Hayley Yarnley knows how much our new precision medicine research programme could have helped her father, Bernie, who died from advanced prostate cancer in December 2016. She describes how the births of her children kept him going during his treatment, and why he was always convinced scientists would one day find a cure for the disease.
By the time Dad was diagnosed, the prostate cancer had already advanced. It was in his prostate, the surrounding tissue, his hips, his spine and his ribs.
There weren’t really any symptoms. He was a keen walker, but he always had an achy right hip. He thought it was just a touch of arthritis, but I remember him having this aching hip for three or four years before he was eventually diagnosed.
He was heartbroken about his diagnosis, and I think it was the first time I felt that I had to be the grown up. I almost turned into the parent because there was the man – the rock, the centre of our little family – poorly. My dad had never even broken a bone before!
It took him a while to accept his diagnosis, but then I think he realised that he could still choose to carry on, and to live the rest of his life. And that’s what he did.
My dad was a force of nature! He loved adventure and he loved the outdoors. It was in his blood. Long-distance walking, sailing, swimming... you name it, my dad did it. He swam two miles a day until the cancer treatment made him too tired.
When my son Rory was born [pictured above with Hayley], Dad was about to start chemotherapy. At the hospital, I handed my dad his first grandchild, knowing that his time with us was limited, and it was a huge moment. Dad didn’t cry: he had the biggest beaming smile under his moustache as he held Rory for the first time.
As Rory got older, his relationship with my dad was one I was sometimes quite jealous of! It was exactly what a grandfather-grandson relationship should be. Dad wasn’t a 'settle for a handshake' kind of a man. He wanted Rory to know how much he loved him. And as for Rory, when he wanted to settle down, he always went to his grandad and fall asleep on his lap.
Two years later, Lydia came along [pictured below with Bernie]. By that point, it was obvious what direction Dad’s prostate cancer was taking him in, and she spent the first two years of her life on his lap, kissing him, cuddling him, telling him off and giving him toys. I really think Lydia helped him through those last years.
Dad didn’t talk about his cancer all the time, but every so often he’d give me snippets of how he was feeling. He wasn’t one to go full on emotional, but we knew he was scared.
Despite that, Dad never Googled his diagnosis or how long he might be around for. But he did look up the research. He’d check the Prostate Cancer UK website and read the papers and he just knew that the breakthroughs were on the way.
“They’re on to something now, Hayley! They’re almost there!” he'd say, knowing that research would make a difference. “There’ll be a cure one day. There’ll be a time when they can stop it. It’s not about me, it won’t happen in my lifetime, but it’s for Rory.”
I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Research is vital to finding out which treatments will suit each man. Every man’s different, and every cancer’s different.
My dad used to sit next to a man of the same age in the hospital. He was the same build and had the same type of cancer, but they’d react completely differently to the treatments. Despite this, they both had to follow the same pathway. Research is key to changing Rory’s future.
At the start of December 2016, Mum and Dad went to Edinburgh. Dad was feeling great and had a brilliant time at the Christmas market, but came back on the Friday in so much pain. He managed a night at home and then on Saturday, for the first time in the whole of his cancer journey, I had to call an ambulance. That was hard.
The doctors said Dad was definitely coming out and he actually wrote me a Christmas list for the food shopping – that’s how certain we were. They were doing a lot of MRI scans while he was in hospital and in three days, the cancer that had been stable for five-and-a-half years had spread everywhere. To his brain, his lymph nodes, everywhere.
Then on Sunday 18 December, he slipped into a coma. He died on 19 December 2016, aged 65.
My dad would be over the moon about the new research that Prostate Cancer UK is funding. Of course he’d have loved to be here, to be part of the trials and to have that opportunity. But he’d be relieved, I think, for the men out there who are sons, dads, grandads. To know that there’s an opportunity, a chance.
That’s what you need when you’re going up against prostate cancer. You need hope.
As for me, I’m amazed and thankful. I’m grateful to the researchers and everyone who donates to Prostate Cancer UK. It means so much for daughters like me, who’ve been with their dads through this journey. It’s a hard old path.
But to know that there are thousands of men – and thousands of families – who’ll be directly affected by this research is an incredible feeling.
Bernie with his wife, Sue, and grandchildren Rory (right) and Lydia