St John Greene talks about his family's cancer experiences
The author who made Holly Willoughby cry on the This Morning sofa, St John Greene is inspiring millions with his poignant memoir Mum's List about the loss of his wife to cancer and his son’s rare cancer diagnosis. Macmillan Cancer Support helped his family and here he explains how he coped.
Interview by Alison Davies.
St John Greene's story
St John Greene with children Reef and Finn.
I’ve saved about 30 lives as a paramedic, and I’m not a drinker or smoker. In all fairness there should have been some credit ‘upstairs’, but not a bit of it.
Our first born, Reef, was 18 months old when he was diagnosed with such a rare cancer that he was given a six per cent chance of survival; my pregnant wife Kate went into shock and Finn was born two months premature. Two children each with life hanging by a thread. And then Kate got her own cancer diagnosis, triple negative breast cancer.
That was four years ago. A lot’s happened since. Finn is 6, Reef is 7. Kate, 37, died.
So I’m a widower, a dad and a mum, trying my best to help the boys grow into young
I wrote a book, a love story of my soul mate Kate and the list of things she asked us to do and remember her by when she'd gone.
St John Greene on writing his novel
men that would make Kate proud. And in all this turmoil and distress, I wrote a book, a love story of my soul mate Kate and the list of things she asked us to do and remember her by when she’d gone. I’m humbled and amazed that Mum’s List is now a bestseller.
If you’re reading this, you may be going through it, too, the diagnosis, the treatment, the caring, the emotional highs and lows. We didn’t get it right by any means but I’d like to share my thoughts through Macmillan of what helped us.
On telling the children their mum had died...
I stuck to our routine: got the boys up, breakfast, drop off at school, pick up from school, a short drive to one of our favourite seaside spots, and simply, ‘Mummy has died. She won’t be coming home from hospital again’.
Then bubblegum, a rare treat, which after lots of tears brought some smiles.
A bereavement specialist advised me to use just honest words, no ‘mummy’s gone to sleep’ or ‘mummy’s on a cloud’.
On having a voice...
Don’t be afraid to make a fuss, go with your gut feelings. If you think something is wrong it often is. With both Reef and Kate we knew something was seriously wrong far too long before they were referred for diagnostic tests.
On end of life..
Try to talk about it and put things in place, but accept that it doesn’t always go to plan. Kate wanted to die in our local hospice, not at home because she worried the boys would forever associate their home with her death, but in the end it all happened so fast in a hospital bed with a call at 3.30am telling me to get there fast. She was still conscious when I arrived, told me she was sorry, and then she died with my hand in hers.
On being a carer...
We had a job list which even if it didn’t all get done kept me focussed, and we talked through everything together over the comfort of tea and biscuits. Try to plan ahead. When Kate ran out of pain relief because her doses were getting higher, I was told a prescription would take six hours. But Kate was suffering. It was a friendly pharmacist who agreed to give me an emergency pill and saved her pain.
On getting support ….
Kate’s mum called the Macmillan Support Line (0800 808 00 00). She says it really helped her get answers about Kate’s treatment, her options, the side effects, and meant she could support Kate better and go to appointments armed with important questions and a clearer understanding of what was happening. Kate herself had a Macmillan nurse at the hospital who offered her counselling and much comfort.
So do ask for help from all the people around you and do your homework about local services. It gives you some freedom, time and knowledge.
On showing emotion ….
Don’t be afraid to get upset but pick your time. Get the worst out on your own. I’d sob my heart out alone and then share some tears with the boys. Do keep a child’s school informed as emotions will be high and they don’t stay behind the school gates. Reef and Finn have a brilliantly supportive school.
On dealing with significant dates …
It’s worked for us to really celebrate the ‘good’ dates like the boys’ birthdays, doing something really different and out of character for them; for the harder dates, like Kate’s birthday I note it but then let it pass like just another day.
On being practical …
Get your finances in order, it’s easier to be miserable with a bit of financial comfort. Thankfully our insurance meant the mortgage got paid off and being self employed, that’s been a huge weight off and means I can concentrate more on the boys and not on my income.
On smiling …
Smile and be nice to everyone even when you’re feeling at your worst, and that includes the ‘small’ people. When I was stuck in a hospital room, waiting for news, it was a hospital cleaner who cheered me up with the offer of a chocolate bar.
On writing a list ….
It should be filled with things to aspire to, things to remember a person by. For Kate writing that list gave her a sense that life would continue even without her here, which beyond all expectation it has. It’s been an inspiration. I can’t express enough how great it is to tick things off.
And you never know, beyond the craziest of dreams, it may turn into a worldwide best seller.
Mum's List by St John Greene, published by Penguin at £6.99.
Information and support
If you've lost a loved ones to cancer, we can help. For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm.