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Meet Allen.

In a brutally honest account, Allen and wife, Lesley, share their story, and tell how their love for each other saw them through their darkest days.

When Allen, 69, first suspected he had cancer he believes his 11-year-old golden-coated Ridgeback, Honey, already knew.

“Honey Bunny, as we call her, started coming close to my face and throat area and sniffing, as if she was smelling my breath,” explained Allen.

“It was odd, and she hadn’t done that before. It made me think something was up, and it was.

“They say dogs have a sixth sense, and I believe Honey knew I had cancer before I was officially diagnosed.”

Allen started feeling something wasn’t right in January 2021.

“I would eat a pea, or something, and it would stick in my throat, or I would cough. I also had a pain in my jaw that went up to my ear and to the side of my head. I was taking painkillers, but the pain was continuous.”

Alan made an appointment with his GP who examined the back of his throat and said they couldn’t see anything.

The doctor told me to keep taking the painkillers, and the headache might eventually go.

A couple of months later, with his symptoms and pain still there, Allen was looking for answers but making an appointment with his doctor was proving difficult.

“It was the pandemic, and GP appointments were hard to come by. I had already been once and told there was nothing wrong.

“But I knew something wasn’t right, so I put my symptoms into an online symptom checklist on the surgery website and the computer told me I needed urgent medical attention.

"I phoned the receptionist, told her, and she made an appointment. The GP referred me for tests. That was nine months after I first consulted the doctor – I could have been diagnosed, and treated, months earlier.”

Allen went to Bridgend’s Princess of Wales Hospital for an endoscopy, a procedure where a long tube with a small camera is inserted inside the body to look for abnormalities.

“I could see what looked like a verruca, a black spot with white marks, and told there and then they were 95% convinced I had some kind of tumour.

“Then I had a biopsy, which was honestly frightening. Not long after five doctors walked into the room, and one said I had cancer in four places, the back of my tongue, my tonsils, somewhere further down, and in my voice box (larynx).

“I was told surgery was of the question, and they could only treat me with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

“I sat there thinking I’d had my chips! I hadn’t even felt that ill but was now being told I was going to get a lot sicker before feeling better. It was all so hard to take in.”

Allen returned to his car where Lesley, his wife, was waiting. Unable to be at his side due to Covid restrictions, she had sat there for ages like a “nervous wreck.”

“The diagnosis came as a hell of a shock,” said Allen. “When I got into the car, I turned to Lesley, and blurted out – ‘it’s cancer love.’ We both sat there, quietly, just trying to take it in not knowing what to say to each other.”

Initially Allen blamed himself for his cancer diagnosis. A 40-a-day smoker, he was also overweight, tipping the scales at more than 23 stone.

“I was calling myself all the names under the sun – you stupid so and so, and all that. But I was later told smoking wasn’t the cause, just like Rhod Gilbert whose cancer was caused by the HPV virus. I still haven’t had a cigarette since that day.”

Consultants at Cardiff’s Velindre Hospital gave Allen a 70% chance of survival, despite having the cancer in four places.

He had faced tough challenges before in his career with the Ministry of Defence, working in national security, as a trained firearms officer, and as a dog handler. He’d even been a bodyguard for the late Princess Diana a couple of times.

But Allen said all his MOD training couldn’t have prepared him for the “brutal” treatment that was about to follow that would ultimately save his life.

“I can’t sugar-coat it, it was awful,” said Allen. “I was advised to go to the dentist and have eight teeth out before the radiation, I lost my voice for a month, and had to use hand signals to communicate. I couldn’t eat or drink - not even a sip of water.

Allen was fed 1,200 calories, through an intravenous tube into his stomach every day and was coughing up a foul-smelling black phlegm, all whilst being “as weak as a kitten”. That went on for nine months.

I don’t think there is enough out there about head, neck and throat cancer, the symptoms, or the treatment. It seems to be under the radar compared to some other cancers. I had no idea.

Like Rhod Gilbert, Allen was treated at Velindre Hospital.

“Watching the documentary about Rhod Gilbert brought it all back, it was almost an identical experience to mine, and I know exactly how he feels,” said Allen.

“Rhod had his cancer in four places too, located in slightly different areas to me, which is why I lost my voice, and he didn’t.

“All I can say is if Lesley had not been there for me, I don’t know what I would have done. I honestly think I would have died.”

Allen said the worst part of the treatment for him was the mask that had to be fitted for his radiation treatment to prevent his head from moving.

“I was bolted down on a slab, unable to move and it was torture. You could guarantee as soon as I was bolted down, I’d have an itch around my eye!

“I was a big guy, but I lost ten stone over the nine months that followed because I couldn’t eat or drink – the weight just fell off me, and I felt so ill.

“On Christmas Day that year, I sat at home and wanted to give up, but Lesley kept me going. I went from being a big strong man to being like a baby - it was bloody awful I am not going to lie.”

Allen’s treatment ended in January last year.

He was referred for after care and rehabilitation at the Head and Neck Clinic in Bridgend. The clinic is held at Tenovus Cancer Care’s Mobile Support Unit in the car park of McArthurGlen Designer Outlet.

Staffed by Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, and part-funded by charity Faceup Cymru, the clinic offers treatment and after care to people away from hospital and closer to home.

Allen and Lesley soon started to affectionately call the Unit the “caravan.”

On board was a speech therapist, Claire, who helped Allen fully regain his speech, and lead cancer nurse, Emma, with whom the couple developed a close bond.

“I don’t know how I would have recovered without Claire and Emma at the “caravan” after leaving Velindre, there was literally nowhere else to go.

It’s a strange thing to say, but Lesley and I enjoyed going there - the staff were lovely, and it didn’t feel like I was in a hospital. It was warm and welcoming.

Then, in April last year, Allen developed pneumonia. He didn’t want to go into hospital, but doctors warned he would likely die if he didn’t.  

He spent two weeks in the Princess of Wales before being discharged, only for wife Lesley to have a heart attack shortly after.

It was the lowest point for the couple who had already been through so much. For the past year or so Lesley had been Allen’s carer and putting on a brave face.

“I had heart problems and high blood pressure, but I honestly think I had that heart attack because of all the stress and anxiety with Allen,” said Lesley.

“When you have someone so ill, and doing your best for them, it’s hard. I tried to stay calm, and I’d go to the “caravan”, and they would ask me how I was, and I’d say fine, but I probably wasn’t.”

Lesley had a major operation to fit three stents and focused on her own recovery.

Daughter, Sharne, stepped in to care for her mum and dad best she could around her work as a hairdresser, back and forth to the house and hospital.

But that was not the end of the traumatic time for Allen and Lesley.

One Friday morning at the “caravan,” Allen had a catastrophic medical emergency.

An artery weakened by radiotherapy treatment at the back of Allen’s throat burst and he was bleeding out.

I owe my life to the staff on the caravan that morning. They were brilliant. They knew what to do, and got me to A & E. I was in surgery for five-and- a-half hours and then intensive care. It was touch and go.

As if that wasn’t enough, Allen was then diagnosed with prostate cancer, non-secondary, and detected from a blood test at the clinic. Doctors decided to delay treatment until he was fully fit.

“Strange as it sounds, I wasn’t too worried about the prostate cancer. I was still far too concerned with recovering from the other cancer, as it had been so tough, much harder than I’d ever imagined.”

Finally on the road to recovery, Allen wanted his old life back, and that including eating the food he loved again. He’d been told there was a chance he might never eat through his mouth again, a possibility that had “floored him”.

“I loved my food, and loved to cook,” said Allen. “I love a curry, a nice Madras, and wanted to my taste buds to return, so I could enjoy my food again.”

“I remember the first trickle of water going down my throat after months. I’d lost the ability to swallow and was scared I’d choke to death. That is where being at the “caravan” really helped.

“I started on water, but then I wanted something solid, so Lesley made me creamy bit of mashed potato with a drop of gravy. I started to train myself to eat again, and I am now eating steak and chips!”

Allen finished his last round of chemotherapy this summer for his prostate cancer and is living a full life again, going on fishing trips with his son, and looking after his brood of hens in the back garden.

“Every day, I am so appreciative of my life now. My life was saved FOUR times during my journey! I am 70 this year, and don’t know how long I have left, but when you are diagnosed with cancer it steals your future from you because you don’t know if you have one. You can’t plan six months ahead, because you don’t know if you are going to live.

“There’s nothing to look forward to – you can’t say we will go on holiday next year, nothing like that.”

The couple say keeping a sense of humour kept them going on dark days.

“It’s so important to keep a sense of humour, you can’t be all doom and gloom,” said Lesley.

“We even tried to make the nurses and doctors days a little better. If you go in all doom and gloom, no one is happy, but if you go in and spread some joy, it keeps you uplifted and positive, as well as others, and all the time your heart is breaking.”

One thing they are forever grateful for is having each other.

“I just don’t know how people diagnosed with cancer go it alone,” said Lesley. “There needs to be more support for people who don’t have anybody else. It is great Tenovus Cancer Care provides that support, as you don’t realise how much you need it when it happens to you.”

Animal-lover Allen is celebrating his 70th birthday soon, and his one big birthday wish was to have another puppy, a wish that’s now granted.

Lesley and daughter Sharne recently clubbed together and bought Meg, a cross between a Pug and a Jack Russell, as a surprise. Meg is an addition to Honey and Bob, the couple’s cat.

“I suppose I wore down Lesley in the end,” chuckles Allen, “as she wasn’t sure at first. My passion in life is Lesley – yeah, I love her to bits, and we are there for each other, but I also love my curries, fishing, and gardening.

I also wanted to train another dog, one last time. It was my job once, a dog handler with the police, and we have also run our own kennels. Some might call it being a dog whisperer, but it is in my blood, even the chickens follow me around!”

If you or someone you love has been affected by cancer, our free Support Line is there for you. Just call 0808 808 1010