In Our Hearts Stories
Less than 20% of those diagnosed with a brain tumour survive beyond five years
Husband, father, and grandfather, Dave O'Donoghue, was 59 when he was diagnosed with a grade four glioblastoma multiforme brain tumour, after suffering from severe headaches. Though he underwent surgery and radiotherapy, Dave sadly passed away less than four months after diagnosis, missing his milestone 60th birthday by a matter of weeks. This year marks 10 years since his passing.
“After what seemed like hours waiting in silence for the consultant to arrive, he came in and did not delay giving the diagnosis. Dad had a grade four glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a very aggressive tumour and it was going to end his life within the next three months. We all sat there in shock at the news we had just heard, trying to piece it all together. My mum fled the room in tears while I just sat there in silence with my dad. His only question was if he would make his 60th birthday on the 13th July. The consultant paused, shook his head and said ‘I’m so sorry’.”
Dave’s story as told by his daughter Lynda…
Dave was a great dad, grandad, husband and friend. He was very popular, always cracking jokes, always looking on the bright side of life, and helping other people whenever he could.
It’s been 10 years since he died from an aggressive brain tumour in June 2007, less than a month before he was due to celebrate his 60th birthday. The three months before he died were incredibly hard for me and my family.
I grew up with my older brother Paul in Clapham in South London, and I remember many happy memories from my childhood, filled with laughter, holidays at Camber Sands, East Sussex, and the whole family going to watch my brother play football at weekends.
My parents met when they were 14 years old at secondary school in London. My dad had lots of jobs over the years, including driving a London bus and working on building sites before finally retiring as a principal buyer for a London Local Authority. When he and my mum, Maureen, took early retirement they chose to move out of London to Seaford, East Sussex, in 2002.
I’d been out celebrating St Patrick’s Day when I contracted a virus and felt really unwell. When my dad began to feel unwell with bad headaches and feeling sick, we all just assumed he had caught the same virus. Prior to this he had only complained about feeling extremely tired and his eye sight was getting worse. We thought it might just be his age and his glasses prescription recently changing.
On the Saturday morning, the call came from mum that dad had been up all night with a severe headache and was being sick. She called the out-of-hours doctor and they arranged an emergency appointment. My older brother Paul, who like me had also moved to be near mum and dad, and I turned up to take dad to the doctors. When we came into the house it was very apparent that dad was acting strangely. I followed him up the stairs and he said “I don’t know why I came up here?” and then said “Where are we going?”. I was taken aback, as this wasn’t like him at all. He had a great memory and was the first person to respond quickly to any question and was renowned for always being on the ball. I knew something wasn’t right, but just assumed that the GP would have the answer for us and it would all be OK.
Paul and I sat in the waiting room as the doctor spoke to mum and dad. They tested him on important dates like birthdays, but he could not remember my brother’s birthday. I was shocked. The doctor concluded that my dad had suffered a small stroke and he would refer us to Eastbourne Hospital immediately for further tests. I wasn’t convinced by his diagnosis as I know the symptoms of a stroke and was sure that this was something else. I just hoped the hospital would clear everything up so our life could return to normal.
After several tests and scans at the hospital, we were taken into a small side room where we were sat down and told that dad had a tumour. When the news came I don’t think he really realised what was happening and looked so confused and disorientated. He was kept in overnight but the decision was made for him to be transferred to Haywards Health Hospital the following morning for further assessments at their specialist brain tumour unit. It was heart-breaking to see the once-strong man who would throw my 18-month-old daughter, Sophie, up into the air, reduced to this frail state, unable to walk in a straight line and dragging his left leg.
When I got home, I chose to Google brain tumours and read everything I could so I knew as much as possible about the disease. I’m the sort of person that will collate information to assess the best and worst-case scenario; a trait I inherited from my dad, as he would always say “Lynda, you always need a plan A and a plan B”.
The following day the doctors talked us through next steps and that would mean surgery. They told us that they were confident it could be removed. I think my mum came out of the meeting thinking dad would be fine. I was more cautious, and was trying to be realistic, as what I had read online had given me some scary statistics about survival rates from brain tumours.
It was very uncomfortable to see dad in intensive care after surgery as he was hooked up to so many machines. When he was brought round after the operation the first question he asked was “who won the society golf tournament?”, much to the amusement of the hospital staff. He refused to leave intensive care in either a bed or a wheelchair and surprised staff by walking unaided.
Dad was then allowed to go home while we waited for the results of the biopsy. The few days that followed were a little surreal. Here was a man that had not long ago been in intensive care and was now walking around and going into town to have a coffee with my mum. It was like nothing had happened and that the surgery had been successful.
We went back to hospital for the results and, after what seemed like hours waiting in silence for the consultant to arrive, he came in and did not delay giving the diagnosis. Dad had a grade four glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a very aggressive tumour and it was going to end his life within the next three months.
We all sat there in shock, trying to piece it all together. My mum fled the room in tears while I just sat there in silence with my dad. His only question was if he would make his 60th birthday on the 13th July. The consultant paused, shook his head and said “I’m so sorry”. Everyone reacts differently to bad news, but nothing prepares you in life for news like that. The cancer was terminal and I wasn’t going to have a dad for much longer. It was heart-breaking, but I knew I had to stay strong for him.
We were appointed a Macmillan nurse who contacted my dad that afternoon and there was an appointment with an oncologist to discuss the various treatment options. Things felt like they were moving very quickly. Mum hung on the words of the doctors about treatment options that could prolong his life. She had been with him since he was a teenager and wanted them to be together for as long as possible.
Dad was due to undergo a course of chemotherapy, but that was cancelled due to him contracting shingles, brought on by his poor immune system and stress. Ironically it could have killed him.
It was so upsetting when my brother’s wife gave birth to their first child, Eleanor, but dad was unable to hold her and had to be introduced through a window as the risk of infection was too high.
The only treatment option left was radiotherapy, but after several rounds dad reacted badly and fell unconscious. The decision was made at Brighton Hospital to withdraw all medication and further treatment and we were told that he would not last the night.
My mum, brother, aunt, uncle and I all stayed at the hospital in a little room near A&E, taking it in turns to go in to be by dad’s side. The hospital even sent a priest into his room to read him his last rites. We really thought that night that we would lose him. Miraculously, he woke up the following morning with significant improvements in his ability to move his arms and legs, and even sat up in bed. It really was a roller-coaster of emotions that night for everyone. The weeks that followed passed quickly. Dad was moved to the cancer ward, where we were told he was also now battling early stages of leukaemia. He underwent three more radiotherapy sessions and on completion of his final session he began to experience breathing difficulties and contracted a serious chest infection.
The doctor insisted dad needed to be admitted to hospital, but dad begged me to not let them take him back there, as he wanted to stay at home. Despite our best efforts to fulfil his wishes, we were advised that they could not treat him at home and he needed hospital admission. That night in the hospital we were told that the next 48 hours were critical, and they did not expect my dad to survive. Once again, the priest was called to give him his last rites but unfortunately arrived too late; dad had passed away half an hour before. It was the 20th June 2017, dad missed his 60th birthday by just three weeks, a milestone which he so desperately wanted to reach.
Dad’s illness took all of us by surprise, we all thought we would have more time with him. The doctor, though, had been right and we lost him within three months of his initial diagnosis.
My dad always used to tell me it was “character building” whenever I faced any challenges in life. In September, I am abseiling down the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth to mark the tenth anniversary of his death and what would have been his 70th birthday year, raising money for Brain Tumour Research. This is the scariest thing I’ve ever done as I am terrified of heights, but it will be nothing compared to how scared my dad must have felt knowing he had terminal brain cancer.
Later this year I’m organising a charity golf tournament at his favourite course, Seaford Head in East Sussex. Two years ago, my business sponsored the first hole in his memory, so I know he would be happy knowing his love of golf is still being remembered.
Our family miss my dad every day. My daughter Sophie was so little at the time and he adored her, she is now 12 and never got to know her granddad in person. The whole experience has taught me to not watch the clock as you never get time back. As a consequence, I stopped wearing a watch the day after dad died and became determined to enjoy every moment in life.
Since his death, my mum has told me on several occasions that I’m recreating my childhood with all the fun adventures and activities I have tried since turning 40. The truth is, I have just realised that life is just too short and you have to enjoy every minute as you just do not know what is around the corner.
Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer, yet just 1% of the national spend on cancer research has been allocated to this devastating disease.
If you have been inspired by Dave’s story, you may like to make a donation via www.braintumourresearch.org/donation/donate-now or leave a gift in your will via https://www.braintumourresearch.org/legacy
Together we will find a cure.
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