John “Ernie” Marshall refuses to see being told he has advanced prostate cancer as a death sentence. The former London Fire Brigade firefighter is determined to improve his fitness and enjoy whatever time he has left.
So much so, that when we speak to him, it is during a visit to Harcombe House, our recovery centre in Devon, where he is seeking rehabilitative support for a shoulder injury he sustained after being told he had terminal cancer. He was on a skiing holiday.
“Never give up, that’s what I say,” says Ernie. “There are some issues I know I can’t mend, but the things I can control, I want to. It’s important to take control of your own life, wherever and whenever you can.”
“Never give up, that’s what I say. There are some issues I know I can’t mend, but the things I can control, I want to. It’s important to take control of your own life, wherever and whenever you can.”
Ernie joined Chelsea Fire Station in 1971, where he quickly trained to be a driver. Working along the Kings Road in one of London’s most fashionable areas was, in his own words, a ‘dream for a young lad’. It is a time he looks back on fondly, chuckling as he tells us about the time a pedestrian stepped out in front of the fire engine while running for a bus. This man turned out to be Sir Leslie Hore-Belisha, the former Transport Minister, whose work included, among other things, the design of pedestrian crossings. He was unhurt, and apologised for his carelessness.
Ernie eventually moved to the Fire Investigation Unit, where he worked as an operational firefighter until his retirement in 2002. There he was called to discern the cause of fires to present to the coroner in cases involving fatalities. Upon leaving the fire brigade, still keen to help people, Ernie spent the next few years working as the driver for an on-call doctor.
Three years ago, he went on a holiday to visit friends in Florida, but felt aching and uncomfortable during the nine-hour flight. Returning home he noticed an ache in his hip while walking his dog, so went to the doctors, and was told he had advanced prostate cancer.
“I asked the consultant if I’d still be sending Christmas cards when I was 80 and she said no. That was a lot to take in.”
“I’ll never forget it, being examined and then told what they found,” he says. “I’d had none of the usual symptoms, but it all took off after that, being sent for bloods and MRI scans, and referred to oncology, the whole gambit of stuff. One of the scans revealed it had spread from my prostate, and what I’d thought were just aches and pains for being a 70-year-old was actually the spread of the cancer into my hips. I asked the consultant if I’d still be sending Christmas cards when I was 80, and she said no. That was a lot to take in. I asked if I’d be sending them aged 75, and she told me to just take things a year at a time.”
Not being eligible for chemotherapy, Ernie was accepted onto a hormone-based medical trial. There were no promises of its success, but it would buy him some more time. Three years later, the only sign that Ernie is so unwell is the fatigue he often feels. But then, he says, his body is working hard all of the time: “I’m battling this thing 24 7, so it’s no wonder I get tired easily. People always tell me I don’t look poorly and are shocked when I tell them. I never wear it on my sleeve, but if someone asks, I won’t lie.”
Ernie says people can often be accidentally insensitive when they hear his prognosis: “People always know someone who died, and seem to think it’ll make you feel better by telling you about them! It’s not helpful at all. The thing about cancer is it’s everywhere. All over television storylines and adverts, you’re bombarded with it. I do have down days where all I want to do is sit on the sofa, but generally, I try to be positive.”
“I’d love to live and see my grandchildren get married, but as my doctor said, I am just taking it year by year. I just want to be as fit as I can for the time I have left, and have a better quality of life while I can.”
It was this positive attitude that saw him booking a ski holiday last year, despite not having been for 30 years: “I was cocky, laughing at my wife falling over all round the place. I decided to go on a lower slope, because I didn’t want to hurt myself, but getting off the lift, I took off too fast and fell heavily on my shoulder. When I got home I went to hospital for an X-ray, but my doctors couldn’t agree on what had happened: one said it was a fracture and the other said it looked like the cancer had spread into my arms. I still don’t know what’s actually happened, but I’m just trying to get on with things.”
With a holiday to the Northern Lights planned for January, Ernie was determined to improve his strength and mobility to make the most of his trip. He saw a physio at home, but found he wasn’t getting the results he wanted, so approached the Fire Fighters Charity.
“I’d always paid in each month through salary contributions, but I didn’t even think of the Charity to begin with,” he says. “I have really enjoyed my visit to Harcombe. It’s been hard work, but they’re a good bunch of people. I hope to get my energy levels back to what they were, and to be able to walk around without getting too tired. Being told you have terminal cancer may seem like a death sentence, but it’s not, and people live for years with it. I’ve had three so far, and I’m hoping to have more. I’d love to live and see my grandchildren get married, but as my doctor said, I am just taking it year by year. I just want to be as fit as I can for the time I have left, and have a better quality of life while I can.”