In Our Hearts Stories
Less than 20% of those diagnosed with a brain tumour survive beyond five years
Paul’s wife, Debbie McGee tells his story…
Despite all that Paul had achieved in his life and his career, the thing he enjoyed the most was making people happy, seeing them laugh and smile. He was such a driven man and always lived for today. Now, 12 months since I lost him, that is what I am trying to do. I am trying not to dwell on the past and to be grateful for all the time we had.
Paul and I met in 1979 and were married in 1988. He had three sons from an earlier marriage and we were always very family-minded and had many friends, some from the world of show business and many others not. Over the years Paul and I built up a reputation together. People knew us from the magic shows on the TV and we spent much of our time working together over the years. Along with the support of family and friends plus the kindness of strangers, it is work that has kept me going.
As an atheist, Paul didn’t believe in the after-life or in ghosts and he wasn’t scared of dying. He believed that when you’re gone, you’re gone, and although I know that’s true it doesn’t stop me talking aloud to him as I wander around the house. Sometimes I hear him reply: ‘Debs, what do you think you’re doing?’
It is important to me to share Paul’s story because I want to help other people. Paul was one of those people who genuinely lit up a room when he walked in and I want people to know how this cruel disease stripped him of everything within a few short weeks to the point where he collapsed on the bathroom floor and I held him as he wept and asked me what was happening to him. By that stage, we knew Paul was terminally ill, he had been through so many tests and scans. He had spent time in hospital but was to confused he didn’t really know what was going on. I am pleased to think that he knew me but, sadly, he didn’t always know where he was. I held onto him as he managed to say: ‘What on earth is wrong with me?’ I just looked at him straight and said: ‘You’ve got a brain tumour Paul.’ He had been told before of course but I don’t think he was well enough to grasp it.
We loved panto and we were both appearing in Ipswich in 2015 so, as usual, I needed to get our Christmas preparations underway early. I had to get all the shopping done and in the post or delivered before we left for rehearsals. Paul was great at doing the wrapping but, this year he didn’t even bother to help and just sat watching TV. We’d had a busy year so I didn’t think much of it other than it would do us good to be away together staying and working in the same place.
Nobody but me would have noticed that Paul wasn’t his usual super-bubbly self. He had been taking medication for a number of years for an under-active thyroid and, noticing the change in him, I thought perhaps his prescription ought to be checked and made a mental note to book a doctor’s appointment.
It was a rare day off from panto on New Year’s Eve that Paul had a dizzy spell and fell back onto the bed. Although it was odd he didn’t seem ill and the next day he was fine and we got on with the last three shows of the run. I drove us home and the following day, a Monday in early January 2016, we went down to see our GP. Paul had some bloods taken and, in the five days it took to get the results, Paul’s condition deteriorated. He was unusually tired and on a couple of occasions he seemed confused. I would ask him something and his answer would be entirely unconnected to the question. It was so unusual that I began to think I had misheard him.
When the blood tests came back the following week the results showed Paul had pernicious anaemia, a treatable condition in which your immune system attacks the cells in your stomach leaving you unable to absorb vitamin B12. Paul started on a course of injections and the doctor reassured me that Paul would soon be back on his feet, he would be back to his normal self and I’d be running behind him to keep up!
The treatment continued and a couple of weeks later he was prescribed vitamin D pills to combat an iron deficiency which had also shown up in his blood tests. Despite this, Paul was going downhill. He was staying in bed until 11am and when he did get up didn’t seem interested in anything. He was still eating OK but would just sit around watching TV. It was so unlike him, a man who was always up with the lark and always busy. There were a couple of occasions when he would try to get up and he would fall over to his left side. I took him back to our village surgery once more and I explained to a nurse, who didn’t know Paul, this was so out of character.
By the time our GP visited us at home that evening, Paul couldn’t answer questions properly, in just a day he had suddenly and rapidly deteriorated. It was clear by then that he needed to see a neurosurgeon and an appointment was made for 12 February. Those ten days passed slowly, Paul was struggling more and more and he would look down at the TV remote control in his hand, fumbling around and not knowing what to do with it.
The morning of the appointment Paul had his breakfast in bed and was violently sick. I called an ambulance which took us to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. All the staff were absolutely fantastic.
Although I had seen Paul deteriorating before my eyes over the previous couple of weeks, I wasn’t prepared for the massive shock that was to come. I was given the devastating news on the day that Paul was admitted; he had a grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) brain tumour. It was malignant and highly aggressive. Paul was in a confused state. He was on a small ward with three or four other men and their visitors could see Paul walking about smiling and joking but it was obvious there was something wrong with him mentally.
When the consultant asked if Paul wanted to know what was wrong, he just said: ‘No, tell Deb.’ When I saw the CT scan, I could see a huge shadow which covered half of his brain. The tumour was pressing on the part of the brain which processes information, and that explained why Paul was mostly OK with things he already knew but struggled to understand anything new.
Although Paul’s biggest fear was having a stroke as his father had, my worst case scenario was that he had some sort of mental disease that he wouldn’t recover from. For a man whose life wasn’t just about performances, that would be unbearable and there is no way we would have wanted to live with a badly diminished mental capacity. I just hoped that it wasn’t something where he would be totally incapacitated , I never, ever thought it was a brain tumour, the idea of that was never on the table although I was only too well aware of this dreadful disease as at the time our niece’s husband, who was just 26, had been diagnosed.
I broke down as the consultant told me Paul’s tumour was untreatable. It was very large and growing quickly. Paul had always been a problem solver, so when I managed to pull myself together I thought right, what would Paul do? But our consultant Richard Armstrong gently said he really didn’t think there was anything which could be done. His opinion was backed up by a multi-disciplinary team at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford who unanimously agreed the tumour was too advanced and there was nothing to be done.
Not only was Paul’s condition terminal but the prognosis was bleak. Without hesitation I made arrangements for Paul to come home and to care for him myself at our home on the River Thames in Berkshire. I wanted him to be as happy and comfortable as possible. Time was short – we had been given a prognosis of two months – in the end we had just one month and five days. Paul was discharged on 23 February and we spent every moment of those last days together at home. The weather was beautiful and we had friends and family to visit. When Paul was well enough we would stroll around the garden down to the water’s edge and when he wasn’t up to that we sat together and looked out of the patio at the lovely view.
We watched movies together and ate ice cream. Paul was never able to talk about his diagnosis but he was a clever man and of course he knew he was dying. He sat quietly with tears rolling down his face as we watched the wedding scene in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
After the news broke about Paul’s diagnosis I had hundreds of letters from people suggesting all sorts of things from marijuana to different types of drugs. My niece’s husband was on the drug Avastin and I did read up all I could about it and booked him into a clinic where he could have the injections. I was just so desperate to make sure I was doing anything and everything I possibly could. On the first day he was due at the clinic, Paul had such a bad episode and it was impossible for me to get him out of bed.
I was desperate to know that we had tried everything but I am a great believer in the idea that life takes you where you are meant to go. The fact was Paul wasn’t well enough to keep the appointment told me it just wasn’t mean to be.
Paul was still getting up every day and eating meals. He would sleep in the afternoon which he had never done before and then watch TV until we had supper together. There were no more than ten good quality days together after he came home when he could see visitors. I needed him to see them and for them to see him.
We got to the stage where Paul didn’t get out of bed for a week. We had nurses to help care for him and my sister stayed, despite the fact that her husband had only recently had serious cardiac surgery. Paul had always been a physically strong man and he would insist on trying to get up when others wouldn’t even have bothered. I had left a nurse with him while I stepped out of the room briefly to fetch him a drink and he insisted on taking himself to the bathroom where he fell. I rushed to find him on the floor, crying. That’s when he said: ‘What on earth is wrong with me?’ I told him, once again, he had a brain tumour. It was heartbreaking.
It is hard to know just how much Paul understood about what was happening to him. I do think that even when he was in hospital he knew he wasn’t going to recover. I never said to him they’ve given you two months, it just didn’t feel right. Less than two years before Paul died, I lost my dad to a different type of cancer. Dad was in his 80s and a month before he passed away, it was as if all the sparkle left him. It was just like that with Paul.
During that last week, we had a visit from the GP every day, and on numerous occasions he would say I don’t think Paul will be here tomorrow. But Paul carried on and it was as if he was willing himself to stay alive. It was just like him, whatever he was doing he always persevered. He loved life too much to just give up.
Although Paul’s voice was becoming weaker we’d continued to share a joke until just two days before he died. It was 48 hours after he went to sleep for the final time and I had left him with the Macmillan nurse while I tried to get a few hours’ sleep. The nurse woke me because she thought I should be with him. I rushed to Paul’s side, held his hand and told him that I loved him. He died about ten minutes later, on 17 March 2016. He was 77.
In the blackest of times I have been able to count on my family and my lovely friends. There has always been someone for me to turn to. I can knock on a neighbour’s door and sit with them for a cup of tea. I’ve always been an independent person but Paul and I were together so much, working together, socialising together and at home together. It is very hard to spend lots of time at home on my own when Paul should be here with me. Since he died, I’ve learned that it’s really important to get out of the house, it’s so hard when you are there day and night on your own. There aren’t many days when I don’t go out and do something even if it’s just for a walk and a change of scene.
There are times even now when I’ll pop into Reading to pick up a birthday present or something and I think I’ll just phone Paul to see what he thinks … then I realise he is not there. We were always phoning each other for silly little things really. Paul would call me because he had seen something he liked or there would be a song or someone on the radio and he would phone to say ‘Are you listening to so and so, you’d really like it.’
If Paul was out for the day and I was at home it wouldn’t be unusual for him to call me five times or more. It was such a habit and then suddenly that person who you shared it with is no longer there. We worked together a lot and were so used to getting up and going to work together or being at home together. It has taken me months and months to even begin to start getting used to the fact that Paul is no longer here.
I feel I am getting more comfortable with it now and count myself fortunate that I have so many friends and lovely neighbours and that my sister still comes to stay regularly. The best tip that someone gave me was to make a change in your routine. Every winter morning Paul and I would get up and have porridge together, now I can’t even think about porridge so I have my breakfast at the gym.
Work has always been important and in the last few months, along with family and friends, it has become a lifesaver. The first rehearsals for this year’s panto in York was hard for me not just because it was my first Christmas without Paul but because it was very similar to one we had done together before. Paul lived for now and that is what I trying to do. There have been very black times but dwelling on the past won’t bring him back, at the moment I feel as if I am coping with things from day to day and week by week.
I did manage to find the strength to move Paul’s clothes into a different wardrobe but I couldn’t bear to think about what I should be doing with them. There is so much of his stuff that I must look through as well, all the tricks and magic memorabilia he collected over the years.
I am very fortunate in that I have always worked and Paul and I built up a reputation together. I have friends who haven’t had their own careers, they lose their husbands and the changes to their lives are drastic. We were always very down to earth as a couple, family-minded, and with lots of good friends some of whom are in showbiz and many who aren’t. There will always be people who only want to know you because you are famous and Paul and I always chose our friends carefully.
When we weren’t working, Paul and I loved to spend time on our boat which is moored on the river at the bottom of our garden. We took great pleasure in taking it out or simply sitting on board and having a cup of tea or a glass of wine together in the evening. The boat had been out of the water for months when I bumped into someone I know from a local marine engineering company. He asked how I was, what I was doing with the boat and then arranged to have it serviced and put back in the water – out of kindness and concern, no charge.
I’ve also found people who we hadn’t been in regular contact with for years have got back in touch and strangers will come up to me in the supermarket and give me a hug. I take great comfort from the amount of love which has been shown to me since Paul died, it means so much.
Each night before I go to sleep I look at a photo of Paul. I know in my heart that he is never coming back but I do think that when someone has been such a huge part of your life and you have shared so much with them, they never really leave you.
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