Above: Charlie Frankum (middle, front row) with some of the Hospice's multi-disciplinary team - including consultants, doctors, nurses and physios - involved in her care.
Mother-of-two Charlie Frankum was 41 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2013. Following successful chemotherapy and surgery, 11 months later she was given the all clear but in February 2015 the cancer came back in her neck.
Radical surgery, radiotherapy and drug hormone treatment followed, but the cancer continued to spread through her bones and in June 2015, she was given just two months to live.
Here, eight months on and against all the odds, Charlie explains how The Hospice of St Francis has, in her own words, given her back her life….
“I really hadn’t wanted to leave my home. I’d been sleeping in a specially-adapted bed downstairs in the sitting room of our Tring cottage. My husband Rob had given up his job to look after me and I was really anxious about handing over my care.
It was my GP and Rennie Grove’s homecare team who referred me to The Hospice of St Francis. Following a risky but successful neck operation to remove two cancerous vertebrae, titanium rods had been inserted into the top of my spine to stop my spinal cord from snapping. But as time passed, the pain in my legs became intolerable, I couldn't walk and emotionally and physically, Rob was exhausted.
I came to the Hospice for pain management, symptom control and respite care and initially I wasn’t with it at all. I was tearful, anxious and on a cocktail of nine painkillers, which weren’t working and were making my breathing erratic.
The nurses couldn’t have been kinder though, telling me not to worry and explaining that the Hospice wasn’t just a place where people come to die but somewhere you leave and come back to again when you need it.
Just those few words really helped calm and reassure me, enabling me to start processing what I knew and understand more about what was going on in my body. The Hospice also helped me stop worrying about Rob, our two sons, Joe, 12, and Alfie, nine, and home.
I had my own private room with a TV on the wall, my own bathroom with the most amazing jacuzzi bath and there was a beautiful garden right outside my patio doors.
The nurses were so attentive and so many doctors came to see me, listening and talking me through my options and always making sure that Rob was included. Nothing was too much trouble.
The whole medical team worked so hard to come up with a solution to stop my pain, trying me on different combinations and doses of drugs to make me more comfortable. I’ll never forget the feeling of waking up after sleeping through the night - pain-free - for the first time in months.
Rob and I both knew I was in the right place and we’ll never forget that feeling of relief. The minute we crossed the threshold, it was like being cuddled - and that feeling of being hugged has never gone away.
I’d been there three weeks when at 3am on the hottest night of the year, I developed a fever and was rushed to hospital to be put on an intravenous antibiotic drip.
Florence, one of the nurses on duty, held my hand the whole way to the ambulance. I don’t think anyone at the Hospice thought they’d ever see me again but when I returned a few days later, they couldn’t have been more pleased to welcome me back. It gave me such a boost.
Once my pain was under control, I started having massages to help me relax. I took part in a Colour and Style Workshop in the Spring Centre, which really helped lift my spirits, and I started physiotherapy to give me the confidence and determination to start getting back on my feet. Mentally, that was a really important breakthrough for me.
With school out for summer, Rob brought the boys up to see me at least once a day, along with family photos and cards from well-wishers which they put in my room.
Joe even put his grade one guitar certificate on the wall, which really meant a lot to me. The Hospice felt like home.
We’d chat in my room or they’d watch TV in the Patients’ Lounge.
They loved the scrambled egg and chips the kitchen staff made for them, and they couldn’t get enough of the gardens and magical Woodland Trail with its mosaics, Storyteller’s Chair and carved wooden animals.
Family and friends came to visit and one sunny Sunday, Jo, one of the nurses, even brought in her horses – the same ones the Hospice uses for its Pony Days for children facing loss. The nurses took me outside in my wheelchair to stroke them. It brightened up my whole day - I’ll never forget it.
I’d heard about the Hospice and the fundraising events they do, but never really understood what it was for. I couldn’t believe somewhere like this existed and that I was lucky enough to be in it.
They pampered me and made me feel special but the biggest thing they gave me was my independence and the confidence to know I could go home.
Saying goodbye to the staff I’d bonded with over six weeks was hard and I was anxious that I’d forget to take all my pills at the right time, but the nurses gave Rob his instructions, assuring him they were at the end of a phone if we needed them.
During my first few months at home, I did struggle. I had low moments, I was scared of the tumour growing and spreading, but having a loving family has kept me strong and positive. Friends too have played a massive part, but the Hospice has never failed to continue its care for me.
After questioning at one point whether I’d ever walk again, weekly physiotherapy in The Spring Centre gym has got me back on my feet again, walking much quicker than I ever imagined – and without the aid of equipment!
I have had and am still having regular one-to-one therapy for the times when I need to talk about things to someone other than Rob or my family.
I’ve also joined weekly groups and activities like Knit and Natter and art therapy classes, I’ve had complementary therapy massages and enjoyed quizzes and social groups, where I’ve been able to share my illness with others and have fun.
I can never thank the Hospice enough for helping me heal at a critical time in my recovery and giving me back my life. I can’t imagine what I’d have done without it.
I feel strong, determined and incredibly positive about my cancer and the future and have recently found out that thanks to drug treatment I’ve been on since last August, my spinal tumours have not only stopped growing, but seem to have shrunk a little too.
My oncologist’s prognosis for my health has been completely turned on its head and it’s down to meditating, trusting the universe, having faith that my angels are looking after me and just knowing that there are lots of people at the Hospice I can turn to if I feel worried about anything at all…”