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
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