ing de­pressed she de­cided to cel­e­brate her life with a party for all her friends and fam­ily

Friday - - REAL LIFE -

My an­kle was hurt­ing. So was my hip. “I must have in­jured it walk­ing,” I thought. I was a keen ram­bler and walked around 10km ev­ery day. My left hip had been aching on and off for more than a week, but now the pain was spread­ing, so I rang my GP to make an ap­point­ment.

“Come on Archie,” I called, af­ter hang­ing up. My minia­ture sch­nauzer dog came run­ning. “Time for your walk,” I said, hob­bling out of the door.

Even though I was in pain, at 54 I was quite healthy. I was look­ing for­ward to re­tir­ing from my job as a home eco­nom­ics teacher so I could en­joy walk­ing more and go­ing on ram­bling hol­i­days. That’s why I was so wor­ried about those nig­gling pains. “Imag­ine if it’s arthri­tis,” I thought, wor­ried.

Two days later, a nurse at the GP’s surgery looked over my med­i­cal notes and no­ticed I’d re­cently had a chest in­fec­tion. I’d gone through two sets of an­tibi­otics, but the in­fec­tion still hadn’t cleared. “Why don’t we book you in for an X-ray?’’ she sug­gested.

The re­sults came back quickly. While the arthri­tis tests were neg­a­tive – the hip pain was just a mi­nor sprain – they’d found a mass in my left lung. No one used the word ‘cancer’, but I had to have a biopsy, scans, and when I googled ‘CT scan of lungs’ the im­ages that I found ter­ri­fied me – par­tic­u­larly one that looked just like the scan of my lungs.

I tried not to dwell on it, but the fear was al­ways there, throb­bing in the back of my mind. And then my con­sul­tant asked me to come to the

My hus­band had died of cancer, so now my son would lose both par­ents

‘Cancer didn’t stop my fun’

hospi­tal to get my re­sults. Scared to face her alone, I asked my best friend, Dot Hes­lop, to come with me.

“I’m sorry, it’s not very good news,” she be­gan. “It is stage three ade­no­car­ci­noma lung cancer. We’ll send you to the sur­geon and see what we can do. It’s quite bad.”

I stared at her, try­ing to take in what she was say­ing. I didn’t ask any ques­tions be­cause I re­ally didn’t have any. She had told me ev­ery­thing I needed to know. Then I lost it. I just broke down and cried.

Dot, 55, was very calm and she was tak­ing down all that the con­sul­tant was say­ing so we’d be able to do our own re­search. On the way to see the sur­geon I kept think­ing, “Why me?” I’d never smoked, was fit and healthy. Surely there had to be a mis­take? But the on­col­o­gist con­firmed what the con­sul­tant had said.

The type of cancer I had is mainly seen in women non-smok­ers, can go un­de­tected for a long time and there was noth­ing I could do. I was told I had a 20 per cent chance of sur­viv­ing for five years. The cancer had in­vaded my lymph nodes and it looked like I’d had it for around 18 months. But I couldn’t re­mem­ber hav­ing any ail­ments or health con­di­tions bar sprains and bro­ken an­kles from walk­ing and play­ing sport.

All I could hope for was pal­lia­tive care to lessen the pain. The cancer was too ad­vanced and there was lit­tle that could be done. But the con­sul­tant was de­ter­mined to try. “You are an ideal can­di­date for an oper­a­tion – youngish, healthy…”

It was aw­ful hav­ing to tell my son, Ste­wart, 24. He works in in­sur­ance and still lives at home with me, so he’d have to live with this cancer too. I dreaded telling him. My hus­band Andrew had died of cancer five years ear­lier, so now Ste­wart would lose both par­ents.

He hugged me and cried, but once the ini­tial shock faded, he was de­ter­mined to be strong. “You’ll beat this, Mum,’’ he said, al­though I’d told him it was in the fi­nal stage.

I was booked in for surgery four days later at New Cross Hospi­tal in Wolver­hamp­ton, West Mid­lands, UK.

I had half of my left lung and 16 lymph nodes re­moved, of which six turned out to be can­cer­ous. I healed quickly af­ter my surgery and spent only three days in hospi­tal. I was able to do a 16km walk just four weeks af­ter the oper­a­tion.

The doc­tors asked me to un­dergo chemo. I was will­ing to try – I wanted to bat­tle un­til the end. It was quite easy. I didn’t get sick or lose my hair. I stopped work but I didn’t let the cancer stop my fun. I’d go to Corn­wall in my camper van and come back to Wolver­hamp­ton when­ever I needed chemo. The fresh air was good for me and I walked a lot.

I had to wait three months af­ter the chemo to see if it had halted the cancer. I hated liv­ing in limbo. I didn’t know if cancer was grow­ing in­side me or if I’d beaten it.

When I went for my check-up I was told I now had a 50 per cent chance of sur­vival. For any­one else, those odds would prob­a­bly be ter­ri­fy­ing, but I was thrilled.

It meant I had a chance – there was a good pos­si­bil­ity of me liv­ing and beat­ing cancer. I was told to re­turn for an­other check-up af­ter six months un­less I had any prob­lems.

I didn’t have any is­sues, but when I went back for my rou­tine scan in Fe­bru­ary 2012, my con­sul­tant told me the cancer had spread to my liver, chest and stomach.

It was a mas­sive shock. I had ex­pected good news – I hadn’t felt un­well and didn’t have any symp­toms at all, but now I was be­ing told there was no stop­ping the cancer. It was fa­tal. My brother

Andrew, 48, had come with me, and I leaned against him as the doc­tor an­nounced, “You have six months to live, with chemo.’’

I burst into tears, un­able to speak. I wasn’t ex­pect­ing it at all. “But, but, you said I had a 50 per cent chance of sur­vival,” I stam­mered. “So how could this have hap­pened?”

The doc­tor tried to ex­plain that some­times can­cers like mine could flare up sud­denly and with­out warn­ing or symp­toms, but noth­ing was reg­is­ter­ing.

The next mo­ment anger flashed through me. I’d al­ways been healthy and sporty. Other people abused their bod­ies – smoked, drank and didn’t ex­er­cise – and yet I was the one with cancer. It wasn’t fair.

But once the anger sub­sided, I re­alised the shock­ing news was ac­tu­ally a re­lief. I wasn’t in limbo any more. I knew where I stood, I could get on with the rest of my life. I could make plans for the next six months.

Of course, it wasn’t long – not long enough to do all the things I wanted to do. I had a bucket list of sorts and right on top was to spend as much time as I could with Ste­wart.

On a whim, I booked Ste­wart and I a five-star hol­i­day in Tener­ife in May 2013. While there we chilled out, read books, booked into a spa, went to the gym and had walks on the beach.

We talked about life, death… ev­ery­thing re­ally. Ste­wart wanted to know more about my child­hood years, and about what the doc­tors had said when I was di­ag­nosed.

Af­ter the trip, I bought a bike and started train­ing for a spon­sored ride to raise funds for a char­ity called Odyssey, which or­gan­ises out­door pro­grammes to help cancer pa­tients of all ages and back­grounds re­gain their con­fi­dence and zest for life.

All the other cy­clists were in re­mis­sion and I was the only one with a ter­mi­nal di­ag­no­sis. But train­ing for the ride – hap­pen­ing that Septem­ber – gave me a goal.

Doc­tors had given me only six months in Fe­bru­ary and they didn’t think I’d make it to Septem­ber. But an­other month went by, then an­other. I was de­ter­mined to make the most of what­ever time I had left and didn’t want to spend a mo­ment cry­ing and be­ing sad.

It was then that I also started think­ing about my fu­neral ar­range­ments. I didn’t want to leave it all to Ste­wart – he’d have enough to cope with.

That’s what started me think­ing; fu­ner­als are so ex­pen­sive – a ba­sic one costs around £2,500 (Dh15,266). It was an aw­ful lot of money for a cer­e­mony where all my loved ones would gather and cel­e­brate my life – but I wouldn’t be there to en­joy it. It didn’t seem right that I’d miss out.

When Andrew died his un­cle turned up at the fu­neral – we hadn’t seen him for 20 years. Then there was all the people Andrew used to play rugby with – he’d have loved to have seen all those faces again.

If all the people I loved most in the world were go­ing to be in one room, I wanted to be there

The im­por­tant things in life

The more I thought about it, the more I re­alised that if all the people I loved most in the world were go­ing to be in one room, I wanted to be there too. I wanted to en­joy the com­pany of my friends and fam­ily – I couldn’t very well do that if I was in a cof­fin.

“In­stead of a fu­neral, I want to have a life party,’’ I told Ste­wart. He thought it was a bril­liant idea. “Can I help or­gan­ise it?” he asked, hug­ging me.

I wanted to in­vite all those who had been a part of my life and touched it in some way. I needed to thank a lot of people who had stood by me in good times and bad.

I wanted my party to be a happy gath­er­ing of friends and fam­ily, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a long time.

“Let’s have it in July,” I told Ste­wart. “The weather should be good and it gives people time to make their travel ar­range­ments to be with us.”

I wrote a list of ev­ery­one I’d love to see – ev­ery­one I’d ever loved and shared mem­o­ries with. Ste­wart, Dot, my four broth­ers – David, 54, Steven, 52, Mark, 50 and Andrew Rostron, 48, and all their fam­i­lies.

There were aunts, un­cles, cousins, nieces and neph­ews. Col­lege friends I hadn’t seen since 1978, dis­tant fam­ily I hadn’t seen for years…

There were pa­tients I’d met since I started spend­ing one day a week in Comp­ton Hospice, Wolver­hamp­ton, and the staff there too. Even three of my clin­i­cal nurses from the Lung Cen­tre were on the in­vite list.

I had to nar­row the guest list down to 180 people as that was all I could fit in the lo­cal vil­lage hall, al­though I wanted to in­vite more than 300!

“You are in­vited to my Cel­e­bra­tion of Life,’’ I wrote in the in­vi­ta­tion. “Come and meet old friends and make new ones. Dress to im­press!’’

Al­though the doc­tors had told me I had only six months to live, I’d sur­prised them. Now in July 2013, 10 months af­ter the dead­line, I was pre­par­ing to see all the won­der­ful people I loved and thank them all for their part in help­ing to make my life so happy.

I booked the vil­lage hall, where I’d en­joyed ball­room dancing lessons and skit­tle nights with my hus­band. I made a mon­tage of pho­to­graphs of all my hap­pi­est mem­o­ries, which I planned to dis­play on a pro­jec­tor through­out the night.

I asked Ste­wart to ar­range vases with red and black feath­ers and white and pur­ple orchids and sprin­kled glit­ter every­where.

I also or­gan­ised a buf­fet and a DJ. It was hec­tic, but I had fun mak­ing sure ev­ery­thing was per­fect.

I bought a new dress for the party, but while I was get­ting ready, I changed my mind and de­cided to wear a beau­ti­ful red dress I’d had in the cup­board for ages. I’d worn it to a rugby club ball with my hus­band

when he was alive. He’d loved me in it, so it seemed fit­ting.

“You look beau­ti­ful,” Ste­wart’s girl­friend Natali Springth­orpe, 21, told me. She, Dot and my neigh­bour, Sue Vaughan, took me to the party.

I wasn’t ner­vous, I was ex­cited to see ev­ery­one. And it wasn’t sad, it was a lively party. There was a ma­gi­cian to en­ter­tain people and a mem­ory book to write mes­sages in.

A raf­fle raised £1,300, which I split be­tween my hospice and Odyssey, the cancer char­ity.

I man­aged to hold it to­gether un­til all my old col­lege friends ar­rived. I hadn’t seen them in 35 years and was overwhelmed when they walked in. We didn’t talk about death. The oc­ca­sion was too happy. In­stead we rem­i­nisced about dancing in the street dur­ing rag week at col­lege.

Al­though I’d said ‘cel­e­bra­tion of life’ on the in­vi­ta­tion, I’d told ev­ery­one what my con­di­tion was. Some of my friends did well up when I was talk­ing to them, but I joked, laughed and kept telling people to en­joy the party. I didn’t feel sad that I might never see some of these people again. I felt blessed I’d had the chance to spend time with them.

When it was time for my speech, I was afraid I would break down. But I man­aged to say what I wanted to. “I hope I’ll be here a bit longer,” I smiled. “If I can make a dif­fer­ence to just one per­son in this room, to look at life and death how I do, then it’ll be worth it.’’

I urged people to get in touch with old friends and fam­ily they hadn’t spo­ken to in a long time and said not to be afraid to get in touch with people who have a di­ag­no­sis like mine.

“People are scared to talk about cancer,” I said. “They hide, but it’s bet­ter to say the wrong thing than noth­ing at all.

“Make sure to get in touch with the people you love and make the best of your life be­cause you have only one. I’ve laughed a lot in my life and I want to con­tinue to laugh. Don’t be sad.”

I wanted people to know that death doesn’t have to be de­press­ing. So many people told me I’d in­spired them. “If this hap­pens to me, I want to have a life party too!” they all said.

To­wards the end of the night Ste­wart came to find me. “Mum, you’re needed over here,’’ he said.

He led me to the dance floor where ev­ery­one was in a cir­cle wait­ing for me. I’ll never for­get the look of love in their eyes.

Then the song You’ve Got A Friend, by Randy New­man, came on.

“Will you give me this dance, Mum?’’ Ste­wart asked. I nod­ded and we danced, be­fore the en­tire dance floor be­came one gi­ant hug. It was a mag­i­cal mo­ment.

There were a few tears in the eyes of the guests but I cracked a few jokes and en­sured it was a happy night.

As I bid good­bye to the guests, I was not sure whether I would meet them again, but I was so, so happy that I’d seen all my friends and rel­a­tives. It was one of the most beau­ti­ful times of my life.

I fell into bed as the sun came up know­ing I couldn’t have been hap­pier. I’d re­con­nected with ev­ery­one I loved be­fore it was too late. I took stock of all the friend­ships I’d made along the way and I knew that my life has been well lived.

I’m liv­ing with cancer – not dy­ing with cancer. I know that I will die soon, so I want to make the most of the time I have left.

As cancer rav­ages my body, I am not afraid. I just keep ac­tive and keep on mak­ing plans. Even af­ter I’ve spent the day in the hospice, I go to the gym, for a bike ride or for a walk. Life is there to be en­joyed.

It’s dif­fi­cult to ac­cept that I’m get­ting weaker, and can’t do the things I want to do. But I feel like I’ve fin­ished all the things I need to get done. I’ve done all the pa­per­work, and ar­ranged my fu­neral.

I can’t change my sit­u­a­tion so there is no point be­ing an­gry. I want to savour ev­ery day I have left. Why waste a mo­ment? There are some days when my body is wracked with pain but they are not so bad as to stop me from go­ing for a ride out­doors on my bi­cy­cle.

I took part in the cy­cling chal­lenge and I raised £4,500. With my friends and strangers, we all con­trib­uted to cy­cling 1,000 miles. I man­aged one mile be­fore I be­came ex­hausted and had to rest.

Plans are on for an­other such fundraiser. I’ll keep go­ing. So far I’ve raised £6,500 for the hospice and more than £3,000 for Odyssey.

I’ve been hav­ing check-ups and scans once or twice a month. The doc­tors are very sur­prised to see that I am do­ing so well.

They have started talk­ing about try­ing some trial drugs on me. I’m not hav­ing chemo right now, but doc­tors are talk­ing about start­ing me on it again – not a lot of people get three rounds of chemo.

Ste­wart and my good friends keep me go­ing and I also spend as much time as pos­si­ble out­doors.

Doc­tors are un­able to give a prog­no­sis any more be­cause they just don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. I could die within a month or could live for many, many more months.

The cancer could sta­bilise or could spread to my bones. They don’t like to give me time lines any more.

Ev­ery cloud re­ally does has a sil­ver lin­ing. I may be dy­ing but I’ve never been more grate­ful to have my friends and fam­ily.

It’s not time for my fu­neral yet. My life party was the best party I’ve ever had. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.

Dianne Freeth, 56, lives in Coven, Wolver­hamp­ton, UK.

My hus­band used to love me in this dress so I chose it for my life party

It was the best party of my life!

On mine and Andrew’s wed­ding day

With my hus­band, Andrew, and Ste­wart when he was a baby

I was so proud of Ste­wart on his grad­u­a­tion

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