As you likely know, my wonderful mother died quite suddenly in September 2018 after a short battle with breast cancer. Having successfully fought it in 2016, the insidious disease returned, sadly spread to her liver, and she slipped away peacefully on 6 September 2018.
For many it was the end of a long hot summer of fun, but for me it was the end of a short, nightmarish, six week period; one that began with her initial appointment with the Royal Marsden in Sutton and culminated in the awful, but oddly uplifting day in late September when hundreds of people from all parts of her life congregated to remember her.
Mum was pretty great. Though she spent most of the last twenty years working as the marketing director of Aberdour School (my old prep school) that wasn't what defined her. She grew up all over the world and had experiences and stories that shaped my brother and I as we grew up. She had a pretty diverse career that included working as a counsellor helping others, and later as an elected councillor, again helping others. With mum there was always a theme - helping those who needed help, standing your ground and doing the right thing - whether it benefited you or not. As a mother, she was a moral compass and sounding board like no other. She may have been 5 ft 3, but she was a force of nature and there was steel behind the smile. I know that I am not the only one who misses her spot on guidance on a daily basis.
Mum and the Marsden
I got to know the Royal Marsden in 2016 when Mum was first treated for breast cancer. I listened to her recount her appointments and treatments and learnt of the compassion and black humour that permeated through the corridors and appointment rooms of the Marsden in Sutton.
Typically, Mum was always trying to help other patients - finding books for the bored, fans for overheating and headscarves for those affected by the treatments. It was either an indication of her character, putting others first, or she had cornered the hospitals' black market. With Mum, either was possible.
Fifteen months ago, we were told the cancer had retreated and we celebrated the all clear. Mum's hair grew back, so did her energy, so did normal family life. Her spirit had remained throughout.
Therefore it was pretty stunning to hear that, in late August last year, the symptoms she and we had put down to other ailments were in fact symptoms of cancer - and cancer on the move.
She and Dad took to the treatment with the same steeliness they had before, but slowly, day-by-day, it was becoming clear that this would not be plain sailing.
Enter the Marsden, Act 2.
After Mum’s first chemo treatment she suddenly developed a secondary infection in her lungs. Doctors scrambled and she was dispatched under blues and two's from Sutton to the Marsden's sister hospital in Chelsea.
Before they left, the ambulance driver sought out Dad at the hospital and told him he would get mum to Chelsea - Dad honestly thought he was being polite. We didn't realise that Mum would have died that night had he not made the trip in time. We don't know who he is, but we owe him a great deal - he bought us time.
Mum was placed in the Critical Care Unit at the Royal Marsden in Chelsea. We thought it would be where the infection was successfully fought and she would come home, or at least go back to Sutton. Sadly, it was to be her last journey – one final trip in a lifetime of ridiculous globetrotting and adventures from a different age.
My Dad, my Aunt Sue, my brother George and I all came to spend time with mum there. She wasn't able to speak for the most part as treatment for the infection meant she was sedated. This meant us sitting there, talking to her (or in my case at her or over her - why stop the habit of a lifetime?) and getting to know the Critical Care Unit itself.
All of us came to know the nurses and doctors there - their compassion, understanding and capability. They treated everyone - patient, friend or family - with dignity and respect. They went the extra mile. They came in on days off to make sure mum had a familiar voice. They got to know mum and they clearly cared about her.
For those that have not had the misfortune to walk through those double doors on the first floor in Chelsea, the Critical Care Unit is as cutting edge as it gets for critical cancer treatment in the UK. It is truly 24-hour care. There is someone with every patient, night and day. No patient in that unit is ever alone. They have the tools, staff and, crucially, the knowledge to throw the kitchen sink at that wretched disease and any other medical emergencies that might arise. And they are bloody good at it.
But sometimes you run out of luck.
Despite every effort mum died at just after midday on the 6th as a result of the advanced cancer and the cohort of infections it had caused.
Had a Marsden doctor not spotted the symptoms early on she would not have seen the end of the month; had a mad paramedic not driven like hell she would not have seen the morning; and had a round-the-clock team of doctors and nurses not done everything they did, we would not have had the time and the luxury of saying goodbye to her as a family. And that really does give you comfort in those long, crappy moments of abject grief.
For all of these reasons and more, I will be dragging myself round the 2019 London Marathon course to raise funds for the Royal Marsden, specifically their Critical Care Unit, on Sunday 28th of April this year.
Who is running?
Me: the bearded, enthusiastic, but rather-worried-about-the-prospect-of-an-actual-marathon-oh-dear-god, second son of Ros and John Mill.
Lizzie: my lovely girlfriend, an absolute rock, and (like me) a marathon first timer. Who, thanks to her own London marathon ballot place, has decided that she wants to raise funds for the Royal Marsden - which is brilliant. And is currently training like a demon.
Why is all this important?
Every single person reading this will have a connection, whether they know someone with cancer, or have possibly even had cancer themselves. Either way, it is crap.
We wanted to run for the Royal Marsden because we know this money will not go into a nice marketing campaign or some bunting. This will go directly to the Royal Marsden and the Critical Care Unit. It will support the work they do - it might allow for extra nursing to be put on, extra beds or new drugs to be used. It may even serve to bring in new research. Whatever it does, it will help.
If you have got this far, well done. You probably already know I like talking, and now you know I like typing.
Donate, donate, donate
Now I have one request of you - please donate.
Donate the whole thing, donate half of it, donate whatever loose change is in your car, donate the price of a pint (London and Surrey means that's at least a tenner).
Donate to enjoy the thought of me dragging myself out of bed on a Sunday to run 16 miles in the cold at 6am.
Donate so you can brag about it to a stranger.
Donate for that warm fuzzy feeling.
Donate because its tax deductible.
Whatever you do, do something. If you don't want to donate - do something that mum would have done - help someone in your community - give time, effort, and ultimately hope, to someone else.