In Our Hearts Stories
Less than 20% of those diagnosed with a brain tumour survive beyond five years
When project manager Stuart Dolphin married Alexandra, the love of his life, in December 2017 they were full of hope and dreams for the future. In April 2018 the newlyweds enjoyed a belated honeymoon to Dubai and Mauritius, where they had a fabulous time and spoke often about their future plans as husband and wife. Little did they know that just months later he would be diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer. Tragically, Stuart and Alexandra’s time together was cut short when he lost his brave battle with this awful disease in May 2019, at the age of just 30.
Here is Stuart’s story, as told by his widow, Alexandra…
Stuart and I both grew up in Preston, Lancashire. We went to different schools but I had seen him around on nights out in town and so he was a familiar face. One evening in 2015 a mutual friend had a housewarming party and it was there that we first met properly and got chatting. We had a whirlwind romance and the following year we enjoyed our first holiday together in Croatia. It was there that we realised our feelings for each other were really strong and we decided that on our return to the UK, I would move in with him and we would get a dog. I had previously been living at home with my mum and dad. They fully approved of my decision, as Stu was such a lovely, caring man.
Stu and I married on 22 December 2017 at Armathwaite Hall in Keswick. It was a perfect day.
“After a few months of newly-wedded bliss, things took a course neither of us or our families could ever have predicted.”
It all started in early August 2018, when Stu became forgetful. I would tell him something and minutes later he had forgotten what I had said. I thought he wasn’t listening to me but when he then started coming out with the wrong words and experiencing dizziness, I encouraged him to go to the GP. At first the doctor thought he was stressed and prescribed antidepressants.
Only a few days after his GP appointment, one Sunday we were about to drive over to my parents’ house for lunch, and he said he wasn’t feeling well and asked me to drive. This was really out of character, as Stu always preferred to drive. The next morning Stu told me he couldn’t go in to work. He has always been career driven, completing a graduate scheme with BAE Systems to become a project manager. He was not one to miss work and I began to worry. He was also beginning to slur his speech, was sleeping a lot and would vomit whenever he tried to get up. I called NHS 111, thinking he might have a bad virus, and they sent an ambulance.
It was decided he should go to A&E. The paramedic asked Stuart if he would like to be taken to Chorley and South Ribble Hospital or to Royal Preston. Stu being Stu, he chose Chorley, as it’s closer to home and he thought it would be quieter than Preston. When we got there, they did their observations and tests, including a CT scan. By this point I had a feeling something serious was going on and so I called his sister, Heather, and asked her to come to hospital. I also let his mum and dad know what was happening and they joined us too.
“We were in Stu’s cubicle when a doctor came in and said: ‘Stuart, you have something on your brain’. My heart sank. I panicked. What did he mean?”
If I had been standing when he broke the news, I’m sure I would have fallen over. Stuart was still sleeping, completely out of it. The doctor showed me the scan image, which revealed a large, white mass. They told me they didn’t know what it was, but that he needed to go to Preston Hospital to have neurosurgery.
Stu was blue lighted to Preston, where he managed to get a bed on the neurosurgery ward, which we were told were like “gold dust”. I felt relieved that he was in the right place. They gave him steroids to reduce the swelling on his brain and they sent him for an MRI scan, which confirmed it was a tumour. At that point they couldn’t say what grade or tumour type it was. They decided to operate, to remove as much of the tumour as possible and to perform a biopsy.
“Stu’s operation was on 17 August 2018, his dad’s birthday. We were told it would be the most important operation happening that day, and that the surgery was very risky.”
That day was awful. He was under the knife for six hours. There is nothing you can do but wait. I was in the hospital waiting for news when I received a call on my mobile from an unknown caller. It was Stu. He said: “Hi A.D.!” (‘A.D.’ was his nickname for me). He was in recovery waiting to come back up to the ward. I was so pleased to hear from him. When I went to see him in recovery he looked as well as could be expected. He had a small bandage on his head and was more alert than he had been before the surgery.
After Stu was discharged, it was an anxious, ten-day wait until his biopsy results. We did things to try and keep busy and distract ourselves, like playing mini golf and going out for walks. When the day came and we were back in hospital for the results we were greeted by a specialist nurse called Jackie and I immediately thought it didn’t bode well.
“ We were called into a small consultation room and after brief introductions, we were given the devastating news that Stu’s tumour was an aggressive, incurable, grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme (GBM)”
I looked at Stu and we were both in utter shock. We knew it wasn’t good but we would have to wait for an appointment with his neuro-oncologist to find out what, if anything, could be done. Jackie advised Stu to think long and hard about whether he wanted to know his prognosis. She felt the prognosis is just a guess and that it might not be helpful for his fight against the disease. He decided he didn’t want to know and so we relayed our wishes but unfortunately, the message didn’t get through to Stu’s oncologist, who told us the catastrophic news that, on average, GBM patients only survive 12-18 months, with the help of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. If Stuart chose not to have the treatment, he would be looking at 3-6 months.
We were all gobsmacked – Stu, his parents, Heather and me. I was also angry. We had specifically asked not to know the statistics. It was horrendous.
“Stu’s initial reaction to the prospect of six weeks of daily radiotherapy was ‘what’s the point if I have only got a year to live?’. After the shock, however, and with the support of his specialist nurse, Stuart found his fight, and began radiotherapy alongside chemotherapy.”
Stu coped really well with the cancer treatment, remaining positive throughout and saying he would do whatever it took. He said he believed he could defy the odds and conquer the disease.
It wasn’t plain sailing. In September, a month after his operation, we were having tea at my parents-in-law’s house when Stu suffered his first tonic-clonic seizure. It was terrifying. He was put on medication for epilepsy but suffered more seizures, ending up in hospital each time. Stu finished his six-week treatment plan the day after his 30th birthday on 7th November. The same month we had a trip to Budapest booked to celebrate his milestone birthday. The holiday was planned before he had got ill but we managed to get travel insurance and went ahead with the trip. The break was really nice but soon after he returned home, his headaches came back again. We were concerned that the tumour was growing but the doctors were reluctant to give him another MRI scan so soon after treatment and put it off until January 2019.
When the MRI was carried out it revealed our worst fears; the tumour had grown in spite of the intensive treatment regime. Taking into consideration Stu’s age, good level of fitness and the way in which he had coped with surgery the first time around, his surgeon was happy to go ahead with a second debulking operation. That surgery took place at the end of January but unfortunately didn’t go as well this time. Stu was really poorly; he contracted an infection and had to stay in hospital for a few weeks. Things improved slightly when he was finally discharged but within 24 hours of being home, he was admitted to hospital again, via A&E (as he was now classed as an outpatient).
Stu was back in hospital from February until the end of March. His inflammatory markers were high but they couldn’t find the source of his infection. His speech had also been badly affected after his second operation. He couldn’t find the right words to express himself and would get frustrated.
“I was often able to guess what he was trying to say. For example, he once asked me to bring him a ‘Tutankhamun’ but I knew he meant ‘Toblerone’ – Stu was a massive chocolate lover!”
By the time Stu came home he was really unbalanced. We lived in a three-storey house and he would set himself the challenge of getting down the stairs each morning and up the stairs each night, which he managed to do. We also went on dog walks, having fulfilled our dream of getting a dog together, a Cavapoo we named ‘Hooper’. Stu was a very fit and sporty man. He was known for his golfing skills, he played football for a 5 a side team and loved going to the gym. The steroids, which were keeping him alive, had the side effect of making him gain a lot of weight. His face was puffy and he lost most of his hair from the radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
“To go from having a slim, athletic build to looking overweight must have knocked his confidence hugely but he never complained. He just got on with it.”
Stu never knew that he was coming to the end of his life but he talked about fearing the time when we would have to install a hospital bed downstairs. That day never came. On the afternoon of 19 May, we had arranged to meet some friends in the pub. We got in the car on the driveway but before we had set off, Stu went grey and suffered another seizure. We had been told that if he had a seizure which lasted longer than five minutes, we should call for an ambulance. While I was on the phone, he stopped breathing. My sister-in-law’s fiancé, Chris, is a policeman and when they arrived, he did CPR alongside some of our supportive neighbours, but unfortunately, they weren’t able to revive him. An air ambulance came and they did everything they could too but eventually could do no more.
“Before Stuart was diagnosed, I had no idea how devastating this disease is, and how many people it actually affects. Research into brain tumours only receives a woeful 1% of the national spend on cancer research.”
I don’t understand how this can this be when brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer. I am passionate about raising awareness of this awful disease and in Stuart’s memory, I will be completing the Yorkshire Three Peaks on 6 June 2020. I have brought a team of 10 together and we will be walking up Pen-y-Ghent (694 metres), Whernside (736 metres) and Ingleborough (723 metres) – a total of 26 miles and we aim to do it in 12 hours.
When Stu was still alive and fighting this beastly disease, we were constantly looking for new and alternative therapies that may have helped his survival rate. It’s too late for Stuart and the things we dreamt about achieving together will now remain dreams. I am now more determined than ever to channel my grief into something positive. This disease is ripping through families and ruining lives. The current situation is unacceptable and I will do everything I can to help raise more awareness of Brain Tumours and the detestation they cause. With so little current funding, we have a long way to go.
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