Yesterday I heard the most horrific, sad and tragic news that my ‘cancer twin’, Ellie Jeffery, passed away the day before, 2 weeks before her wedding to Tom. I know she’d been having a tough time with the chemo she was on, the same one I was on for a few months last year, and she’d made the decision that that was to be her last one before the wedding. She was tired, she needed a break and wanted to be on top form before her big day. She asked me whether I had any regrets about taking a treatment break to go to Thailand and even though it’s likely that time off allowed a tumour to sprout in my brain, I told her absolutely not. Both of us knew the importance of making the most of every day.
Ellie and I stumbled across each other almost accidentally, in fact I can’t even remember how it happened. I’ve written about her before, she was a couple of years younger than me but we had scarily similar stories. Both of us were in our late 20s when first diagnosed, both recurred very quickly after our treatment for primary breast cancer, both of us developed secondaries quickly and we both had triple negative disease which is on the rarer side and is largely recognised as more aggressive and difficult to treat. We had fewer options treatment-wise, hormones were pointless and chemotherapy was really the only thing the doctors could give us.
Ellie and I kept in close, almost daily contact. We’d compare stories about how we’d got on with different drugs – I think we’d both been on the same at one stage or another – and we’d pass on research we’d heard of, and trials we discovered were coming up that we might be eligible for. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel alone. Ellie was the only person who knew what this was like, and with my recent engagement we became even more similar. Suddenly we could share more than cancer stuff and soon she was sending me ideas for our wedding and showing me the shoes she had bought for hers. We were even approached by a documentary maker who recognised our ‘journeys’ were so similar, it might make good telly. The times when I was close to giving up and chucking the towel in, she’d tell me I absolutely wasn’t to, I was to keep fighting, we were going to be the lucky ones and that our magical cure was just round the corner. When I got a brain tumour and immediately thought it was curtains, she said it “wasn’t the beginning of the end, or anywhere near it”, and I thought ‘well if Ellie says that, it must be true.’ And, up to now, she was right.
I knew she’d been feeling unwell for the last few weeks and at some point she was admitted to hospital for a blood transfusion after her platelets sank to very low levels. We exchanged messages, she said she was looking fwd to being busted out of hospital and when she admitted she was a bit worried the cancer was running away with itself, I promised her she was going to be fine, it was just the shitty little bugger trying to freak her out before the wedding. I wish my promise to her had come true.
To me, Ellie wasn’t a ‘brave cancer battler/warrior/something else’, she was Ellie. She didn’t define herself by her condition, she didn’t complain or wallow in self-pity, she just did what she had to do and got on with it, and she definitely wasn’t a victim. She was funny, clever, gorgeous, a talented journalist. She was cool, she made me want to be like her. Cancer was just part of her life, it wasn’t everything. She was so much more than a cancer patient. The word ‘brave’ is bandied around a lot when someone dies of cancer and yes she was brave but to me, ‘brave’ feels a bit passive, like she just put up with whatever happened to her and in the short time I knew her, I quickly realised she was anything but passive. The title of her blog – writtenoff – says it all. She was initially written off by her first oncologist and she took a devastating ‘prognosis’ of months, did her research and homework and found a new oncologist who she came to trust and respect, who gave her a new lease of life and fought for her every step of the way, in the way Alison does for me. She stuck two fingers up to the statistics and defied them. That’s not brave, that’s courageous. She took action, when others would have fallen apart and given up.
Ellie had grace. Cancer robs you of so many things, there’s nothing pink, fluffy and sparkly about it but not once did she lose her dignity. She became my hero in the short time I knew her, and I feel privileged and lucky to have met someone like her. Already I feel a bit lost without her and I’ll always wonder ‘what would Ellie do?’ when it comes to working out what treatments I should go for next. I know she adored her friends and they should feel proud of how they made her feel, in the way my own Team Cancer make me feel. Tom was her world, in the way Andy is mine, and it’s so desperately unfair they didn’t get the wedding day they were so looking forward to. Today I went shopping for wedding dresses with a heavy heart, feeling almost guilty that I’m still here, getting to carry on planning my own wedding when she was so close to hers. But as weird as this sounds, I’ve almost felt her with me all day, urging me to ‘grab life by the balls, love, totes’ and I owe it to her to do just that. If and when my time comes to go, I’m absolutely convinced she’s keeping a space warm for me.
To Tom, her family and friends – my thoughts and love go to you all. She was one in a million x