‘My husband was killed by breast cancer’
Father of two thought his chest pain was a muscle strain. A little more than a year later, he was dead
On Father’s Day last year, Jo Tridgell couldn’t leave the house. “The thought of seeing all those happy families together ...” she says. “I’m afraid it was just too much.”
Instead, Tridgell, a 40-year-old TV producer from Teddington, Middlesex, stayed at home and marked the day with her two daughters, Phoebe, 6, and Florence, 4. The only person missing was the girls’ father. Her husband, John, had died of cancer five months earlier, at the age of 43.
“The children seem to understand he’s gone,” says Tridgell today, as she sits in a sunny playroom, the children’s artwork brightening up the walls. “But we talk about him every day as though he is here.”
The fact that John is not with them is down to the most terrible luck: not only did he contract a fast-growing aggressive cancer, but its location – in the small amount of breast tissue that men have behind their nipples – was a complicating factor.
Breast cancer is rare in men. According to Cancer Research UK, about 390 men are diagnosed each year in the UK, compared with 54,800 cases in women. This means treatment protocols may differ, which could be a factor in survival. It also makes the chance of the cancer being missed more likely.
But, for John, this was not the case.
“He had had a skin cancer removed from his back when he was in his early 30s,” says Tridgell. “So he was more alert to the possibility of cancer than most. He was fairly healthy, too. He was into running as a way to unwind from his job as a marketing director at LinkedIn. He went to the gym, and we ate healthily as a family.”
The first sign that anything was wrong came in November 2015. “John started complaining to me of a soreness in his upper left chest. It was a sort of flat swelling, a hardness across the muscle. He thought he had strained something.” Three weeks later, John said: “I think I need to see the doctor tomorrow. The lymph nodes in my neck are all swollen.”
He was seen the next morning and, two days later, had a CT scan. “It was obvious the doctor thought it was something significant, but I thought it must be related to the melanoma.”
The couple were moving house that weekend, which added to the strain while they waited for the results due on the Monday morning. “When they came, I remember sitting in the surgery and it was really confusing. The doctor was asking us questions, not offering a diagnosis. I glanced down at his report and read it upside down. I could just make out the word ‘mass’. I thought, oh God ... ”
The doctor was talking not about John’s chest, but a shadow that had shown in his abdomen. “I had no experience of cancer, but I knew enough to know that if it was in more than one place, that was bad news.”
More tests revealed that there was cancer in John’s bone marrow, but at first the doctors couldn’t identify its primary source. Then, in another consultant’s office, where John was receiving private healthcare thanks to medical insurance through his work, his wife asked whether it could be in the breast. John’s nipple looked strange, which she remembered was a potential sign of female breast cancer. The doctor agreed to put that on the list of possible primaries.
“We were left in no doubt that the situation was serious. The cancer could be treated with chemotherapy, but there would be no cure.”
In the waiting room outside, Tridgell said to her husband: “This is not going to happen to us. The doctors can think that, but we will do everything we can to prove them wrong.”
John began a series of more investigations to establish the best chemotherapy regime, and went into hospital to have a port fitted to his chest so he could administer the drugs at home. “But as soon as he came home, the doctor called him back in again: his kidneys were failing.”
The mass in his abdomen was an enlarged lymph node that was blocking his kidneys and needed stenting. The day after, while he was recovering in hospital, a doctor came to John’s bedside to reveal that the extensive tests had confirmed breast cancer.
“That sounded good to me,” says Tridgell. “I thought, people survive that. We were almost celebrating.”
John was released from hospital on Christmas Eve. “I’d been dreading Christmas, thinking it might be the last one. I had told the children that he had gone to the North Pole to see Father Christmas as I wasn’t sure if he would be home. So it was a huge relief to have him home with our family around us.”
Treatment began in earnest on New Year’s Eve, a combination therapy called ECX. “He responded really well to it. The mass in his chest had shrunk back and it was looking good.” But during a break from the chemo the cancer began to return. “Alarm bells were ringing about how aggressive it was.”
John moved on to another chemotherapy drug, paclitaxel, and by September 2016 he had put on weight and was looking healthier. In November, the couple went to Germany so John could have hyperthermic chemotherapy, whereby the body temperature is carefully raised to 40 degrees to trigger the immune system and “supercharge” the treatment. “When he came back he was feeling really good – positive, more energetic. Throughout December, he had radiotherapy to shrink the cancer further.”
The couple began making plans for the new year. But over Christmas John showed signs of deterioration in a new way. “Two days after Boxing Day we went for a walk, but when we came home John became disorientated and confused.”
A scan revealed the cancer had spread to his brain. John began suffering such terrible headaches, Tridgell is not sure he was able to take in the news from doctors that his time was coming to a close. “We had never discussed time frames, because it seemed so defeatist. If you don’t know how long you have been predicted to live, maybe you can outwit that.”
In the following two weeks, Tridgell found quiet ways to say her goodbyes. Phoebe and Florence were able to see their Daddy, too. “I had to prepare them for him not coming home, but at the same time I didn’t want them to say something to him directly. I didn’t want him to be frightened.”
John died on January 11, the day before his wife’s 39th birthday. “The end came quickly, and I am grateful for that. I also feel lucky that we had a year where we could make memories as a family. Every occasion, we celebrated properly, whether it was Hallowe’en or Christmas. I even found some birthday presents in his wardrobe which he had bought in advance and hidden.”
She adds: “We were blessed that there were no regrets. There was no way to predict this cancer or catch it any sooner. We tried every therapy we could. Nothing could have saved him.”
But Tridgell hopes that will not be true for other men. While undergoing treatment, John took part in several research projects, including the National Male Breast Cancer Study led by the Institute for Cancer Research (ICR). Funded by the charity Breast Cancer Now, the study, led by the ICR’s Professor Anthony Swerdlow, is the biggest of its kind in the world.
The researchers are looking at the genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that increase breast cancer risk in men.
John’s widow is now focusing on raising awareness as well as funds that will allow Swerdlow and his colleagues to perform additional analysis work to better understand the condition. She has raised more than £60,000 so far in John’s memory, and took part in the London Marathon this year. “John loved running, and we’ve all taken it up as a way of keeping his memory alive. Earlier in the year, Phoebe and Florence did a 2km race with 30 young friends.
“When I run I think about John. But he is never really far from my thoughts.”
– © The Daily Telegraph