Cancer In Young Adults ... Through Parents’ Eyes

Narratives & Stories

Jill's Story

Jill was 22 and a dental nurse when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma.

Our daughter Jill was diagnosed with cancer of the shin bone, when she was twenty-two years old. Twenty months later she died, at the age of twenty-four. From leaving school she worked in a laboratory, until she was made redundant. The last two years before she became ill, she was a dental nurse.

The anaesthetist at the dental surgery was also Jill’s GP. Due to this, it was only a few days before she saw a consultant, had a biopsy, went to the specialist hospital, had a scan and was diagnosed with a 70% chance of survival. We had mixed emotions at the time, devastated because it was cancer but hopeful because the professor gave her a 70% chance.

It was decided before anything could be done with her leg, she had to have three months chemotherapy. Following that she would have her leg amputated and then another three months of chemotherapy. The gruelling treatment began. Every three weeks we took her to the hospital, for a three day stay.

They catered well for families. They had purpose-built accommodation, which helped a great deal. It enabled us to be close to Jill, giving her all the love and support she needed. The treatment was so toxic, that she never recovered from one treatment before it was time to have the next. She lost all her hair and was violently sick. The cancer had broken her leg bone, so she could not stand or walk. We carried her from room to room, with her leg supported in a piece of plastic guttering.

Three months later she had her leg amputated. The leg was then taken to the laboratory to be examined. The technician asked why had it been amputated, as he could not find anything wrong!!

We went through a lot of emotion then, wondering if it had been really necessary to have had such a drastic op! She had a horrific experience in the local hospital when we went to visit her after the operation. She was rolling in agony. Her knuckles were white, with gripping on to the sheet. I put my arm around her and found her pillow and bed was soaking wet. The epidural had come out of her back, and she was not getting any pain relief. I reported this and was told they could not give her any pain killers, because they could not tell how much of the epidural she had actually received. So she had to suffer for a few hours more. We went through hell with her.

Three months later she went back to the specialist hospital for routine chemotherapy. This time they reduced the strength, so she was not as ill for as long between treatments the professor told us that there was a possibility she may develop lung cancer, but not to worry, as they could operate and nip it off.

We had a lot of visits to the limb centre, but she never got a limb that was comfortable, her stump kept changing size.

It was a stressful time for all the family. Jill was the middle daughter of three girls. Our whole life revolved around Jill. Fortunately the other two girls were old enough to take care of themselves, when we were away at the hospital. I was constantly ringing them to keep them in touch. We felt guilty at times, because Jill took so much of our time, but the girls were very understanding.

I found it a strange to put a brave face on for Jill. I never cried in front of her, but broke my heart when I went to bed, every night, and for three hundred and sixty days after her death.

As he professor predicted, she did get lung cancer within twelve months. We were all devastated again. She has her lung operation at another hospital. It was a major operation. She was in the intensive care unit. She had tubes coming out of her body from all directions. The surgeon knew at the time what was wrong, but never told us his findings.

Jill did not recover very well, she said to me “why is Peter better than me?” He was a seventeen year old that had had the same cancer, first in his leg, then secondary in his lung. He appeared fine. I told her it was because he had not had his leg amputated, but had a steel plate in his leg instead. I felt something was wrong, but did not want to worry Jill.

We brought her home, but she deteriorated and was taken into the local hospital. They gave her too much morphine. She hallucinated in a big way and was terrified. Her eyes were staring. It was awful to watch. I went into the office and talked to the staff. I told them of my concern but all they said was that she was dying.

I was so distressed I rang the professor and told him about her condition. He said he would get her released from the local hospital and taken back to the specialist hospital. The doctor was mad. She said “you do know she is dying?” I told her I did, but that I did not want her to die in such distressed terror. What a horrible journey that was in the ambulance back to the specialist hospital.

On arrival they were waiting for Jill. They were shocked at the sight of her. They said “she is petrified, we cannot leave her like this!!” They took her to theatre. We went with her as far as the doorway. The doctors said they did not know if she would survive another operation.

I spoke to Jill, I told her to think of something beautiful. She said “I’ll think of green fields and blue skies”. We stood and watcher her wheeled through the theatre doors, not knowing if we would see her alive again.

They removed four litres of blood from her chest wall. It was then that we were told the lung cancer was adhered to her chest wall and they sliced into it, but could not remove it, so she haemorrhaged.

She did survive the operation, but we brought her home to die, surrounded by her loving family. We never mentioned death, we role-played for one another. The nearest she came to saying anything was one day, she said “I am very ill mum”. I said “I know darling”. She liked to hold our hands. She said she took our strength and it made her feel better. It was the worst time in our lives, seeing our daughter slowly dying and not being able to stop it from happening.

I gave up my full-time job, when Jill was diagnosed with cancer. I worked part-time and made it fit in with our journeys to the specialist hospital. The last month I took indefinite leave, to nurse her at home. I found her pain level and kept her pain free with morphine. She was still alert, not frightened and happy to be at home. She became weaker and bedfast. I had to keep her propped up with lots of pillows because she was still haemorrhaging. Her breathing became laboured, it was difficult for her to swallow at the end.

One night after I had made her comfortable, she put her arm on my shoulder and whispered, “thank you for everything”. I left her room and said to my husband “I am ready to let her go, she cannot carry on like this”. She passed away in the early hours of that morning. They say time heals, but our story happened fourteen years ago on the 27th June 1986. I do not feel any different now that I did at the time.

Grief is seasonal, with birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and New Year. On every occasion there is always one missing, not just for us but all the family. The pain of losing Jill never goes away.

We have had a lot of traumas in our lifetime, but living with cancer was definitely the worst. We are still emotional. I have found writing this, re-living it all in the words, not just thoughts, very draining.