My Virtual Lifeline

Article excerpt


Health writer and mother of four Deborah Hutton was in shock when she was diagnosed with cancer. And she soon found that the endless concerned phone calls were uplifting but exhausting. So she turned to the internet- Ayear ago I considered myself the luckiest woman in London. Beautiful house, great husband, fabulous family, kids on track and growing up, as much interesting work as I wanted- I'd put the dog on the lead and walk over to the local shops in the sunshine marvelling at my own good fortune, thinking I wouldn't swap places with anyone in the world.

Then at a stroke this lovely run of luck ran out.

On 26 November 2004 at 4.30pm, at the age of just 49 and a half, which my kids think is ancient, but seems pretty young to me, I discovered that the irritating niggly cough I had had for the past two monthswas no trivial chest infection but an aggressive adenocarcinoma that had already spread well beyond my lungs to my bones, lymph nodes and possibly my liver as well. This was a stage IV cancer, said my consultant, Professor Stephen Spiro, backing out of the room apologetically, as though the whole sorry situation were his fault. Gaining the threshold, he warned me not to look this particular tumour up on the internet, as 'I would only terrify myself'. I didn't, but even so, it didn't take us long to find that in the distinctly unwonderful world of advanced cancer, stage IV is as bad as it gets.

There is no stage V.

If I was in shock, my friends and family were too. After all, I was the original Mrs Fit. A runner of half-marathons and a health writer by profession who had lived a pretty exemplary life, if you overlooked an unfortunate early smoking habit, kicked 23 years ago. Shocked, devastated, numb, disbelieving. These were the adjectives that came up again and again in the avalanche of letters and cards arriving in every post, the flowers and gifts and phone calls we received at all hours of the day, every day. While this outpouring of love and concern was wonderfully uplifting, it was also bone-crushingly wearying. In fact, it soon became clear that if the cancer didn't finish me off sharpish, the telephone most certainly would. It rang and rang until we almost started hearing it in our sleep.

At the same time, I recognised that calls had to be taken and visits received. Friends and family needed the reassurance of seeing me and/or hearing my voice, still clear and strong, and to realise that, even though I was now under sudden and most unexpected sentence of death, I was still very much with us. 'It was wonderful to see you, particularly as you are so much your old self,' emailed one friend. 'Somehow I'd imagined you horribly altered and so it was reassuring to see you still feisty and funny and full of life.' Those most in need of reassurance were those geographically farthest from the epicentre, like my sister Louisa, who lives in Berlin; not being able to 'pop' in to see me and catch up on the latest developments made her, and other far-flung friends, prey to the very worst fears and imaginings.

As we passed through the hoops of clinic appointments and second opinions, and the proposed treatment, the calls did not cease. If anything, they intensified. Friends needed to know, urgently, what was happening, what the doctors had said, how the clinic appointment had gone, whether I would be starting chemo this week/next week or any time soon, did I want the name of this wonderful acupuncturist/herbalist/ spiritual healer who had sent their friends' incurable cancer into miraculous indefinite remission? As the questions came thick and fast, I began to feel like the Ancient Mariner, compelled to repeat my story through all eternity. And then it suddenly came to me. Why not take advantage of the world wide web to keep everyone informed at the click of a mouse, in whatever remote corner of the globe they happened to be?

I had already experienced the wonders of the internet as an updating medium when a dear university friend, the TV director of Drop the Dead Donkey, Liddy Oldroyd, was diagnosed with a carcinoid tumour that had spread to her liver. …