"Chris is a proud squaddie so found it difficult to talk about his fears with me – but he could with Jane at Sue Ryder."
Chris Appleby, a young soldier who had done service in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a loving husband and father to 10-year-old twin girls. He was 32 years old when he died, having been diagnosed with melanoma cancer just two years before. Here, his wife Kelly shares his story.
"Chris and I first met at the Red Lion, a local pub, through friends. I was 19 and Chris was 20. We arranged to go out on a date and the rest is history. It was a whirlwind: the wedding was closely followed by the twins.
"Chris was a huge character. He had the uncanny ability to make you laugh at every opportunity. He liked to play the joker and you just couldn’t stay mad at him.”
"The first sign of Chris’ illness was in 2004 when he had a mole removed on his neck. It was tested for melanoma and came back clear.
"But over the years it grew back and, during his second tour of Afghanistan in 2011, when he was being treated for a mix of dysentery, diarrhoea and vomiting, the doctor noticed the mole on his neck had changed colour. They sent him straight back to England and a biopsy revealed it was melanoma.
"In September 2011, Chris had a neck dissection to remove the infected area. It turned out only 2 nodes out of 60 were affected. We thought ‘That’s it then, he’s fine’. But, just a few months later, another biopsy confirmed the melanoma had spread to his liver and his lungs. And, later, to his head and leg."
Living day to day
"By January 2013, after trying several new treatments to shrink the tumours and an operation to remove the one in his head, Chris was left with a tumour on his hip that was getting so big we could see it sticking out.
"Chris dealt with everything in a typical squaddie way – through humour. He’d joke about cancer. He was tired with the treatments but he never gave up, and kept bantering with the doctors and nurses despite being in so much pain.
"As a family, we always thought, ’What’s the next treatment?’ It kept us going. We didn’t want to face the realisation of what was happening. I wanted to stay positive for Chris but in the back of my mind, I knew. Chris couldn’t face the thought of dying though. He didn’t want to talk about it."
Meeting Jane at Sue Ryder
"In March 2013, our GP referred us to go and talk to Sue Ryder’s family support service at St John’s Hospice, and we met a lady called Jane.
"We soon realised hospices weren’t just places to go and die; they had lots of facilities and treatments to support people in situations like us. There were holistic treatments or you could just go and talk.
"We’d go up and talk together and separately about our fears. Chris is a proud squaddie so found it difficult to talk about his fears, worries and concerns with me, but he could with Jane.
"He was different when he came out of the hospice. It was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders just from talking to someone outside the family circle."
Breaking the news to the girls
"In December 2013, we found out there was no treatment left and Chris had just weeks left to live. I got the phone call from Chris, sobbing and saying: “That’s it; there’s nothing else. We’re done.” The army got me to the hospital within a couple of hours to be with him.
"We didn’t tell the children straight away. Jane came to the house and helped me tell the girls that dad was dying. It was hard because your kids look to you to tell them everything will be all right. They thought he was getting better. Lauren ran to her bedroom crying and Caitlin just sat there and sobbed. It was heart-breaking. I don’t think I could have done it without Jane being here.
"In the final weeks, we spoke to Jane and Sue Ryder about supporting Chris to remain at home. Jane helped arrange Chris’ bed to be delivered and we moved the living room around."
Dignity and support to the end
"Eight days later, he was gone.
"It was such a quick decline. In a way, I was pleased; you take some comfort he’s not in any pain anymore. He was in excruciating pain in the last year of his life.
"District nurses and Sue Ryder’s PEPS team were coming in daily to help me wash him, give him dignity, clean his mouth out, talk to him. It was just so hard.
"There was me, his parents, my parents and a few friends with him when he died. We knew it was nearly time on Sunday morning.
"I asked him not to go whilst the girls were in the house; to hang on till the girls had gone. Whenever they left the house, they’d always give him a kiss and a cuddle, and so when they said goodbye on that Sunday before they left to go to a concert, it was really hard, as I knew that’d be the last time.
"Before he died, we talked about the girls. He was heartbroken he’d never get to walk them down the aisle, but it really pleased him to think of them continuing to love football and Crystal Palace, which they got from their Dad.
"The life-sized Charlie the Chimp toy from Sue Ryder's Charlie the Chimp children's bereavement support group was with us at our home when I told the girls Chris had died; Caitlin was curled up with him. He brought the girls so much comfort, and they still have their little Charlie Chimps to this day."
Compassionate ongoing care
"You think you’re going to grow old together. We’d always say we love each other and we had so many plans together. That’s the hardest part.
"The night before he passed away, the PEPs team moved Chris to one side of his bed so I could climb in next to him. We hadn’t shared a bed for so long because he was in so much pain because of his hip. It’s a treasured memory. I loved him so much.
"My lasting memory of the care Sue Ryder provided to Chris and us as a family is the compassion they gave us all. We couldn’t have done it alone. Thank you just doesn’t seem enough. We could talk to them about anything. And, having the 24-hour helpline was a godsend.
"When we needed them, they were there. I’m still in touch with Jane at Sue Ryder and go to see her regularly. It helps."
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