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We couldn't have done it alone...

Kelly Appleby

Father to 10 year old twin girls, Lauren and Caitlin, and loving husband to Kelly, Chris Appleby was 32 years old when he died three days before Christmas in 2013 ( birthday is on 14 April).  He was diagnosed with melanoma cancer just two years before (in 2011). 

Chris, a young soldier who had done service in Iraq and Afghanistan, died peacefully in his own home surrounded by family and close friends.

Sue Ryder – St John’s Hospice in Bedford supported Chris, Kelly and their twin girls throughout the last two years of Chris’ life.  The hospice’s family support service helped Chris and Kelly talk about their concerns, fears and worries, and the two girls found comfort through the hospice’ children’s bereavement service, Charlie the Chimp Club.  In Chris’ final weeks of life, the hospice supported him to be cared for in his own home and die pain-free, in dignity and surrounded by his loved ones. 

  

Kelly's Story

I worked at the army camp as a waitress and nanny whilst Chris was in training.  We first met at the Red Lion, a local pub, through friends.  I was 19 and Chris was 20.  We arranged to go out on a date and the rest is history.  We literally saw each other every day after that for three or four months and then Chris proposed (in February 2002) over karaoke in a pub in Shefford.  I said yes straight away. I couldn’t say no to him.

Chris was a huge character.  He had the uncanny ability to make you laugh at every opportunity. He liked to play the joker and you just couldn’t stay mad at him.

We found out he was on 24 hour notice to go to Iraq in May 2003 so we made the decision to get married quite quickly and went to the local registry office.  We got married on 7 February 2003 in front of a few close friends and family.  My main memory is the laughter.  We ended up in the British Legion with 80 squaddies.  And, unbeknown to me I was 6 weeks pregnant at the time.

It was a whirlwind. We got married, a week later we found out I was pregnant with twins, then a week later he was gone.

He got back from tour in May and I had the girls in September through caesarean.  Two years later (in 2005) we had a blessing and did it properly.  The girls were little bridesmaids and Chris still played the joker.  That was just him. Never a dull moment. 

Chris was at home for the first 6 weeks of the girls being born. He was the first one to hold them, feed them and change them.  We were both overwhelmed, we were so young.  I was 21 and Chris was 22.  But they were gorgeous, and still are though very different.  Lauren’s a tall lanky red-head. Caitlin is shorter with blonde hair.

The first sign of Chris’ illness was in 2004 when he had a mole removed on his neck.  It was tested for melanoma and came back clear.  But over the years it grew back and during his second tour of Afghanistan in 2011, when he was being treated for a mix of dysentery, diarrhoea and vomiting, the doctor noticed the mole on his neck had changed colour.  They sent him straight back to England and a biopsy revealed it was melanoma.  We didn’t have a clue what that meant but once you’re assigned a Macmillan nurse you start to realise its serious.

In September 2011, Chris had a neck dissection to remove the infected area.  It turned out only 2 nodes out of 60 were affected.  We thought that’s it then, he’s fine. 

Just a few months later though (in February 2012), Chris noticed lumps on his neck where he’d had the neck dissection so we went back to the hospital.  After another biopsy they confirmed the melanoma had spread to his liver and his lungs.   

We were told without treatment it would be nine months.  Your whole world comes crashing down on you.  Chris walked off out of the hospital.  His mum and dad and I were all sobbing.

A new treatment had just come available for melanoma patients, which was like chemo in the form of a tablet.  It had really good results and was shrinking the tumours.  In July though we found out they’d stopped working on him.  So we thought, well what do we do next?  So we tried another treatment.  After a few weeks though Chris had a really severe headache which tests revealed was the result of a tumour in his head.  That was the next hurdle to deal with.

By January 2013, after more treatment, everything was clear.  Everything except one more tumour, and it was growing.  

Chris dealt with everything in a typical squaddie way, through humour. He’d joke about cancer.  He was tired with the treatments but he never gave up. The banter he used to give the doctors and nurses. 

Doctors said they could take the tumour out, which they did in Feb 2013.  Then there was another tumour on his leg, which we tried another new treatment to remove. Again, that worked for a short time, apart from on this tumour on his hip which was getting bigger, bigger and bigger, until you could see it sticking out.

That’s when it all started going downhill in June last year.  He was in so much pain with his hip.

We always thought, what’s the next treatment? It kept us going.  We didn’t want to face the realisation of what was happening.  I wanted to stay positive for Chris but in the back of my mind, I knew.  Chris couldn’t face the thought of dying though.  He didn’t want to talk about it.

In March 2013, our GP referred us to go and talk to Sue Ryder’s family support service, a lady called Jane.  We soon realised hospices weren’t just places to go and die, they had lots of facilities and treatments to support people in situations like us.  There were holistic treatments or you could just go and talk.

We’d go up and talk together and separately about our fears.  Chris is a proud squaddy so found it difficult to talk about his fears, worries and concerns with me.  But he could with Jane. He was different when he came out of the hospice.  It was like a weight lifted of his shoulders just from talking to someone outside the family circle.

In December 2013, we found out there was no treatment left and Chris had just weeks left to live.  Cambridgeshire hospital told us the news.  I wasn’t with him, he was with a friend.  We just assumed it was to talk about a new treatment. The doctor took one look at him and said I’m sorry but you’re not strong enough. I got the phone call from Chris, sobbing and saying that’s it, there’s nothing else. We’re done.  The army got me to the hospital within a couple of hours to be with Chris. 

We didn’t tell the children straight away. Jane came to the house and helped me tell the girls that dad was dying.  It was hard. They look to you to tell you everything will be alright.  They thought he was getting better.  Lauren ran to her bedroom crying and Caitlin just sat there and sobbed.  It was heart-breaking. I don’t think I could have done it without Jane being here. 

In the final weeks we spoke to Jane and Sue Ryder about supporting Chris to be at home. Jane helped arrange Chris’ bed to be delivered and we moved the living room around.  Eight days later he was gone, on Sunday 22 December at 5.20pm.

It was such a quick decline.  In a way I was pleased.  You take some comfort he’s not in any pain anymore. He was in excruciating pain in the last year of his life. 

District nurses and Sue Ryder’s PEPS team were coming in to help me wash him, give him dignity, clean his mouth out, talk to him. It was just hard. The Friday, Saturday and Sunday we didn’t have any communication from him.

There was me, his parents, my parents and a few friends with him when he died.  We knew it was nearly time on Sunday morning.  He started to make a really awful noise, which still haunts me today.

I asked him not to go whilst the girls were in the house.  To hang on till the girls had gone.  Whenever they left the house, they’d always give him a kiss and a cuddle and so when they said goodbye on that Sunday before they left to go to a concert, it was really hard, as I knew that’d be the last time.

Before he died we talked about the girls.  He was heartbroken he’d never get to walk them down the aisle.  But it really pleased him to think of them continuing to love football and Crystal Palace.  They both love the football club, which they got from their dad.  

The life-sized Charlie the Chimp from Sue Ryder was with us at our home when I told the girls Chris had died; Caitlin was curled up with him.  He brought the girls so much comfort, and they still have their little Charlie Chimps to this day.

You think you’re going to grow old together.  We had so many plans together.  That’s the hardest.  We’d always say we love each other. The Wednesday night before he passed away, the PEPs team moved Chris to one side of his bed so I could climb in next to him. We hadn’t shared a bed for so long because he was in so much pain because of his hip.  It’s a treasured memory. I loved him so much.

It still doesn’t seem real.  Everyone goes back to their own lives.  I’ve lost my husband, my best friend. It’s hard.  We talk about Chris, and we’re taking it day by day. 

My lasting memory of the care Sue Ryder provided to Chris and us as a family is the compassion they gave us all.  We couldn’t have done it alone.  Thank you just doesn’t seem enough.  We could talk to them about anything.  And, having the 24 hour helpline was a godsend.  When we needed them, they were there.  I’m still in touch with Jane at Sue Ryder and go to see her regularly.  It helps.

Kelly, Lauren, Caitlin and the Chicksands army have raised money for Sue Ryder in Chris’ memory including through donations given at Chris’ funeral and a memory giving page.  Future activities include, an army colleague is jumping out of a plane in memory of Chris and sailing the Atlantic in 2015, and Lauren and Caitlin are organising a cake sale at school.  

Memory added 18/07/2014