How one family coped through terminal illness against all the odds

Imagine: your mother is living with Alzheimer’s, your sister has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and you find out that your father has a terminal illness. How do you begin to cope? Siblings Denise and Mark describe how the support of Marie Curie Nurses helped them face an unbelievably trying situation head-on.  

Marie and Leslie, parents of Denise and Mark

“Everything was happening all at once. It catches up with you after a while,” says Mark Thorpe, 63, from Manchester.

In April 2016, Mark’s father Leslie, 87, was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Leslie had been caring for Mark’s mum Marie, who was living with Alzheimer’s.

“My Dad had looked after her so well over the last eight years,“ says Mark. “They had a routine. Apart from me and my sister Denise coming in, that was her life.”

To make matters even more challenging, Denise had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing intensive chemotherapy.

Coping together

The family grew up close, in inner-city Manchester. “Dad left school at 14. He worked as a delivery boy,” says Denise. “He learned to drive without taking a test or anything. But he always had a car so we could go to the seaside,” she remembers.

Denise fondly describes her parents’ lives together: “They just loved company. It was their era, where you went out and had a pint. People would sing and play bingo.”

With both parents needing them more than ever, the siblings grew even closer. Concerned about the toll her own treatment was taking on her, Mark did everything he could to protect his sister.

“He was just really, really good,” says Denise. “He shielded me a lot from what was going on. I had nine chemo sessions every Monday. I’d go and see Dad afterwards. It was ironic. I was having treatment for cancer while my dad was dying of it.”

24-hour care

Denise says everyone remarked on the fact that her dad never tutted, sighed or complained. “When anyone asked him how he was – if he was ok – he’d just put his thumbs up and say: ‘Champion!’”

“Dad was very proud,” explains Mark. “He was ‘old school’. He wanted to die in his own bed. You’ve got to appreciate that, but it comes with problems. He needed 24-hour care”.

Little things make a difference

Mark and Denise had to take the difficult decision to move their mum into a care home when her condition deteriorated. But they were determined that their dad would die at home, as he wanted. The district nurse put them in touch with Marie Curie.

“Every night, it got to 9pm and the phone would go, and I knew it was Marie Curie,” says Mark. “It was the little things that helped. They’d phone me, and make sure everything was alright. It’s nice to hear when you’re going through that, it’s nice to know that someone cares.” 

Comfort and safety

Mark and Denise describe the huge difference it made to have Marie Curie Nurses there to support Leslie through the night.

“Their coming to sit with Dad at night meant everything to me,” says Mark. “I stayed a couple of nights, Denise stayed a couple of nights. But for me it was a lifesaver. They were magic. I could come home at night and not worry until I opened my eyes in the morning.”

“They’d write notes about how he’d been,” says Denise. “When I read that the next day, it was a relief to know they were looking after him. It’s not just the person who is facing death who has these wonderful, caring people there for them, but the family as well.”

Calmness and love

Leslie died in July 2016, with a photo of his wife next to the bed. “Dad’s last days and weeks were a caring, loving, peaceful process,” remembers Denise. “It wasn’t frightening, it wasn’t dark. It was calm and it was loving.”

“I hadn’t ever seen death before. But there are people and organisations out there who can make that journey a loving, respectful and dignified one.”