By Phil Hope MP (Ex Pupil)
The MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire writes about his personal battle against illness.
This article was copied and slightly modified from the pages of BBC Northamptonshire.
“The results show that you have Hodgkins Lymphoma.”
A short sentence for a consultant to say but a life sentence for me to hear.
Face to face with the doctor, it came as a hammer blow. I can remember blinking back the tears and walking off down the hospital corridor to get a grip on myself. I’d had a problem of acute itching that I thought was an allergy. I had not considered it could be a relatively rare symptom of lymph cancer. I thought this simply couldn’t be me – an MP with a constituency to serve and the Minister for Skills with a vital government programme to deliver. How would Allison and my two children cope? And the inevitable question – was I going to die?
That was last December and Christmas was awful. My Dad was already receiving treatment for prostrate cancer and emotions were all over the place. On Boxing Day everyone had to wear jumpers and coats indoors as the heating was off to keep me cool to relieve the chronic itching. When the news broke publicly I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of messages of support. It gave me a huge lift and I was struck by how many people had a similar experience with a friend or member of their family.
One core message came through – be positive. So I made my mind up from the start. I was not going to allow the possibility of the worst. I literally banned myself from thinking about dying as it was simply not going to happen. I determined to dig deep, work throughout the treatment and get cured. This wasn’t about being brave, but deliberately creating the mindset that I would defeat the cancer whatever it took.
Of course it was the NHS that actually cured me. Within a fortnight of the diagnosis I was having my first session of chemotherapy. I sat with other patients in the Centenary wing of Kettering Hospital in the first of eight sessions of highly toxic chemicals being pumped into my arm for three hours. That was weird. And throughout I was given a level of professional care and personal support that was simply outstanding.
January 2007 (from a BBC interview with Phil)
Every fortnight I would get my blood taken by a cheery group of medical vampires then went to meet my consultant. I’m sure that all NHS doctors are good but Matthew Lyttleton is exceptional – unshakeable professionalism, someone I literally trust with my life, who treats me as an equal and is completely charming. Then upstairs to the chemo nurses who always made me laugh. Theirs is an emotionally tough job. But their competence, their unfailing humour and their making me feel I was part of their ‘family’ made a real difference.
I was lucky. The side effects were unpleasant – nausea, tiredness, hair loss and a disgusting taste in my mouth for a few days every fortnight. Like athletes who use mental images to help their performance I conjured up the picture of an eight-round boxing match where I would cope well with the opening exchanges, be pretty battered in the closing stages but know I would be the winner in the end.
But my side effects were nothing compared to some of my fellow cancer patients. I was inspired by one young guy, Andy, who was getting treated at the same time as me and who I saw begin vomiting almost as soon as the drugs hit his veins. To keep coming back each fortnight knowing it will be that awful is what I call courage – he is a genuine Rocky in the fight against cancer.
I was pleased that I managed to keep working throughout the treatment. My staff in the constituency office and my DfES team were superb in setting up new ways of working.
Without an immune system I couldn’t meet people, visit schools or local organisations, travel on public transport or even walk through the lobbies to vote in the House of Commons. So I relied heavily on efficient paperwork and email systems to work from home. I made pre-recorded video speeches, held telephone and video meetings, and relied on people systemically cleaning every surface I regularly touched.
Most bizarre was being physically inspected in my office by the Conservative whip to establish I really was in the Palace of Westminster to allow another MP to vote on my behalf. My parliamentary and ministerial colleagues were also unselfishly generous in helping out – taking on ministerial tasks for me in the House, speaking on my behalf at events around the country or just inviting me round to dinner as I couldn’t eat out in public.
Back to work in Parliament
I celebrated the end of the chemotherapy and the restoration of my immune system by returning to the despatch box in the Commons to answer questions about apprenticeships. The warmth of the reception from all sides of the House was very generous but it was the backhanded compliment of a ‘business as usual’ knockabout with the Tories minutes later that pleased me most.
The following day I joined local Labour candidates in a pub for dinner and said what a pleasure it was to buy a round of drinks for the first time in four months. This was only slightly marred by one councillor shouting ‘no change there then’.
May 2007: from interview with Phil Hope MP
I am now just finishing daily radiotherapy at Northampton hospital as part of a ‘belt-and-braces’ treatment regime, all too aware of the many cancer patients who are still under the chemical cosh or who sadly, like my old friend Jimmy Kane, could not be cured.
“The CT scan shows the treatment has been successful and you have the all clear.”
This sentence by my consultant has given me my life back. I am deeply grateful to the NHS and to all those who gave me so much love and support. I have a future now and as an MP, a government minister and a father I intend to make the most of it.
Age: 52 (19/4/1955)
Education: Wandsworth Comprehensive School; St. Luke’s College, Exeter University.
Parliamentary Career: 1997 elected MP for Corby and East Northants. Minister for the Third Sector