James Peter Connolly was father to Katie, aged 26; Piers aged 14; and myself, aged 24 when he died from a brain tumour at the age of 54. He lived his life as a proud Irish man, with outstanding strength, loving freedom and family.
Towards the end of April, 2009, dad had started to complain of bad headaches and a stiff neck which were both impacting on his ability to sleep. Prior to this his behaviour was a lot less controlled and he would quickly become very tired, aggressive or agitated. This meant that he could no longer work. He had spent his whole life as a heating engineer.
When dad asked mum to book a Doctor’s appointment for him I knew it was serious; he had only visited the surgery three times throughout his whole life. On the 25th of April I took him to see a Doctor who did not wish to think the worst and instead wanted to send us home with a new pillow to help dad sleep. I had to insist that this was more serious than a stiff neck- he was not the type of man to complain- and I asked her to refer him to neurology for consultation, which she did without too much persuasion.
I do not begrudge the doctor for not wanting to think this way: the outcome would’ve been the same in any case.
On the 3rd of May dad went for an initial consultation. Here he was told by the neurologist that he thought dad may have a brain tumour. Dad replied “what me, no way” and walked out of the room. The impact of this statement was immeasurable. You really don’t think about brain cancer until it hits you with an incalculable force. Katie and I talked him into having a scan, after which we went home. At this point I researched all of dad’s symptoms which were very clearly demonstrated at the hospital and the different types of brain cancers. Everything in my mind pointed to glioblastoma (GBM).
Two days after this I was revising for university exams and the consultant called me, requesting to see us both. I told him it would be better to tell me the news over the telephone. He proceeded to diagnose dad with GBM – the worst possible outcome ever! That was it, I knew he was faced with a battle he was not going to win, and I had to tell him this. Dad had only six weeks to live. Less if he refused an operation.
He had a total of three tumours; two superficial and one very bulky, which resembled the shape of a butterfly. An operation was needed to remove at least 50% of the bulk in order to ease his headaches and suffering. He had this on the 7th of May and responded very well to this, initially. He had three good days of walking, eating and talking as normal. This was so promising to the whole family and we thought he would be coming home to spend his last few weeks with us. No other treatment was offered as we were told that, in dad’s case, the tumour had been left for too long and had become very aggressive, encapsulating most of his connective tissue in the brain.
On the fourth day after his operation dad had a very bad seizure. This marked a clear deterioration in his health and he had a few more of these over the next few weeks. It was clear that dad knew he was going to die. But he clearly waited until I had sat my last exam at university. On the Friday of my exam dad mumbled his last words; “where’s JJ (me)”. Mum replied “at university”. Here he went into a coma and died on the 7th of June, with me present.
The hardest thing for us all, including dad, was knowing that he would be leaving behind his legacy; Piers Thomas Connolly, who was only 14 at the time of his death. Piers coped so well with this and he was a rock throughout, as too were Katie, Jane, Norah and Pam. Dad really did love his family and close friends who all celebrated his life in a typical Irish fashion after his funeral.
GBM really is the antithesis to life. It is so aggressive and cannot be destroyed, only delayed. You don’t think about this until it hits, devastating your life. It is not only research and funding which need to be increased in this area to cure this incurable disease. It is a sea change in the way people think about brain cancer; principally GBM and the way it attacks. What is lacking is an overall awareness of these shocking facts. This awareness needs to penetrate borders, the hearts of politicians and charitable processes just as GBM penetrates the connective tissue of the brain.
Headcase is doing just this; both raising money to be used for research into GBM, but as importantly, awareness. This is why, as a family, we are all committed to supporting this charity. Katie has lobbied parliament and I intend to help her with this. I have now raised over £1500 for cancer research, but both Piers and I intend to do something remarkable this, and every year, to support Headcase in its endeavours.