A DEVASTATED husband whose 27-year-old wife is dying of a rare cancer told how they have been inspired by a film to buy gifts from her for their three young children to unwrap each birthday after she has gone.
After suffering stomach upsets for months, Tiffany Dean from Herne Bay, Kent, was told just before Christmas 2020 that she could have cholangiocarcinoma – a rare cancer of the bile duct that affects only four or five people in 100,000, with very few cases in the under 40s.
In January, doctors confirmed the shocking diagnosis and broke the news to Tiffany and her husband Sean, 32, that her tumour was inoperable, meaning her advanced-stage cancer was terminal and she had just months to a year to live.
It was a bolt from the blue for the previously healthy young mum to Henry, aged seven, Chloe, six, and 16-month old Jacob, but she is selflessly focusing on leaving as many loving memories, messages and presents for her children as she can.
Speaking on behalf of Tiffany – who is having chemotherapy in the hope of having more time to spend with her family and is too ill to speak for long herself – Sean said: “It’s soul-destroying.
“You make these vows, in sickness and in health, but you never think something like this could happen to the person you love so young.”
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Sean desperately hopes Tiffany can live long enough to see their fifth wedding anniversary in August.
And he said: “It feels like I’m losing a piece of myself.”
The couple, who met in a pub where Sean was working when she was just 18 and he was 23, are now planning gifts from Tiffany for their children to unwrap on every birthday until they are 18, and she will also make recordings of her voice to comfort them once she has gone.
Sean explained: “We watched a movie once together at home years ago – it was after we’d had Henry and we would try to have date nights every Friday and Saturday night.
“In the film, the parent passes and leaves gifts behind.
“It left a real impression on Tiffany. She always said, ‘That’s something I’d do if I ever knew I was going to die.’”
Now the devoted mum is trying to imagine the future and plan suitable gifts for each of her children as they grow.
Sean said: “Henry likes X-Box, Roblox and Minecraft so his presents will be things connected to that.
“For Chloe, it’s things like jewellery and Tiffany wants to leave her some money to get her ears pierced when she’s 13 and get her some nice earrings – so that mummy is the one who’s paying.
“And she wants to get her her first makeup too.”
The mum also hopes to leave a good sum of money to pay for driving lessons when her children turn 17 or 18, and would like to choose a piece of jewellery for Chloe to unwrap on her wedding day.
Picking for little Jacob has been difficult, because he is still so young.
Sean said: “With Jacob, she doesn’t know what he will like, so she’s going to get him toys for his age group up to the age of ten.
“Then she will leave money, put away for each birthday after that, so we can get him a gift from her.”
The loving couple are not well off, with Tiffany having given up her work as a carer to be a stay-at home mum and Sean forced to stop working as a painter and decorator in 2018 after a recurring back injury flared up, so they are raising money for the presents on a GoFundMe page.
The whole family had to shield throughout the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 due to their eldest son Henry’s childhood heart condition, Tetralogy of Fallot, a combination of four congenital abnormalities, which meant he had to have open-heart surgery as a baby.
It was while they were shielding, in June last year, that Tiffany started suffering acid reflux, pain and random bouts of sickness.
Plagued by digestive issues and constant tiredness, she sought medical advice but was assured her symptoms were down to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), low iron levels, or simply exhaustion from parenting young children.
Finally, when she felt a lump in her abdomen in November, she returned to the GP in December, who ordered a full set of blood tests – before calling her into the Queen Elizabeth Queen Mother Hospital, in Margate, Kent, due to concerns over her calcium levels, just days before Christmas.
Sean said: “They said she had to come in so they could flush her system out due to her high calcium levels.
“She had biopsies done and was taken for a PET scan at Ashford Hospital as well.”
Given fluids and prescribed bisphosphonates to lower her calcium levels, Tiffany was sent home – leaving medics to continue analysing her bloods to pinpoint the cause of her illness.
But despite nothing being confirmed, the couple had already been warned it was unlikely to be good news.
Our world ended just then.
Sean said: “Her discharge form listed three possible types of cancer, including one with a very low survival rate.”
And just days into the new year, a specialist cancer nurse rang to deliver the terrible news that Tiffany had advanced cholangiocarcinoma, or a tumour in her bile ducts, inside her liver.
“She asked us whether we were sitting down,” Sean said grimly. “She told us it was incurable, inoperable – and advanced.”
Blindsided, the couple awaited a consultation with Tiffany’s oncologist, on January 13, where they were dealt a further blow.
After explaining the cancer may have gone undetected inside Tiffany’s body for up to two years, she told them she would likely only live for another few months to a year.
“Our world ended just then,” said Sean.
“Between her leaving the hospital and that appointment, the tumour had grown considerably inside her stomach.
“We could start seeing it and feeling it – it had got immensely aggressive.
“Within two weeks, we went from not knowing she was ill, to the fact that she’s no longer going to be with us – there was no time at all to understand or prepare.”
Back home, Tiffany’s condition quickly started to decline – leaving her tired and nauseous.
“Every time she took food, she was being sick,” Sean said.
“I was doing everything I could to get the medication down her as she needed, to keep her fluids up and get her to eat.
“I was making her jelly, giving her ice creams, fruits, anything that I thought could give her energy.”
But within days, she was going downhill – becoming confused and being unable to speak – and blood tests done by the district nursing team revealed her calcium levels were again dangerously high.
Desperate to keep her out of the hospital and safe from Covid-19, Sean contacted the Pilgrim’s Hospice, in Canterbury, who agreed to take Tiffany for emergency treatment.
Admitted on January 20, she had 24-hours’ worth of fluid flushed through her system within just nine hours – and miraculously, the care she received “resurrected her”.
Sean said: “Everyone’s advice was just to make her comfortable and let her drift off – but I knew she wasn’t ready to go.
“They got the fluids and drugs into her and treated her with such love and care, it was amazing.
“She was told she had months to live and then within three days nearly died.”
Now back at home after being discharged on January 26, Tiffany is still suffering from hypercalcaemia and acute kidney failure – but is continuing to fight to spend as long as possible with her children.
She is undergoing chemotherapy to shrink the tumour – and medics are hoping she will make it through six sessions over eight weeks, taking her to the end of March.
Sean said: “Nothing’s set in stone and when they give you these dates, they can’t promise them. We would love to see our next anniversary and we’re very hopeful of giving her longer with us. But we know we can only give her a little bit more time.”
From the outset, the couple have been honest with Henry and Chloe about the diagnosis.
Sean said: “They know mummy is poorly as we don’t want to shock them when she isn’t here anymore.
“My daughter was really upset and broke down, but my little boy is, understandably, in denial. He still thinks the doctors can make mummy better and make her stay for longer."
My daughter was really upset and broke down, but my little boy is, understandably, in denial. He still thinks the doctors can make mummy better and make her stay for longer.
“I’ve had to explain to him that it may not be the case, but mummy is doing everything she can to fight this and will always be looking down on all of us from heaven.
“I’m not a big believer but I hope it’s comforting to them to know she will always love them.”
As well as the birthday gifts, which will be wrapped in themed paper – Marvel for Henry, unicorns for Chloe and age-appropriate paper for Jacob – and left in the loft at Sean’s parents’ house, Tiffany is writing notes to go with them.
“It’s down to Tiffany what she wants to say, but it’s going to be along the lines of how much she misses them and how much she wants to be there,” Sean said.
“They might also get a message for their wedding days. It’s a very hard task but something that will be appreciated by the children as they get older.”
For Jacob, Tiffany has also recorded nursery rhymes, including Wheels On The Bus and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, to comfort him at bedtime – and help him remember her.
Sean said: “She finds it absolutely awful to think that our youngest might not even remember her.
“But I’m not going to let that happen. We’re going to have photos throughout the house and messages for them for the future. She deserves to be remembered by her children.”
Tiffany said: “It’s absolutely gut-wrenching thinking of choosing things for the children to remember me by.
“It’s never something you expect yourself to do and it’s surreal to be doing this.
“On one hand, I’m so glad I have the chance to leave them a little piece of me, but at the same time, it’s heartbreaking knowing they’ll grow up without me.
“All I can do is as much as I can to make my children’s lives easier without me and show them how much I did love them.”
What is the type of cancer Tiffany has?
AMMF – The Cholangiocarcinoma Charity – said currently in England we are seeing 4.4 to five cases of the cancer per 100,000 people, and incidence is increasing year on year.
The charity also explained that although cholangiocarcinoma is historically considered a disease affecting older people, a third of patients were under 70 at the time of diagnosis.
Helen Morement – CEO of AMMF said: “We are certainly seeing increasing numbers of younger people with this cancer.
“Every life is precious whatever the age, but to hear of Tiffany Dean, a wife and mother of three, having been diagnosed with CCA at such a late stage via an emergency presentation at the age of 27 is particularly heartbreaking.
Tiffany and Sean’s friends have set up a GoFundMe page to help the family with funeral costs as well as making memories and leaving gifts for their children. To donate, visit: https://go.pa.media/e/314511/ily-for-the-future-and-funeral/f9qqj/1213652605?h=TFNUaNf8WNxIzxA1INcQDvaUQW9ejpFvvzMdYvNzLdk
Meanwhile, a nurse who treats brain cancer patients diagnosed her own tumour – after spotting a poster at work.
And Emma thought her two-year-old boy was just being clingy – he was actually battling stage four cancer.
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