My 2011 – Goodbye little sis…

It’s taken me a couple of months to get round to posting this. It’s such a hard thing to sit down, think about and type without giving into the endless space that a blogging platform allows. At first I wanted to write a tribute to my little sister Holly who passed away on the 29th October this year, but that’s something I still find too hard to think about, so instead I’m sharing some of my favourite memories from this year that’s been largely focussed on the hell that cancer brings. I’d also like thank a number of people – many of whom I don’t know and won’t be aware of knowing of how they’ve helped, in their small ways they’ve bought some rays of sunshine for both my little sis in her last months and to me personally as I lived through this with Holly and my family. Apologies, this is wordy, I’ve kept detail to a minimum.

The Cancer

In January this year we discovered that my sister Holly had a large cancerous tumor on one of her ovaries. She’d been increasingly unwell for a number of months, the doctors were scratching their heads. Her symptoms were mainly revolving around shallow breathing. It was only when her sides started to hurt that an X ray was ordered and within 24 hours we knew there was a mass. Within two days she was in Barts Hospital’s and having major surgery.

The tumour removed was the size of a rugby ball. The following few months saw several three day courses of chemotherapy at Barts. It was intense and hard for all of us to get through. But soon enough, despite being quite weak, we started to see Holly get back to her old self.

But then towards the end of June the sickness started to come back. Our fears were confirmed, the cancer had re-emerged this time in her stomach. With nothing further they could do to help, Holly was referred to a more experienced team at the Charing Cross Hospital (which is in Hammersmith – not the West End, as it’s name would suggest!) From mid-July, Holly spent most of her time over in Hammersmith with a new fight on her hands, only spending a handful of 3/4 day stints at home in those three months. The chemo they were trying was strong and played havoc with her electrolytes. It was painful to live and hard to watch. But she never gave up hope and put her all into fighting every step of the way.

Eventually the chemo became too much, it was doing more damage than good. It had to be paused a around the start of October to give Holly’s body a chance to recover. But the cancer was active and virulent. It was spreading and there was nothing any of us could do, but Holly didn’t let go and fought and fought every second. Me and my family were at the hospital all day and her fiancee stayed nights (as well as days) to make sure she was never alone. The end came on the morning of Saturday 29th October, she held on until she knew we were all with her, she was extremely peaceful and then the pain was gone.

My list of thanks

A strange list of thanks from my perspective, outside of my immediate close friends and family. Some obvious, some not so. A lot revolve around some extremely fond memories of the extra time we gained with Holly this year.

Matt Lucas, Alfie Boe and the incredible cast of Les Miserables. 

If there were two performers that Holly adored more than any other, that would have been Matt and Alfie. From the early days of Shooting Stars, through Rock Stories to the greater successes of Little Britain and Come Fly With Me most recently, Holly always found herself drawn to Matt’s humour. He always pushed her funny bone yet she always missed out on the live performances, always failing to get tickets to the TV and radio recordings and never quite managing to make any of the tours that accompanied the TV series. Likewise, she was gutted to have missed the Les Mis concert at the O2 which starred Matt and her favourite modern tenor Alfie Boe. We (myself & Matt) had a private twitter exchange and when I told her she laughed, when I showed her the DM’s she smiled and when I loaded up the email saying you were now following me she could only say, “I’ve really got to get myself on this twitter thing!”

Holly absolutely loved her musicals and a night out at the theatre. Her two favourites that constantly jostled for top position in her affections, were the original Phantom and Les Miserables. When Matt and Alfie were announced to be playing Thenardier and Jean Valjean for a season in London, I whisked up to Barts hospital one evening after work and showed her the amusing video with these two stars signing their contracts with Cameron Mackintosh. The excitement and joy on her face is a look I’ll never forget, likewise her returning home from that session of chemotherapy, opening her laptop and proclaiming we were going to buy tickets before they sold out.

Having never seen the show before – a crime, especially as for a short period I was honoured to have made the video reportage for whatsonstage.com – Holly insisted that I saw it with her dream leading cast. It became my birthday present. Holly’s ideal seats, mid-week, dream casting, me, Holly and her fiancee. It came as bittersweet timing that the night booked was a mere few days after the relapse in the stomach was diagnosed. She had become very ill, very quickly again. But determined to make the show, the doctors clamped her stomach drain, taped it off, dressed her up and let her out – I joked on twitter that I was ‘breaking her out of hospital’ just to make it more special. Whilst always feeding positive thoughts in the back of my mind I was all too aware this could actually be my last birthday present from my little sister. In reality it turned out to be one of her last nights out – her final one in the theatre.

The front of house team at the Queens Theatre were superb in giving us access, making sure Holly was comfortable and making her feel special without drawing too much attention to the illness she was experiencing. Matt, Alfie, Hadley, Alexia and the entire supporting cast of leads and ensemble were on pure form. I loved the show. We both laughed and cried, me probably slightly more so with the added poignancy. It’s all too easy to forget just how hard these performers, crew, technicians work to give you a few hours of entertainment, several times a week. A show thats so physical as this too deserves extra thought and applause. Each individual night they entertain those who seek a fun night out, just as much as those who’re looking to create special memories; such as us on that night. Thank you so much, Matt, Alfie and company. It was perfection, a night I shall always cherish and hold dear. Me and my family are planning to pop back soon and see the current cast, and I promise to stop by the stage door and shake everyone’s hands as they leave.

Alfie we used your recording of Bring Me Home as the exit music for her funeral. It had to be you and it had to be that song. Your gift is so special and touches so many of us, thank you for never giving less than your best at every performance.

Russell Brand

To my amazement I won a pair of tickets to the premiere of Arthur earlier this year. I wanted to take Holly with me, she loves Russell Brand and had been through so many hard times with the chemo I thought it would be a great treat. It was an effort for her, just walking from the car park to the cineworld in The O2, but she wanted it so bad so pushed and pushed.

Cineworld gave the comp winners access to an area opposite the media crews to wave in and say hello to the talent as they enterered the premiere. With the exception of Dame Helen and Russell, Holly sat on the floor, too tired to wait. What happenned with Russell was astonishing.

He was under pressure from his management to sign autographs quickly and move on – in true showbiz fashion they were running behind schedule. Just as he was about to walk in, he spotted Holly. I know that he too has been touched directly by the terrible effects of cancer within his family, so my guess is that he saw Holly’s scarf and immediately recognised it for what it was.

He stopped, called Holly over from the back of the crowd, parted those in front of her to give her space. He gave her the biggest of hugs and kissed her cheek, asking her how she was, how she was doing. I asked if I could take a photo, he was more than willing and posed for about a minute with her. Not knowing we were comp winners, he then asked if she wanted to come in with him and watch the film. She was too dumbstruck to answer, so many “umms” – Holly was never lost for words, it was one of her qualities. I chipped in that we’d already won tickets and that he’d just in fact signed them! A typical Brand, over the top “fuuuuccckkkkin ‘ell” expleted from his mouth, making us all laugh. He wished her well and moved on all without drawing any attention as to why he was doing this to the others who were standing either side of us.

All of a sudden Holly was infused with life and energy, she had no pain that day or exhaustion, just a great big grin. I refrained from sharing this story publicly before because it was a private moment in a very public arena. I didn’t want Holly to be caught up in any form of publicity vacuum. Now is the time to share. You can see the photo below and a small video I took of her walking up the red carpet.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5X8OHIqVUg]

Russell. So much shit is written about you, so much is misunderstood. It was clear to me that you were a gentleman of absolute dignity and humanity, you certainly have a spirituality about you that has the ability to touch so many people. That night you made my little sister forget about the nightmare she was living and made her feel like a superstar. That was a feeling she recalled whenever a nurse asked her whether the photo (which we printed, framed and had by her bed in hospital at all times) was of her boyfriend, she laughed, “I WISH,” she’d proclaim and I’m sure the memory of that moment eased the pain all too often through the relapse and those months that got endlessly worse.

Thank you Russell. So much.

The profs, doctors, nurses and staff at Barts, Charing Cross Hospital and our local GP

Prof McNiece, Prof Seckl, all the specialist nurses, counsellors, physio’s and even the wonderful catering team (who cooked special items for Holly at Charing Cross). Thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving her a chance and supporting Holly’s will to fight. Collectively you gave us nearly an extra year with Holly and whilst there was pain, hopefully in reading this you’ll have noticed that we have so many extra memories of being together. We know that losing a patient you grow fond of never gets easier as you do your work, but never let it dent you, instead let it make you more determined to support the next fighter like Holly who lies around the corner. Though the story is one of incredible sadness, we take some comfort in knowing the tumor removed and your observations and attempts to help can only assist your knowledge of this incredibly rare cancer type.

Beppe’s Cafe

We discovered Beppe’s by chance, not quite sure how, I think Holly was hungry after one of her sessions at Barts. Location on West Smithfield, opposite St Bartholomew’s, Beppes is so much more than it seems from the outside. Certainly, it covers your greasy spoon stables such as the full English for the builders, but what Serj(?) has created is so much more.

Offering a range of Italian cafe staples, all cooked fresh and quick. Serj has built on the foundation of his father who opened the cafe and created one of London’s hidden gems. Holly loved your food so much, we were often dispatched to pick up a wrap, or some penne, etc, to have in place of the not so good hospital grub. We too would stop by in breaks and always felt welcomed and cared for, you always asked how we were and how Holly was doing. I intend to continue to pop in and support your cafe, indulging in your quite wonderful halloumi burger.

Steve Jobs and Apple

Steve. Me and Holly were both so sad to hear of your recent passing. I myself discovered the news when Holly phoned home to tell mum – you were so shocked and upset. You and your team at Apple have changed our family’s life. Holly was prone to working through a PC every 12 to 18 months, putting so much useless crap on that it just froze, charging pins snapped, it just all went wrong. I introduced her to her macbook pro and she never looked back. Even now, three years on, it’s in full working order. Just like new! In hospital, she used it every day; planning her wedding, watching catchup TV, listening to music on iTunes. As a family we’re all iPhone connected, it kept us in touch, able to deal with things, look into what was happening and generally manage ourselves – most devices would add to the stress, your iPhones and iPads did the exact opposite. So thank you.

The Prince Charles Cinema

Whilst there are many fantastic indie and rep cinema’s in London, none do it so well as this place. Why? Well they care more. About their programming, the source it comes from and about their customers. The Prince Charles has a great sense of community both on and off line, they listen, they share and they let their regulars get involved. It’s also a great building; like the best of music venues, basement based, intimate, grungey and on the outskirts of their more mainstream friends seconds away in Leicester Square. This year I’ve taken refuge in their screen on countless occasions, screamed ‘shopliffffteeeeeerrrrrr’ with 200 like minds at Empire Records and excitedly beamed (maybe a little too much) about the Cameron Crowe double bill which Paul V kindly let me gatecrash with a display of props and such. I’ve really bonded with this institution over the last 12 months, every one of its incredible staff and every person I’ve met there. I feel so welcome and at home with you, thank you so much.

Fairlop Brass

Holly adored playing her instruments and nowhere else was that more true than with her friends at Fairlop Brass. So many of you kept in touch with Holly throughout her illness and it pleased her so so much. She listened to the Christmas CD you recently recorded with joy. Whenever she made it home for a few days, her aim was always to come and join you at band practice.

Your website tribute to Holly was incredible. My Dad was in tears. We thank you so much for what you gave her and are even more touched by you honouring her by accompanying the hymns at her funeral service – I’m sure that she smiled over us all that day knowing you were there.

MacMillan Nurses and Maggies

It goes without saying that the MacMillan nurses go above and beyond to support those affected by all forms of cancer as well as those closest friends and family. From health and wellbeing, to feel good sessions, to support, guidance and counselling and getting your home fit to return too. It’s invaluable to all who sadly live through times like these. As is Maggies.

I learned of Maggies whilst watching a documentary about how architecture and health have to have a harmonious relationship. Realising it was based at Charing Cross, I immediately wanted to know more – then discovered that my mum and Holly had already been using this incredible centre. Maggies do several incredible things. They provide a building that – as the documentary pointed out – is a far cry from what a standard health centre feels like, as soon as you walk in, you feel like you’re at home. It provides a break from the concrete hospital walls for those who’re sick with cancer, in turn giving their families a break. Go in, make tea, have some time out, chat to one of their volunteers, read a book. They also provided great assistance with paperwork and gaining the pay support and DLA that Holly became entitled too. Just a short meeting and they did all the admin for us. Incredible. Maggies have helped make the last few months of hell that little bit easier for all of us, they need constant funding from public donations and I’m sure that’s something that I’m going to support for some time to come.

Friends (largely with code names for personal reasons)

Gen, Sami, Andrew, Paul, Mac Tea, Sporty Spice, Maurice Moss, Mary Berry, Calarny, Gigantor, Natfly, Diana, Hana. You’ve all supported me, kept me positive, chatted, talked, laughed, joked and provided company. You’re all wonderful and shall be rewarded with the kind that you’ve shown me.

Donations

We set up a few Just Giving pages so that we can help give back to those services that supported us and are always fighting to beat cancer. If I can help someone donate a pound or even just raise awareness of what they do in Holly’s memory, then I will do that at any given opportunity. So if you do find yourself with some spare pennies at any point in the next year, please consider one of the following very worthy causes.

Maggies Centres: http://www.justgiving.com/HollyMillerMaggies

Macmillan Cancer Support: http://www.justgiving.com/HollyMillerMacMillan

Cancer Reseach UK: http://www.justgiving.com/HollyMillerCancerResearchUK

Ovarian Cancer Action: http://www.justgiving.com/HollyMillerOvarian