I watched wide-eyed as my boyfriend, Mark Sims, made his best man’s speech at his twin brother Dave’s wedding in November last year. He was funny, relaxed, and had the audience in stitches as he relayed stories about them growing up.
But there was a twist – Mark, 28, is dying of cancer, and by the time he ended his speech, saying it had been the happiest year of his life because he was watching his twin marry the love of his life and he’d met me, the whole room was in tears.
As soon as he finished his speech, he raced over to where I was sitting. ‘I need a hug,’ he said.
I hugged him tight for what seemed like several minutes.
We first met last March when Mark, a newly qualified doctor, came to give a lecture on skin cancer at the University of Leicester, where I was in my fourth year studying medicine.
As he explained that he had the disease and didn’t have long to live – at worst four months, at best 18 – his honesty was incredibly moving. His strength, confidence and gentle humour, despite being told that he had less than two years to live, was extremely motivating. I hoped to speak to him afterwards as a big university night out had been planned.
When I saw him in a restaurant a few hours later, I went over to him. We chatted about everything, from studies to holidays. Then he told me more about his illness – that he had melanoma, a skin cancer; that there were a few members in his family who had succumbed to it but he was determined not to allow it to take over his life.
‘You do realise I may only have a few months left to live?’ he asked, half-surprised, half-serious.
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘But that doesn’t stop us getting to know each other, does it?’
He smiled the most enormous smile. And so did I. And he told me more about himself.
Mark had beaten melanoma when he was first diagnosed at 15. Surgeons had managed to remove the tumour and told him that no further treatment was needed at the time. However, they also told him the cancer could return and he was regularly monitored. Ten years passed until he fell ill last February, a month before we met. A scan found that the cancer had returned. It was stage four, and had spread to other parts of his body including the lungs, liver, spleen and gall bladder. Iknew Mark’s future was bleak, but a real connection had developed between us. I felt most comfortable with him, as though we’d known each other forever. He too seemed to enjoy talking to me.
From the beginning, we discussed his prognosis and the different treatments he could try, as well as the odds of a miracle cure being found pretty slim. If we do talk about him dying, it always ends in tears, so we try not to dwell on it too much.
It turned out that we’d lived 15 minutes away from each other in South West London as students and travelled to the same places – Budapest and New York – around the same time. I so wished we had met before.
‘Do you like the comedy Gavin & Stacey?’ I asked him once.
‘Love it,’ said Mark. ‘My favourite quote is, “That’s not what you expect to wake up to in the morning”.’
‘Mine too!’ I laughed.
Our other favourite show is Don’t Tell the Bride – a British reality TV series. I was surprised Mark liked it, but like me, he finds it hilarious. There are so many things we share, I wish I could spend my life with him.
As a medical student, I knew exactly what lay ahead. I wasn’t naive – I was falling for a dying man. I knew I shouldn’t even consider it, but even though I’d had other boyfriends, I’d never felt what I felt for Mark. Everyone could see a new spring in my step – all my friends commented on how happy I looked since meeting Mark. My housemate was understandably concerned that I’d end up heartbroken, but everyone else was understanding. When I told my mum, Gillian, 56, she was incredibly supportive and never questioned my decision.
We started dating, and in some ways, we were like any other couple. Mark, who worked at St Helier Hospital in Sutton, Greater London, would travel for just over an hour by train to visit me in Leicester on weekends, and we’d go on romantic country walks and bike rides.
The medication he was on, Dabrafenib, helped him maintain normalcy, and because he looked so fit and healthy, it was easy to pretend everything was fine, but we weren’t in denial.
‘If only we didn’t have cancer hanging over us all the time,’ Mark would say. ‘I wish it would just go away.’
‘Believe me, so do I,’ I’d reply. ‘We have to live for the moment and enjoy the time we have together.’
Six months after we met, in October, Mark got a job at Leicester Royal Infirmary’s Accidents and Emergency services department. It was one of the best things to happen because being close to my place meant we were inseparable, spending most evenings and weekends together.
But later that month, he started to complain of headaches, and a scan revealed the cancer had spread to his brain.
When the consultant told us the news, we were devastated, scared and worried more than ever about what the future held.
‘Don’t worry, you will be fine,’ I whispered, hugging him tightly, trying to hold back my tears. I didn’t want to let go. ‘When I was first diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2003, I was given a 50 per cent chance of surviving five years,’ he said. ‘But I lived without it for more than 10 years. So I guess it’ll go.’
Mark was already getting the best treatment possible, so our only hope was that he would respond well to it. After the scan, he was put on a steroid called Dexamethasone to reduce the inflammation in his brain.
We both felt numb, as we knew it was just another sign that our time together was severely limited.
On some days, Mark’s mood would be very low, so I had to be strong for him and try to take his mind off things.
‘Let’s go for a walk in the country,’ I’d say, knowing how much he liked the outdoors.
Hand in hand we’d walk for hours, talking about all the things we could do once he felt better.
Both of us love Indian food and we’d frequent our favourite Indian restaurant and help ourselves to curry and rice.
One day, when he was feeling a bit better, he held my hand and said, ‘I want to do the Leicester half marathon.’ I agreed. I was sure it would lift his mood.
It was a great distraction. We immersed ourselves into preparing for the run.
The marathon was a huge success, not just because it raised funds but also because Mark returned to his former happy self.
Then, at Dave’s wedding the following month, we ended up talking about marriage. Mark said he couldn’t bear it. ‘If things were different, you do know I’d be planning our wedding too. But I don’t want you to be a young widow,’ he said, holding my hand.
It was heartbreaking to think we couldn’t plan ahead, but walking away was still not an option for me. I cared for him too much and wanted to spend every moment with him.
Amonth after his Dave’s wedding, in December, we had our biggest scare. Mark was at his brother’s flat with his mum when he woke up and found that he was unable to speak. He also appeared confused and disoriented.
He was rushed to The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, the specialist cancer hospital in London, where a scan found that there were some tumours in his brain, which had caused it to swell.
Fortunately, doctors managed to get his symptoms under control with steroids and radiotherapy.
I went to visit him in hospital and was shocked to see him wired to machines and unable to speak. But within 48 hours, he started to recover and his speech returned. I was so relieved as it meant we were able to have an early Christmas together on December 19.
Since then, it’s been tough, especially as Mark has had to give up work for the time being and move in with Dave, also a doctor, in London to be near the hospital.
Seeing him that ill just before Christmas was a huge reality check and terrified me. All of a sudden, the idea of losing him became much more real than ever before. I’ve worked with cancer patients and know what’s to come, which makes it even worse.
Several times he’s suggested I break up to save me the pain of watching him die.
‘Please don’t feel you have to stay with me through this,’ he said one day.
‘I want to be with you,’ I told him. ‘The thought of not being with you is even worse, so we’re in this together.’
And I mean every word. It really would be worse without him. Of course, it’s hard when I see friends and strangers enjoying happy, carefree relationships. I can’t help but feel jealous – it seems so unfair.
Then, on January 2, nine months after we met, we got some much-needed positivity back in our lives when Mark asked me to marry him on the steps of The Royal Marsden hospital.
Although we had talked about getting married hypothetically – we even discussed what type of ring I would like – it came as a complete surprise when he proposed.
We’d been out for a walk near the hospital when he popped the question.
‘Do you know I love you very much?’ he asked. I squeezed his arm. ‘And I love you too,’ I said.
As we started to climb the hospital steps, he got down on one knee and said: ‘Will you marry me?’
I burst into tears, and blurted: ‘Yes!’
I was so overwhelmed, especially as he had chosen the perfect diamond ring, a princess cut with diamonds embedded in the band. We both know there probably won’t be a wedding, but being engaged and making that commitment to one another is enough. It has to be.
Life has not changed much for us. Mark continues with his treatment and I travel up and down as much as I can. Normality is such a lifesaver for both of us.
We binge on box sets or go walking in the country, and I try to savour every second and not think about the future too much.
The truth is, we have no idea how long he has left. Even the doctors don’t really know.
I just hope our love will keep the cancer at bay for as long as possible.
When Mark first started fund-raising, he set a target of £1,000 (about Dh5,296) for Cancer Research UK. So far, he has raised £55,000 just by sharing his story on social media and his blog.
Mark often tells me how much his life has changed since he met me.
‘I fell in love the moment I met you that day in college,’ he says. ‘Meeting you was a miracle. Now I hope I can repeat the miracle and beat this awful cancer.’