Melissa, Head of People Services at St Peter & St James Hospice, shares with us how the sudden diagnosis of pancreatic cancer of her father, Georges, affected their relationship and ultimately led her to working at the Hospice and running the Brighton Marathon.
In 2017 my dad, typically French, stubborn, made the unilateral decision to die in his home, and so my sister and I had to put our lives in the UK on hold to look after him in the last, difficult weeks of his life and illness. Whilst adrenaline carried us through a lot of this, I wish we’d done more to make sure we were ourselves in a good place as it really took its toll on us, physically, mentally and emotionally.
My dad was a heavy drinker throughout the latter part of his life so when he started to suffer from jaundice we thought it was connected to that. It came as a shock when we found out that it was pancreatic cancer; he was given a prognosis of six months though he lived for nine.
When he was reaching the end of his life, the doctor asked him whether he wanted to be cared for at the hospital or at home. My sister, my mother, my dad’s partner and I were all there but he didn’t ask us, he just said “I’m going to stay on the battlefield.”; he had chosen to stay at home and that was that. We all laughed because it was so typical of him, very stubborn, very determined, doing it because he wanted to, without thinking about the fact that my sister and I would have to care for him.
As a family, we never talked about death or dying, and even when he was ill we didn’t talk about his funeral and he hadn’t prepared anything with regards to his personal affairs. It was a mess! I wish I could have felt okay to talk about death, and ask him what he wanted us to do.
It would have been good to be able to talk with him about his plans for the end of his life, especially as both my sister and I were living abroad at the time. You would think that within nine months you would be able to, but I think there is that fear that you don’t want to upset your loved one by talking about it. Why did I need to be afraid of having this conversation with my father, when we all knew, including him, what was going to happen?
This experience with my dad drove me to join St Peter & St James Hospice in 2020, once I felt enough time had passed for me to be comfortable working in that environment. Palliative care is such a key thing in everyone’s life one way or another and I don’t think people realise how important it is, not just for the patient, but those around them as well. We are completely helpless when it comes to supporting those we care about with their pain management and it is very reassuring to see the nurses taking care of them with such compassion, whether in a hospice or at home. I remember the doctor and nurses being genuinely sorry and sad about my dad’s death; those in palliative care really care about every patient and giving them the best death possible.
I started running when my dad got ill, to cope with the variety of feelings I was experiencing whilst my dad’s health was declining; even now while running, I frequently think of my dad. I chose to raise money for St Peter & St James Hospice by running the Brighton Marathon earlier this year because I wanted to raise awareness of how hospice care isn’t just for the dying; those who are by their loved one’s side when they die will remember that they were supported and well cared for until the very end of their life. I wanted to help people understand how everyone at the Hospice contributes and really cares about the fact that we are here to give people the best possible end of life care. It made sense to run for him and St Peter & St James Hospice.