Mark George would have been 60 this year and was planning lots of good times with his wife Angie for their retirement, involving travel, cycling and motorbike tours. However all those plans and dreams were shattered when he was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) – a highly aggressive type of tumour. Angela took an early retirement to care for her husband for 18 months, before he passed away in January 2018, aged 59. Despite losing their dad, Mark’s children Olly and Beth, 27 and 25, summoned the strength to conquer the London Marathon in April 2018, raising over £17,000 for the Brain Tumour Research charity.
Here is Mark’s story, as told by his wife, Angela…
When Mark was diagnosed with a brain tumour, it was like a tray of crockery being hit from the bottom and everything flying up into the air and crashing down around us. Nothing could have prepared us for the news, Mark was fit and healthy, he cycled hundreds of miles every week and was such a loving husband and father to our two children Olly and Beth.
In July 2016, Beth, who was working as a production assistant for Sonia Friedman Productions, had secured Mark and I tickets to the world premiere of the Harry Potter stage production. It was a red-carpet occasion and we had such a fabulous day and evening.
A couple of days later, Mark went cycling with his team, the Polhill Racing Club. He was a passionate racing cyclist and had been since he joined the Medway Velo Cycling Club as a teenager. He was very active all of his life, and also enjoyed rugby and fly fishing. Both Mark, our children and I loved going to watch our favourite team Saracen’s and had travelled across the country and around Europe to watch them play.
“It was while Mark was out on his bike ride that we got the first inclination that something was wrong. He had tried to turn left but he had lost all movement in his arm. Initially, Mark assumed that his shirt was too tight and had cut off the circulation to his arm. He cycled home and also wondered whether he’d had a mini stroke.”
Two days after this, Mark woke me up in the night saying he felt ill and that his heart was racing. This was so unlike him, he was always at the peak of health and rarely complained about feeling poorly so, when he asked me to call an ambulance, I knew something was very wrong.
The paramedics performed an ECG which suggested there was nothing wrong with Mark’s heart. We told them about the left arm weakness he had while cycling but they didn’t think this was related to his fast heartrate. As Mark was on medication for an underactive thyroid at the time, they thought his racing heart may be a side effect of the drugs he was on and the fact he’d lost a bit of weight.
Over the next week Mark’s health continued to give us cause for concern. Again, while out on his bike, he suffered from a left arm weakness and, when he returned from the cycle run to join us at a family barbeque, things got very worrying. He was agitated and fixated on random tasks. My parents had joined us and, like me, they couldn’t understand why he was behaving so oddly. He stumbled over while going upstairs, dropped a glass and when he was in the shower, he had another fall. We knew something was wrong and that he needed medical attention, so we took him to our local A&E department at Medway Maritime Hospital.
It was quite ironic that Mark, who had worked for most of his life in the medical and pharmaceutical industry, was now the one to need healthcare. At the time, he was working as the maintenance manager at the Princess Royal Hospital in Bromley and, though his job was sometimes stressful, he was very proud that he was helping other people who needed hospital treatment. He was conscientious and worked hard all of his life. He had also worked for the Wellcome Trust/ GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and was fascinated by their research; we never imagined that one day he would be relying on medical research himself.
Mark was referred for a CT scan. He was kept in for observation for a few days and, once again, an ECG indicated there was nothing wrong with his heart. I informed our children and Beth joined us at the hospital. When the CT scan results came through, Mark was sent for an MRI, and the doctors told us that Mark had a lesion in his brain. I felt very naïve and, to be honest, was unsure what they meant. I thought it was serious and Mark was unknowingly to me worried that if there wasn’t anything wrong with his heart there was probably going to be something wrong with his brain.
“Mark was taken to the neurological science department at King’s College Hospital where he had an MRI scan. By this stage, I had a gut feeling that this was more serious than first thought and, much to my dismay, my intuition proved right. The scan revealed that Mark had a tumour the size of a strawberry, which was fast-growing, and it had only been there for about four weeks. It was an aggressive glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) and later we were told that the diagnosis was terminal and he had a prognosis of 15 months.”
Mark had an emergency operation to remove the tumour and, after the surgery, the surgeons were really pleased with how the operation had gone. They were amazed at his quick recovery and I think this was because he was so fit and healthy. I moved into my daughter’s flat in London while he recovered in hospital for a further 10 days.
Following on from his surgery, Mark had chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He responded really well and was even out on his bike while having treatment. He hated losing his hair; he had always had such lovely, thick dark hair, with no grey whatsoever, so losing this was upsetting for him. Nevertheless, he looked really well and continued to do DIY around the house.
I was struck by how invisible Mark’s illness was and, as we pulled up to hospital appointments with a disabled parking badge, pedestrians in the street looked puzzled as if we were taking advantage of the free parking bay. Mark had lost his peripheral vision and suffered from short-term memory loss. He also suffered dreadful personality changes as a side-effect from his medication, which I wasn’t prepared for. We had been thrown into an alien world and couldn’t comprehend how this diagnosis could be so horrendous, yet so invisible to see.
Mark continued to rally on for a good few months and in June 2017 he was well enough to go fly fishing in Scotland with my uncle Chris. He had a wonderful time and was cooking meals and wading in the nearby lochs to fish. Mark travelled back from his trip on the train independently, as, because of his tumour, he wasn’t able to drive and I picked him up from the station. We stopped off in the Lake District for a couple of nights and, even though he had seemed a bit confused and had some short-term memory loss, he truly seemed like his normal self again. I remember thinking ‘we’re going to beat this’ and that he’d be the man to defy the statistics. At this point, I truly thought he was going to get better.
As I drove us back home, we stopped off in Birmingham to see Olly, where he was living. Devastatingly, while we were there Mark had a massive seizure and I had to call an ambulance. It was terrifying.
Having been referred back to King’s a scan revealed that there had been a regrowth of Mark’s tumour and he needed immediate surgery. The second operation once again removed all of Mark’s tumour but he was left with several side-effects from the surgery, including losing the use of his left leg.
Over the coming weeks Mark deteriorated further. By the end of November 2017, Mark was in a wheelchair and it was dreadful to see a man once so fit and healthy barely able to even walk. We met with a new oncologist at Guy’s Hospital in Southwark who started him on PCV chemotherapy. He became very poorly on his first round of the treatment and was about to start a second round, but had to stop treatment as Mark was deteriorating and was very weak.
For a short period of time, Mark was admitted to the local hospice for medication management. He hated it there and had a fall, so, as he wished, we brought him home, where we were supported by carers. This was a really tough time for us all but I would not have it any other way, as Mark was at home, comfortable, with family and friends around him, which is what he wanted.
“Both the surgery and the tumour had left lasting imprints on Mark’s brain and he was awfully unwell. In order to support him, I retired early at 55, from my job as a headteacher. I’d suddenly been thrown from being Mark’s wife to being his carer and, as he suffered dreadful personality changes, it became so difficult for us to deal with this.”
There was no way that Mark would have dealt with day-to-day life without me, so I dread to think how brain tumour patients who don’t have a partner manage to get by.
Mark was at home for his 59th birthday on 14 January 2018 and many of his friends and family members joined us for the day. It was a special day and he enjoyed seeing everyone for a final time. It was nine days after his birthday, on 23 January, that Mark passed away, with me, Beth and Olly at his bedside.
After his death, I was left with an enormous sense of unfulfilled potential. I thought about all the things we had been planning to do in our retirement, that we had worked so hard to accomplish in our 34 years of married life. When we were younger, we had postponed our travels as we were saving for a deposit to buy a house; we were content that we would be able to enjoy holidays when retired. We had finally paid off our mortgage and life was starting to get better when, in an instant, it had all been ripped away. Mark had intended on doing more cycling in Europe, taking in mountains and going on exotic holidays with me by his side, but his dreams were shattered by this merciless disease.
Losing Mark has left a gaping hole in our lives and nothing is ever going to be the same. In March 2018, Beth, Olly and I went to watch Saracen’s in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup in Dublin. It was so hard for us to be there without Mark narrating the entire game and traveling back home alone was especially tough. The three of us applied and got tickets for the Japan rugby World Cup in October 2018 and, even though Mark’s aim was to get there and we wished for him to be there with us, I think he must have been watching down on us to help us secure those tickets.
I also lost my dad to heart failure in April 2018 and have found losing both him and Mark completely devastating. I’m immensely proud of Beth and Olly’s achievements as, despite everything they’ve gone through, they ran the London Marathon this year, just three days after their grandad died and raised over £17,000 for the Brain Tumour Research charity.
I know they did this and their dad would be so proud of them. Fundraising has given us all a great deal of purpose and strength at a time when we needed it the most. I have to channel my energy and use my life to help raise funds and awareness in Mark’s memory.
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