“Seeing the change in him during this time was both shocking and heartbreaking, we all felt totally useless”
Sharon Bamford shares the experiences of her husband, Paul, with pancreatic cancer.
My husband was a 6’4” giant of a man; extremely fit and healthy, and working six, often seven days a week just six weeks before he died. He played football twice a week, went to his gym daily and regularly went out for a sprint on his bike. He was just 51 when he passed away.
Having three kids and with both of us working full-time, our life was hectic. For several months prior to any other symptoms being apparent, and months before his diagnosis, Paul was saying how tired he was. he used to come home from work in an afternoon and have 20 minutes sleep every day before heading off to collect the kids from school. We simply attributed his fatigue to our busy lifestyles, either always at work or being a taxi service for the kids, and we thought nothing more about it. I actually used to laugh at him and tell him that he got lots more sleep than me with his daily afternoon nap!
Paul often used to deliver some amazing belches (which he and the kids found hilarious), so we never really noticed as these became more frequent, louder and longer than usual. He’d also started to feel bloated when eating and often said he couldn’t eat big meals like he used to. We just accepted this, thinking it was just ‘an age’ thing and a sign of his metabolism slowing down.
It was in February 2021 that he started to complain of a toothache like pain in his stomach and he contacted the GP thinking he may have a stomach ulcer. It was mid-COVID pandemic and we were in lockdown, but the GP arranged to see him and consequently referred him for blood tests. Trying to get an appointment for a blood test took several weeks due to COVID, as did the results. The first result indicated a problem with his liver, prompting lots of questions about his alcohol intake. Paul did enjoy a beer or two, but we knew that the symptoms were not caused by excessive drinking or addiction to alcohol or any other addiction. Paul was always considerate of his health, looked after himself and had never even tried a cigarette in his life. He was also not one to put off going to the doctor’s if he thought there might be a problem. The results of a second set of blood tests several weeks later confirmed there was definitely something affecting his liver function. At this point, the GP advised he would need a CT scan to get to the bottom of it.
Over the next few weeks, Paul deteriorated quickly. He was still pushing himself to go to work but the stomach pain had increased and his fatigue meant he was sleeping much more. He was already starting to eat less, losing weight, and had now started to feel and be sick.
On the first day he felt too ill to work, I knew there was something seriously wrong. He never had time off work, so I drove him to A&E myself but was unable to go in with him and explain how completely out of character this was. To most people, he would have appeared normal and not seriously ill, but that was just because of how physically strong he was. No appointment for a scan had come through and I could see what was causing him to feel so ill needed addressing quickly. A&E sent him home and advised he needed to wait for the CT scan appointment to come through, telling him there was nothing they could do until then.
Paul went back to work for a few days but within a week, it was obvious his health was declining further, and whatever either of us were trying was not helping him get better. I called the GP and petitioned him to get Paul admitted to hospital. He listened seriously to my concerns and said he would speak to the hospital, but they were not taking in patients due to COVID. The GP saw Paul the same day and told him he could see signs of jaundice in his eyes and persuaded the hospital to admit him for further investigation.
Paul spent 10 days on a liver ward and managed to get a CT scan and biopsy which revealed what they believed to be cancer on both his pancreas and liver. Paul had walked into the hospital when he was admitted 10 days earlier but was discharged in a wheelchair less than two weeks later, barely able to walk or talk, to await the conclusion of the biopsy results and the proposed treatment plan. Due to COVID, we had been unable to visit him in the hospital, we had met him in the corridor or outside of the building whenever he felt up to it, but he was never able to sit with us for long before needing to go back to bed. Seeing the change in him during this time was both shocking and heartbreaking, we all felt totally useless.
Paul was readmitted to hospital again within a few days of coming home before we had even received a confirmed diagnosis. This time to drain fluid, which was building up in his stomach, giving him a very uncharacteristic pot belly. I was given permission to attend the meeting with the consultant the following day to discuss the conclusion of the multi-disciplinary team review of his case.
It was Friday, April 16 2021, only three weeks after our first trip to A&E. I’ll never forget that day. It was the same week our middle son turned 16. The consultant came into the room to talk to us and, with Paul’s file in her hand, she gave us the news we’d been silently dreading. It was pancreatic cancer which had spread to his liver. It was a small cell type of cancer, like lung cancer, she said, and therefore it was very aggressive. The speed of advancement meant he was deteriorating quickly. The actual prognosis, when it came through, knocked everything out of the both of us.
Those words still haunt me: "You are very poorly, you don't look well if you don't mind me saying, I think you only have days to short weeks left, I'm sorry." Paul turned to me and said very pragmatically in his now whispered voice, "We don't have long, Duck, do we?" There was no response I could give.
Paul was discharged later the same day to be able to spend his remaining time at home with his family. That was the hardest thing we ever had to do together as parents, to go home and tell our three children who were just 11, 16 and 18 and had been waiting at home for the news, that their Dad, the person who’d always been at the centre of their world, had only weeks (at best) left to live. Paul was adamant he wanted to support me by telling the kids together, despite it being almost midnight when we arrived home from hospital and him being so very tired.
We all wanted to make the most of the time we had, and although Paul spent much of his time asleep, his strength declined daily but he remained mobile right to the end. His ‘last hurrah’ came in the week running up to his passing away. He had asked me one evening to get him downstairs and I was reluctant and I didn’t feel he was strong enough. he didn’t have the strength or energy to argue and knew he couldn’t make it without my help but when he asked me again at 5am the next morning I told him I’d find a way if that’s what he really wanted to. With the help of our eldest son, Jack, we got him downstairs to the kitchen, where he sat watching the sunrise as the fox ate her breakfast on our garden wall. I went back upstairs for just a few minutes and when I came back down, they were both enjoying a larger and black together as if it was the norm at 5.15am every morning.
Paul passed away on Saturday, May 8, just days after his last beer and only three weeks after his diagnosis. It was said that perhaps his fitness was a factor, being so fit and strong the symptoms remained unnoticed, and his body carried on for longer before we became concerned. His referral for the CT scan the GP had requested did not arrive until after he had passed away, the process and waiting time just too long for this dreadful disease.
Consequently, our family are heartbroken and still learning to come to terms with life without him. My children having to negotiate teenage life without their Dad and best friend, and me, without my rock and soulmate. It’s just such a devastating, cruel and painful disease.
I’m so very proud of Paul, for the life he led, for the person he was, and the way he faced this vile disease; with courage and determination, knowing it was far too late to be able to treat it. But no family should have to face this. I know we’re not alone, it happens to thousands of others too, but we must continue to raise awareness about the almost silent cancer killer that is pancreatic cancer.
With hindsight, there were signs, and we just didn’t know that at the time. The tiredness, belching, the bloating, the loss of appetite, and then the stomach pain, the weight loss and vomiting. Had we acted sooner, things may have been different. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can try and help others by telling our story and making sure that people are aware of the signs and know how to seek medical help immediately if they experience any of these symptoms.
We also lit up purple in November to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer and held a memories party and fundraiser on his birthday, the 20th of November. Network Rail, based at Pride Park, Derby, where Paul worked for more than 30-years, also lit it up. Together, like thousands of others, we will help to spread the message about this most vicious disease and, with the help of fundraising, we will work tirelessly to combat this cancer and to help all those affected by it, but most of all, to prevent anyone else having to experience the pain, loss, and heartbreak that we are suffering. Cancer is strong but we will be strong, we can’t let it win!
We love you, Paul!