‘We both got cancer after we hooked up – but it’s made our love stronger’

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Sally Pickles, 54, and Graham Hoare, 51, from Knebworth, Hertfordshire, have been together for eight years, and supported each other through life-threatening illnesses…

By Gail Shortland

Neither Sally Pickles nor Graham Hoare were looking for romance when they first met in November 2010.

Sally was twice divorced and working as a receptionist at a David Lloyd gym, and Graham was simply a member, coming in regularly for a workout and always stopping by for a chat.

‘I looked forward to him coming in,’ says Sally.

‘We had a lot in common – we were both into fitness, divorced and had two daughters around the same age, so when he first asked me out for dinner, I couldn’t see a reason why not.’

Graham was on the tail end of a nasty divorce and looking for a sympathetic ear and nice company, rather than a new relationship.

‘I was in a deep, dark place emotionally,’ recalls Graham. ‘My fences were electrified, so to speak.’

And yet, that first night, the chemistry between them was obvious.

‘We were the last to leave the restaurant at 2am and even had to be asked politely to go,’ says Sally.

Within three months of dating, they became a proper couple, with Graham constantly surprising Sally and making her laugh.

Graham and Sally holidaying on Lake Como

‘He’d do silly things, like I’d leave work and find a bunch of flowers lying under my car. Once he even left a carrier bag with a block of Marmite Cheddar tied to the door handle, because he knew how much I loved it,’ says Sally.

‘We laughed a lot and loved the healthy, outdoorsy lifestyle. We went on holidays to Italy and walking trips with the dog to Wales, and we often said how lucky we were to have found each other.’

After 10 months, they moved in together in Knebworth, Hertfordshire, and the only curveball in their relationship seemed to be an annoying raised freckle on Sally’s left forearm.

It worried her as it started to grow in size and appear more like a red blemish. Sally went to the GP and had it frozen off, but it left a mark.

‘I was very conscious of it and used to cover it with foundation to blend in with the rest of my skin,’ says Sally.

‘Eventually I went back to the doctor to have it checked and he insisted it was just scar tissue and perfectly normal, but it niggled me, and I asked him to refer me to a specialist.’

The specialist did a biopsy and confirmed the worst – it was a malignant melanoma, a type of skin cancer. The diagnosis was shocking and felt extremely surreal.

‘As a child, I was out in the sun without suncream a lot and would often get burnt, but I never realised this could be the consequence,’ says Sally.

‘But then the doctor explained that 42 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day in the UK.’

When Sally told Graham her diagnosis, he felt helpless. ‘She broke down in front of me and I just held her in my arms,’ he says.

‘When you hear the c-word, you have no idea what’s going to happen or how dark the tunnel can be. I’m generally a half-full type of person, but this time, I couldn’t reassure her. The truth was she could die. After over 20 years in the Air Force, looking after myself and those around me, I was at a loss as to what to do.’

Sally’s skin was removed right down to the bone

In June 2015, Sally had surgery to remove the skin on her left arm right down to the bone.

‘For three weeks after the operation my arm was bandaged, so Graham had to do everything – wash my hair, get me dressed, cook, drive me around. He was amazing and so supportive, although he did dry my hair very badly!’ laughs Sally.

‘Emotionally, though, it was a roller coaster. Some days I’d feel very positive, other days I’d worry the cancer would come back. I even started up a Facebook support group, so I could speak to other women and men going through the same as me.’

Sally’s scar from the surgery

Sally had vigilant checks by a dermatologist three months after the surgery – and was told she would have to have them every three months for five years – but thankfully there was no resurgence of the cancer.

In the meantime, while Sally had been recuperating, Graham had been feeling increasingly tired, his energy levels nowhere near what they once were.

‘I went from running into the gym, excited for my workout, to dragging my kit from the car, feeling like I couldn’t be bothered,’ recalls Graham.

‘I also noticed my right testicle was sore, and wearing shorts didn’t ease the pain or give it enough support.’

Without wanting to worry Sally, who was still recovering from her operation, he secretly booked an appointment with the GP, who sent him for a scan.

‘It was on a Monday morning and I got dressed and pretended I was going to work as normal,’ says Graham.

‘I kept telling myself it was just a scan and it would be fine. There was no need to worry Sally when she had so much to think about herself, and we weren’t quite out the other side.’

The scan triggered another round of tests and scans, and once Sally received the all clear after her operation, Graham told her everything.

‘It seemed so cruel,’ says Sally. ‘We’d just come out of my cancer and now we were going into another health scare.’

The week before Christmas 2015, Graham received the news he’d been dreading: there was a tumour in his prostrate.

‘Suddenly, the tables were turned and I wanted to do everything for him,’ says Sally.

‘We handled it with dark humour and I even joked how typical it was that he had to sneak in on the act just as my cancer journey was ending.’

Graham and Sally took part in a charity spin, just one month after Graham’s op

Graham had an operation to remove his prostate in February 2016 and Sally took a month off work to help him recover.

‘It was so hard to see this fit, active man who used to run marathons barely able to walk, but he didn’t complain at all,’ says Sally.

‘I’d empty his catheter, make him meals and just try to make him laugh, even though he’d often get cross.’

For Graham, having Sally by his side – especially after what she’d been through – made all the difference.

‘Everything came out within our four walls – that’s where we did our suffering,’ says Graham.

‘Our four daughters and parents were very concerned and supportive, but only someone else who has cancer can really understand the mental aspect of what you’re going through.

The medical system is good at fixing your body, but the mental battle is just as important and is so often underestimated when you go through something like this.

The fact that I had a partner who had been through the cancer experience gave me so much strength and support. I still don’t think she has an idea of what a rock she was to me at that time.’

Less than a year after his operation, Graham ran the Great North Run for prostate cancer

 

Both Graham and Sally are routinely tested, but are now free of the disease and making the most of life.

‘The cancer strangely has made us stronger,’ says Graham. ‘Although we were close before, we now understand life and love and want nothing more than to be happy. Our bond is the most important thing to me.’

Remarkably, 220 days after Graham’s operation, he ran the Great North Run – a half-marathon at 13.1 miles – in an hour and 50 minutes.

‘It was a bit slower than normal, but I bawled my eyes out at the end as it was so emotional considering what I’d been through,’ reflects Graham.

Sally and Graham have now adopted a rescue dog

Sally, too, has gained a perspective on life she never had before.

‘It makes you really think about what’s important,’ she says. ‘If something happens, I joke, “Well, nobody died.”

It’s accelerated our lives and made us want to enjoy it more. We rescued a dog last October and have bought a lovely holiday home in Bournemouth – we go on alternate weeks now I’ve given up work, we do what makes us happy.

‘We’ve both been ill and it’s made us more of team than ever before. Occasionally, we’ll look at each other and say, “Gosh, I hope it’s gone.”

‘But even if it does return, we’ll cope. After all, we have each other.’

Source:https://www.mirror.co.uk

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