Many of us have overreacted when a loved one’s cold lingers too long, but writer Ella Risbridger’s obsession with her partner’s health turned out to be devastatingly accurate...
I’ve always been a person who assumes the worst. My therapist calls it ‘catastrophic thinking’. You probably know the sort of thing: boyfriend 10 minutes late home? He’s probably been in a horrific car accident. Period a day overdue? Definitely pregnant. Mysterious headache? There I am, banging on the GP’s door, demanding to be told I haven’t got a brain tumour. We all do it a bit, I suppose, but I’ve always been bad.
So when I first started to believe my boyfriend had blood cancer, it wasn’t really surprising that everyone brushed me off. Typical Ella, typical anxiety. But as John got sicker, I became more and more certain that my worst fears were true: our happy little lives had been invaded by something horrible, debilitating, and quite possibly fatal. And I was right.
When cancer struck, we had been together for just over three years, and friends for five. I’d been hopelessly in love with him all my adult life, since the first time I saw him in a pub in Covent Garden. I was 17, wearing a huge leather jacket and too much eyeliner. He was a writer, and on day three of a self-designed ‘whiskey and apples’ diet. He laughed a lot, and talked about feminism and knitting and the books I loved. I’d never been much of a believer in love at first sight, but I saw John, and just knew. It didn’t matter that I had a boyfriend, or he had a girlfriend. At some point, I knew, it would all work out.
Two years later, we found ourselves single at the same time. By date three, we were looking at flats. By date four, we’d found a home: tiny, grubby, on a main road. But ours.
We spent the next three years filling it with books, and laughter, and love. Life was good, and in early summer of this year, I was just about to graduate, John had started a new job, we were talking about getting a cat, and thinking about getting married. But something was up. John seemed utterly exhausted all the time. He blamed his new job. When he started having nosebleeds, he blamed that on the new job, too. I wanted to believe him. Just like I wanted to believe that the bruises, scattered across his stomach and thighs, were coincidental. He developed a rash – raised, purplish – on his legs. ‘Heat rash, obviously,’ he said. ‘I’m fine.’ But it didn’t look like a heat rash.
Googling confirmed my worst suspicions. The rash looked like it was ‘petechiae’ (burst blood vessels) and was – like the bruises, fatigue, and nosebleeds – a symptom of blood cancer. I was convinced John had blood cancer. I was obsessed. But John thought my suspicions were silly. One night, he tweeted ‘Ella has just made herself cry thinking about raising our child alone after I die of blood cancer, based on a nosebleed (me) and a late period (her).’ Our friends laughed. My family suggested I talk to a therapist.
And then John started throwing up. The strange purple rash spread all across his face and chest. ‘I’m fine,’ he told me. ‘Stop fussing. Of course it’s not cancer.’
Terrified, I nagged, and John finally agreed to see the GP. An hour later, he texted to tell me, ‘They want me to go to A&E. Don’t worry. Love you.’ And then, nothing. Until a call to tell me they were keeping him in, and that there was something very wrong with his blood.
I know I called his mum, and mine, and my best friend. I don’t remember what I said to anybody, but my best friend left work immediately, and came straight to my flat. ‘It’ll be fine,’ she told me, but I knew it wasn’t going to be. The next 48 hours brought blood transfusions, IV antibiotics and doctors standing around John’s bed, telling us there was a 50/50 chance of cancer.
Later that evening, I opened the door to find John sitting up in bed, in a hospital gown, and the registrar sitting in the chair. ‘Well, you’ve missed the big reveal,’ John said. ‘It’s the big C!’ He made feeble jazz hands, and the registrar raised his eyebrows. ‘If you could try not to say I told you so,’ John said, ‘I’d be very grateful.’
‘It’s not uncommon,’ the registrar said. ‘I’ve seen it before – a patient ignoring their symptoms, but their partner can just tell that something is really wrong.’
The kind of blood cancer John has is very rare – only about 200 cases ever – and is a lymphoma. It is very aggressive, and mostly incurable. It started at stage four. It was about the worst news we could have been given. But three months on, I can tell you: no day since has been as bad. It turns out that undiagnosed, untreated cancer is a lot worse than diagnosed, treated cancer. Our friends and families have become our biggest support. The NHS, from John’s consultant right down to my therapist, has been amazing. I looked my worst nightmare in the face, and made good things come out of it: we have never felt so loved, John’s test results have been brilliant so far and together we have raised nearly £100,000 for Anthony Nolan, the stem cell charity.
Someone is diagnosed with blood cancer in the UK every 20 minutes. Anthony Nolan are working on a cure and run the Bone Marrow Register, which sets up stem cell transplants. We’re looking for a donor for John now, with hopes for a transplant in the spring. You can join the register at anthonynolan.org or you can donate at bit.ly/johnvscancer. Every penny funds research into curing blood cancer. This cancer is so rare, the doctors don’t know if John has months, years or decades. Some people have been cured, most haven’t. They’re currently treating him with a very aggressive type of chemo that seems to be working. If that continues to work, he can have the stem cell transplant in the spring. If it doesn’t, we just don’t know.