A young doctor is winning admiration for the way she is using her terminal illness to try to take the fear and mystery out of dying. Jayne Dawson meets her.
Dr Kate Granger is drinking a champagne cocktail in a smart Leeds bar and talking about the way in which she hopes to die.
Her voice is soft and matter-of-fact and there is no self pity, but this is not a theoretical discussion because, although Kate is only 31 years old, she will die soon as a result of the aggressive cancer growing inside her.
She has already outlived the average survival time of 14 months for her particular strain of the disease, and also outlived her cancer contemporaries, a fact which makes her feel inexplicably guilty.
I am also drinking a champagne cocktail and taking notes as Kate, who is smart, pretty and high-achieving, describes the death she hopes to have. She is doing so because I have asked her, but it is not easy to listen and remain dry-eyed.
Her plan for dying is this: She will be at her parents’ home, in her childhood bedroom, with her husband and her family supporting her.
There is a lovely view out of the window, she says, and she has made CDs of the music she wants to be playing. It is a mixture but there is flute music, because Kate is an accomplished flute player, and some Vaughan Williams as well as Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. There will be candles lit, and the atmosphere will be peaceful.
Kate is married to Chris, a supply chain manager for Asda. They kissed in a club at midnight on New Year’s Eve 2001 and have been together ever since, but she does not want to die in their marital home in East Ardsley, Leeds. “I think that would be a bit much for Chris, but my parents home is lovely and I will go there. I have the CDs and candles all ready – I am an organised person.”
And there is something else. Kate plans to tweet from her deathbed for as long as she can to let people know what it is like to die, in an attempt to remove some of the fear and mystery from what we will all eventually face.
Death has become too closed off, too much behind hospital doors and altogether too sanitised, Kate believes. “I find it bizarre. Just saying that I will tweet when I am reaching the end has opened up a debate about death, which is a good thing.”
She has asked her Twitter followers what hashtag she should use, and likes #deathbedlive because Kate’s desire, ever since she came to terms with her illness, has been to be utterly and completely open about her dying, to give insight to other patients and to doctors.
So the funeral plan is in place too. She says: “I want to be wearing my favourite Monsoon maxi dress and definitely plenty of makeup. The after-show party I would like if possible to be a joyful event, I have already booked the DJ. I will be looking down and scowling if the dance floor is ever empty.”
Apart from being totally candid, Kate also finds the black humour in her situation, and encourages her loved ones to do the same.
When she asked, one evening, whether it would be wrong to have another bun for pudding, husband Chris replied that, strictly speaking, it would be – but as she was dying then perhaps it didn’t really matter.
“We both fell about hysterically laughing. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely wasn’t making jokes on day one, and I am not cheerful all the time, but I did start to use humour to get me through the day.”
When she was first diagnosed, though, Kate went into her shell and did not want to tell anyone about what had happened to her. There was an element of shock, she says in her understated way.
In the space of little more than one holiday in America – where she first became ill – she went from being a high-status, high-achieving doctor with ambitions to have children and to become a consultant, to being a terminally ill girl lying bald in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of her. If this sounds harsh, it is Kate’s description of herself.
Her illness exploded into her life on a trip to visit Chris’s relatives in August 2011. “I started going off my food and then I got back pain. I ignored it but eventually I became really poorly. I was taken to hospital and it was discovered my kidneys had failed.”
At first she was told she had ovarian cancer but it turned out to be a rare and aggressive tumour known as DSRCT, which affects only one in two million people and has since spread to other parts of her body.
Kate insisted on being brought home for all her treatment, and her new life, the one where she is dying of cancer, began.
She says: “Before my terminal cancer diagnosis I was a fairly confident girl. I had a successful career which I loved and a slightly bossy nature at work. I was lucky to have met my soulmate relatively early on in my life and had slipped into a loving married life very easily.
“Then in one fell swoop all that confidence was taken away and I felt ashamed, guilty and frightened.
“I went into hiding. My confidence was not helped by the fact that the cancer and its treatment mutilated me physically. I lost all my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, the steroids changed the shape of my face.”
But after a while, Kate began to rally and started a diary, at the suggestion of her boss. When others read what she had written, they told Kate is was so good it should be published, which is how she came to write two books which have sold thousands of copies.
While she was writing, she was enduring a particularly hardcore type of chemotherapy. She went through five cycles, each entailing a five-day stay in hospital, before she decided enough was enough and called a halt. Now she has decided there will be no more chemotherapy.
“I got halfway with it, and I have not regretted the decision to stop. I should have had eight to ten sessions, but I decided I did not want anymore.
“Chris supported me completely because he saw what it was really doing to me. Other people only saw me with my brave face on, so they were not all as supportive of my decision to stop, but I know it was the right thing to do.”
Chemotherapy and its after-effects is one of the areas where doctors could give patients more information, Kate believes.
“My chemotherapy prolonged my life, I would have been dead now without it, but it came at a cost. I have effects and scars I did not know about beforehand. I can barely feel the tips of my fingers anymore, making even simple tasks more difficult. I was such a dexterous person before but I struggle to play my flute or do my embroidery like I used to. I had no choice but to have the chemotherapy at that time, but it would have been nice to have been warned about something that was going to affect my life in such a significant way.”
As for life now, Kate spends as little time as possible attending clinics to have her condition monitored.
“Waiting to be seen in a clinic is distressing, and I don’t need that,” she says
Instead she works four days a week as a registrar in elderly medicine at Pinderfields Hospital.
“Going back to work was good for me. I think, although we would not like to admit it, many doctors are defined by their profession, and I am certainly in this category.” As for her cancer, she quite admires it. At least, the scientist in her does. ”I find it hard to blame the cancer itself, I think of it as a part of me. Living as well as I can for as long as I can is my game plan, rather than waging holy war on my cancer. When I look at histology slides of DSRCT I cannot help feeling it is somehow beautiful.”
For now, Kate is living in the present. Since she knows what she refers to as her expiry date will be soon, she is packing in as many lovely moments as she can.
And she has opinions on the way people with cancer are portrayed as victims. “I think we as a society can think more carefully about how we portray it. We need to see more normal people going about their lives and coping with cancer.
“When I die I will be turning in my grave if anyone says ‘she lost her brave fight’. I would like to be remembered as a fairly successful, fun-loving and ambitious person, not as a loser.
“My main worry, when I reach my expiry date, is how Chris is going to cope, it will be later when it hits him, when everyone thinks he has ‘got over it’.”
Kate has now become something of a celebrity, winning awards for the way in which she is dealing with the terrible hand she has been dealt. The admiration bemuses her.
“I’m just an ordinary girl,” she says. “On my day off, I do the ironing.”
SHOW YOUR SUPPORT
Dr Granger has written two books, The Other Side and The Bright Side, about living with cancer and about her experience of being a patient as well as a doctor. Both are available on Amazon She is fundraising for the Yorkshire Cancer Centre at St James’s Hospital and is now aiming for £100,000, having already passed her original £50,000 target.
She is currently swimming sponsored lengths in regular sessions and aiming to complete a distance the equivalent of the English Channel.
To sponsor Dr Granger visit: www.justgiving.com/Kate-Granger Her Twitter name is @grangerkate