Taken 65 years apart, two photos capture the relationship of Gordon and Joan Freeman, which remained strong through years of Gordon caring for Joan with dementia. After her death, Gordon discovered he had incurable prostate cancer, and his son Carl explains why – in his remaining few months – his dad decided to leave a legacy to Prostate Cancer UK in his Will.
My parents meant the world to each other. Two photographs illustrate the depth and longevity of their devotion.
The first was taken by a street photographer at the start of the 1950s, as they began their ‘big adventure’, leaving their families in Birmingham to live in London.
They arrived at night at Euston Station with minimal belongings, no contacts and no idea of where they would live. But as the photograph shows, they were in love. They stayed in London for around eight years before returning to Birmingham to start a family.
The other photograph is far more recent – taken in September last year. Mum was by now having to sleep in a hospital bed in the lounge. Carers were coming in four times a day but dad continued to be her main carer 24/7.
Despite her dementia sometimes leading her to say the most dreadful things to him, they continued to share tender moments. This one, captured on my iPhone, is after my mum had just asked my dad for a kiss. She pulled his face towards her with her non-paralysed hand and I got a glimpse of the incredible relationship they shared.
There’s 65 years between the two photographs, and during all that time their love remained strong. Dad had been caring for mum since she had a major stroke in 2001, and had neglected his own health as a result. So by the time his prostate cancer was diagnosed in 2007, it was already very advanced and his PSA was approaching 700.
We were told that, with drugs, the cancer could be kept at bay for many years. So he began a long-term course of hormone therapy, with injections of Zoladex every three months, and his PSA came down to less than one. But after a while, the treatment started to lose its effectiveness, and he took tablets as well. Finally, when his PSA results started to rise significantly again, he was moved onto enzalutamide, which kept the cancer under control for a further year or so.
Being able to care for her until her death meant that he could, in his words, "die happy"
These treatments meant he was able to see his younger granddaughter start at high school, and his older granddaughter achieve her accountancy qualification. He was also able to continue caring for my mum until she passed away on 16 December 2015.
While mum's death was hard for dad, it relieved him of his biggest fear: that he would pass away before her and she would end up amongst strangers in residential care. He worried that this would be too distressing for her, especially with her dementia. So being able to care for her until her death meant that he could, in his words, "die happy".
Shortly after mum’s funeral, dad’s blood test results showed that the enzalutamide was no longer keeping his prostate cancer at bay. I think at that point, he lost the will to carry on. So just three months and two days after mum’s death, dad joined her. He was content.
Neither of my parents had ever drawn up a Will, and dad only did so just over two weeks before his death. His and mum’s savings were modest, but I encouraged him to think about the organisations that had supported them and to remember them in his Will.
Without the treatments like enzalutamide, dad would undoubtedly have died sooner, so he wanted to express his thanks to Prostate Cancer UK. He left £1,000 to the charity, and the same amount each to the local hospice and a church he and mum attended for many years.
If only he had gone to his GP much earlier, perhaps he would still be with us
When dad was first diagnosed with prostate cancer, I felt my world had been turned upside down. I drove him home, whereupon he brought out a folder stuffed with articles about prostate cancer spanning years. He’d clearly suspected he had it but had done nothing about it.
One of dad’s stock sayings was: “What are the two saddest words in the world? If only”. If only he had gone to his GP much earlier, maybe he could have been treated and got rid of the cancer. Then perhaps he would still be with us. But we can’t change that.
I’ve had a prostate cancer check and will make sure that I do so from time to time. That way if I were to get it, I can give myself and my family the maximum chance of dealing with it. Perhaps the legacy in my dad’s Will will help stop this awful disease being something other families have to worry about in the future.
Carl as a child with his dad, Gordon.