'Doctors gave me months to live, eight years later I am still fighting for my family'

Jan Simper

Jan Simper

First published in Living & Lifestyle
Last updated
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JAN Simper recalls the moment doctors diagnosed her with terminal cancer and gave her just months to live.

Devastated, she couldn’t bear to imagine not being there to see her grandchildren grow up.

But Jan chose to laugh in the face of cancer and today, eight years on, the upbeat grandma-of-12 says she has never felt better.

“I feel fitter now than I ever have,” says the 68-year-old who is now in a wheelchair.

“The only thing that really upset me when I was diagnosed was that I wanted to see my grandchildren grow up and I didn’t think I would be able to.

“And yet here I am – all these years later – still fighting and still enjoying every minute with them.”

She’s not kidding.

Rather than be defeated by her diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer that affects plasma cells, there is never a dull moment surrounded by her family in her Hedge End home.

Daily Echo:

Jan Simper pictured at home with husband Bryan Simper (back), son-in-law Brett Evans (right) and son Scott Simper (left.)

She has laughed when her grandchildren have painted her face red, have covered her in cream from a trifle – and even helped her pull her hair out when she lost it due to gruelling cancer treatment.

She laughs: “I didn’t want my grandchildren to be scared of me when I lost my hair, so I used to get them to help me pull it out, like a game.

“And as a joke I once wore a tiny toupee and told them that it was my new wig as I couldn’t afford a bigger one – it broke the ice and the subject was no longer taboo.

“I might have cancer, but I’m still me and my way of getting through it is to look on the brighter side of life.”

For Jan, who was previously fit and healthy, the diagnosis came as a shock.

She visited the doctor because she thought she had picked up a routine virus after a trip to The Gambia, where the family sponsor a school.

But a few months later she went back to her GP, who thought she had a problem with her kidneys, for more tests.

Within days Jan, who was dressed to go to work as an assistant in Sainsbury’s, received a call on her way out of the door telling her to go straight to hospital because her kidneys were failing.

Doctors at Southampton General Hospital discovered her kidneys were functioning at just 12 per cent due to the strain they were under from the increased amounts of protein and calcium – a symptom of the myeloma.

“Had I gone into work before I got that phone call – I don’t think I would be here today,” explains Jan. “My kidney function was so low, and the myeloma count was really high.

“I had six months of chemotherapy, but that didn’t really work.”

She was told she should enjoy Christmas with her family as it was unlikely she would live to see another one.

However the family were given a glimmer of hope when she was offered the chance to join the clinical trials for Thalidomide.

Determined to fight the devastating disease, she agreed.

“When I was first ill – I felt like I wanted to die.

“I had no energy, couldn’t eat and felt like I had really bad flu that wasn’t going away.”

The Thalidomide successfully regulated Jan’s myeloma counts and the cancer was inactive for three years.

However it came back, resulting in further hospital appointments where she was given more treatment – a maintenance dose of Lenalidomide to send the cancer into remission once again.

Four years on she is still in remission but life hasn’t been easy.

Since her diagnosis she has endured countless tests, chemotherapy, stem cell harvests and bone marrow biopsies.

She is at constant risk of infection due to the cocktail of drugs she takes, which lower her immune system and was admitted to hospital twice critically ill with pneumonia.

And due to the fact myeloma thins the bones leaving them weakened, she now faces an uncertain future in a wheelchair after she fell following a hip replacement and broke her other leg. The titanium pin that was inserted to strengthen her leg snapped forcing her to have a further operation to insert bands and a metal plate, which at one point left her fighting for her life in intensive care.

But testament to her positivity, Jan still refuses to let her disability beat her. Though her husband Bryan, 71, and her family try to relieve the daily struggles, Jan is adamant there is nothing she cannot do - from washing up, even though she can’t see over the sink, to cooking for her family.

“I’m not a very good patient,” she says.

“I hate depending on people. I’m not one to sit still and do nothing – it drives me insane.

“And, I get really bored in hospital – it’s too quiet and full of old people!

“A month after my operation, my leg was showing no signs of healing, and I thought I may be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Luckily, a few weeks ago it started to show signs of binding.

“So hopefully it may heal after all.”

Jan says without her oncology team at Southampton General Hospital she wouldn’t be here today.

“They have been such a support and the new treatments and drugs they have introduced in the last decade, along with their tireless research, is the only reason I am still here.”

But ultimately it is her family who have got her through her darkest moments.

“My grandchildren keep me going,” she says, her face lighting up.

“I have to keep positive. My family don’t allow me to be anything else.”

“Help us help my amazing mum.”

That is the plea for support from Jan’s son Scott, who is planning to walk the equivalent of a marathon and a half every day for six days in a 226-mile sponsored walk from St Mary’s Stadium to Old Trafford on January 5, 2015.

“Our drive to do this is simple,” he says.

“When my amazing mother was diagnosed and we were told she only had six months to live – this devastated our close-knit family and friends.

“Luckily, she is still with us fighting and we would do anything to ensure she stays with us.”

Steve Hughes and Sheldon Simper are also raising funds for Myeloma UK – they are planning to compete in six events, including back-to-back Spartan races and Tough Mudder courses between now and December.

Scott will be joined on his gruelling challenge to raise awareness for myeloma by Jan’s son-in-law, Brett Evans, and family friends Dave Pragnell and Dan Leng.

Hendy Group has provided a support vehicle, which Bryan and Rebecca Clarkson, a sports therapist, will be travelling in.

The group are still looking for sponsorship for accommodation, food and clothing.

To help or make a donation, call 07881 819727 or visit justgiving.com/Myeloma-March2015.

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