My name is John Hanley and I’m here tonight with my mother Mary and brothers Michael and Peter to share with you my memory of my father’s fight with cancer. His name was Fergus Hanley and he died of prostate cancer in August 2014, at the age of sixty nine, following four and a half years of living with the disease.
It is now over a year and a half since my father died. In that time, my memories of certain events during his illness are quite clear, while other details have faded from my memory; things like the names of the drugs, or when he started his second course of chemotherapy are hard for me to recall.
The first six months of his illness passed quickly and eventfully. It started in September 2009 where I remember speaking to my mother Mary about my father’s bad back pain on a nightly basis. By the time November 2009 came around, he was travelling to Dublin for an MRI, where he was in so much pain that I remember that he had to eat his dinner off the floor lying face down on a bed in my apartment.
Following the completion of the MRI, I remember looking at the scans with him at the time, both Fergus and the rest of us thinking and hoping it was a flare up of the old back injury he had sustained a few years before. However, the longer we looked at the scans, the more our attention was drawn to how one of his vertebrae away from the part of his spine that had been injured looked swollen and appeared to be putting pressure on his spinal cord.
A few weeks later and back in Dublin again, myself, my mother and my father left the oncologists office in Beaumont hospital on an evening in early January 2010. He came into the office in a wheelchair and I remember pushing him out, with my mother walking alongside us. Myself and Fergus were rationalising the situation, get the treatment started, get mobile again, and get the damage to his spine under control. Fergus was a problem solver and approached the illness in these early days in the same way as he would any other kind of project. My mother told me later that she didn’t remember anything of the meeting in Beaumont, once she heard the diagnosis, she spent the rest of the session sitting alongside us in stunned silence. More than myself or Fergus I think she was already starting to prepare herself for the remainder of her life with him.
Later in January 2010, following the cancer diagnosis, his pain began to recede as steroids, painkillers and hormone therapy stabilised his condition, only for the side effects of the treatment to prove to be almost as bad as the disease until his regime of treatment was correctly established. While one drug brought the cancer under control, another drug was inevitability needed to counteract its side effects. Before long, the house was full of tablets, creams and mouthwashes.
Following the initial shock of the diagnosis and the adaption to his new circumstances, Fergus recovered to such an extent that we was back out working, albeit with diminished energy levels, but with the same enthusiasm he always had. Life settled down for the next year and a half, with monthly trips to the Bons Secours in Dublin for treatment, followed by short periods of rest as his body responded to the medication.
In August 2011 my son was born by emergency section. I remember Fergus coming up to Dublin to meet him. He was undergoing chemotherapy at the time. I have a photo of him from that day hanging over Domhnall’s bed, holding Domhnall in his arms, both sleeping and feeling a little worse for wear.
The next eighteen months passed by quickly, Chemotherapy and the various other treatments continued on and off, with some treatments more successful than others, although to be honest at times we had to take the consultant’s word for their success or otherwise. I recall one bout of chemo that was particularly bad, made worse by the fact that it made absolutely no difference to halting the progression of the cancer.
Throughout 2012 and into 2013, Fergus became more and more constrained by the illness. His energy wasn’t what it used to be, he drove less and depended on my mother more. By Christmas 2013, the cancer had affected the strength of his spine so much that he had to use crutches to walk. By spring 2014 he was in a wheelchair, which he shortly thereafter upgraded to an electric model. He used to let his grandchildren ride on the back of the wheelchair which entertained them immensely.
I can’t think of one word to describe my father’s profession; builder, developer, carpenter, farmer. All of these roles necessitated a strong and able body and mind. If any one of us found ourselves in the situation Fergus was in by 2014, you would be forgiven for being angry about it, but he never complained about the circumstances he found himself in, although I can only imagine he must have found it incredibly frustrating to lose his independence and mobility. Instead, he worked around his disabilities and adapted to the limitations imposed on him by the cancer.
A few years before his illness, he had developed an inland marina on the River Shannon, creating effectively something out of nothing. His drive, determination and single mindedness never changed, even with the illness. A few weeks before he died, he was still giving us advice on the latest projects going on and how there was a better way of doing them. He wasn’t afraid of dying, what upset him the most was knowing he wouldn’t be able to continue living with us.
When my second child was born in Dublin in April 2014, Fergus was in the Bons Secours at the time, where they were trying to manage his pain, which by then had become almost unbearably intense. By that stage he had decided to refuse further treatment. Being a rational man, he had decided that the time he had left would be better spent at home with his family than being hooked up to chemo drips in a hospital bed. At this stage, I think, the grieving process began in earnest for me. I knew in my heart that he didn’t have much time left, although I kept this to myself.
Spring became summer and my son Diarmuid’s christening was held in Dublin in July. My father travelled from Roscommon to attend the christening. I still don’t know how he mustered the determination to travel and make the event. It was the last time we were able to spend time together and speak in normal circumstances before his illness entered its final stages.
Through the summer of 2014, Ursula, Ann and Martina from the palliative care team were regularly visiting Fergus to check on him. He looked forward to these visits and enjoyed their company. My mother said that he told her the most enjoyable part of meeting the team was talking to them about everyday things; he rarely discussed his illness with them. He appreciated that they saw the person and not the disease. The palliative care team were helping him with pain management by this point and in August 2014 I received a call from my mother to come home, as he had taken ill and was in bed.
I still can remember clearly the week I spent at home before and after his death, the quiet nights in the room with him, listening to his breathing, the smell of medication, the buds soaked with water to help him drink. I recall trips to the pharmacy to get more drugs and noticing the demeanour of the pharmacist changing with each visit as the disease and Fergus’s life entered their final stages.
Four days after I arrived home, Fergus died, on Sunday the 24th of August, in his own bed, surrounded by his family. The church bell for morning mass rang out as he took his last breath.
The help and compassion demonstrated by everyone in the palliative care team is something everyone in my family is extremely grateful for. Fergus was able to come home to die, with his pain minimised as much as possible and with his dignity intact. The time we were able to spend with him in those final hours is something I can say I am very thankful for. The palliative care nurses regularly encounter people at their most vulnerable, whether it be the cancer patient in pain, or their loved ones coming to terms with their impending loss and the care and understanding shown to my family is something that I want to express my gratitude for tonight.
Almost two years on from his death, I can reflect on how lucky we were in a way to be able to have the four and a half years with him and to be able to say goodbye to him properly. Many people who lose loved ones suddenly don’t have that privilege. His death from the cancer was inevitable, from the time of the first diagnosis it had metastasised. We came together as a family in those four and a half years, although we continued to argue healthily! Myself and my brothers spoke with him more often and more as equals in those last years than in the years preceding his illness.
In the months following his death I thought of him often and still do. Watching one of your parents become ill, helping to care for them and watching them die is life-changing. Everyone grieves differently. I had two small children at the time when he died and life has to go on, meaning you don’t always get the time you would like or need to deal with the grief. However, in the quiet moments when I was alone following his death I was able to reflect on what he meant to me and what I have lost – his love and wisdom and knowing he won’t see his seven grandchildren grow up. I feel his absence at family events, birthdays, weddings where I expect to see him sitting beside my mother, most keenly of all when my daughter Éilis was born late last year. Although I visit his grave, I don’t need to do that to remember him. I still think about him every day and see echoes of him everywhere in my life. When I see his hat hanging in the kitchen in my mother’s house. When I look at my reflection, or the faces of my brothers and see parts of his face looking back at me and when I see the stubbornness of some of his grandchildren.
It has obviously been the hardest for my mother Mary who was married to Fergus for almost 40 years, raised my brothers and me, who ran the family business with him and who cared for him throughout his illness. She has had to adapt to living on her own, as well as the loss of his companionship and love. In the past five years, her position in the family unit changed from being Fergus’s wife and business partner to his main carer, a role which she fulfilled selflessly, sharing the burden of his illness with him while he was with us and preserving his memory following his death. She has had to adapt to the more subtle changes that follow a death in the family. She has had to deal with the unintended insensitivity of people who have yet to experience bereavement themselves. On the other hand she has been surprised and heartened by visits from people Fergus had worked with many years previously calling into her to pass on their condolences, as well as the support, company and understanding of friends and neighbours.
Fergus accepted his death and was grateful for the life that he and my mother had made for themselves. He spoke openly about life and death throughout his illness and made it clear that he thought life was for the living. The experience of living with cancer and dealing with its aftermath has taught my family how important it is to value the time you have with your loved one.
Finally, I would like to take this last opportunity to express my thanks and gratitude to all people working in the cancer services, from medical professionals through to end of life carers. While everyone’s experience of losing someone to cancer is different, I’m sure everyone that is here tonight will identify with some of what I’ve shared with you.
Thank you and I wish you all the best.