Dave Hodgson is under no illusion about what is happening to him as he fights cancer. He tells Richard McComb about fulfilling dreams and coping day by day.
We have been playing email ping pong between Birmingham and Dubai, setting out the parameters for the interview.
Dave Hodgson says nothing is off limits but he would still like to know what the angle is. If I was in his position, I would want to know, too.
Dave, a marketing and branding expert, has made a career out of finding the right angle. The angle is everything. So what’s the Dave Hodgson angle?
What he says next is typical of the man: pithy, succinct – blunt, even. He wants to know if I am after the “Dave is dying angle.”
I tell him the “Dave is dying angle” is exactly what I had in mind. But he already knew that. It’s the only angle in town.
Dave, who is 41, has metastatic melanoma, a relatively rare and aggressive form of skin cancer. Melanoma comprises 10 per cent of skin cancer cases and kills 2,000 people each year in England and Wales. Metastatic means the cancer has spread, in Dave’s case to four different parts of his body.
His fortitude and good humour in the unforgiving grip of the disease has been described as inspirational. All too often, the term is used in a glib, lazy fashion. It comforts us when we speak of people with terminal illnesses; it gets us out of awkward conversations about death and what it is like to stare it in the face, with the loss of everything that death entails.
And yet I am struggling to come up with a better way (succinct, blunt or otherwise) to convey an essence of the man. Dave has told me about the tumours the surgeons have cut from his body, the one in his armpit that was the size of an orange, the four tumours they found in his small intestine. The latest is on his liver.
He has spoken of the “price of life,” which a US medic told him had been established at $78,000, about £50,000. The doctor said: “If the medical treatment is less than $78,000, you are economically viable to have it.” Dave’s own treatment, involving a revolutionary drug therapy, happens to cost $120,000 (£77,000).
The treatment has been buying him life, not securing it. He does not shy away from this, as he does not shy away from anything. Dave tells of suffering episodes of blind terror but these have been far outnumbered by the daily gestures of unconditional love from family and friends, and the compassion of strangers. What remains is laughter and warmth – and a devotion to Wigan Athletic, fighting relegation at the foot of the Premier League. Inspirational, you see.
Dave, the former marketing director at Marketing Birmingham, lives in Dubai with his wife, Natalie, and her daughter, Olivia, with whom he is smitten. He moved to the United Arab Emirates to take up a dream job and fell in love with the place and its people. He never wants to “come home.” Dubai is home although for how much longer he does not know. No one does. Shortly after we speak, he is admitted to hospital for emergency surgery on the bile ducts of his liver, which have become blocked.
“I keep having the ‘why me?’ and I keep having the ‘I’ll probably never retire.’ I’ve got a pension. I don’t know what to do with that now,” says Dave.
“You plan for your future but you don’t know what your future is. I made sure Olivia had the most spectacular seven-year-old’s birthday party you have ever seen, which included having a London double-decker bus parked at the front of the house in Dubai. I don’t know if I’ll see her eighth.
“For Natalie’s 30th, we had dinner in the highest restaurant in the world. I don’t know if I’ll see her 31st.
“At Christmas, we’ve got my mum over for a month and we are going to have Christmas in Dubai, roast turkey, might go to the pool. And it’s going to be a sensational Christmas. I don’t know if I am going to see the next one.
“But I am very thankful that I am seeing this one and I am happy I am seeing this one. I am not sad that I might not see another because you just don’t know. If I find out that I can’t, well, what will I see?
“I am pretty level-headed with it all. I’m not in denial. I know that the chances are, realistically, that I’ll probably die next year. Probably. If the medicines all go well, which is a difficult shot, then I might be alive next year. But in reality, I will probably be dead. I’m not angry about that and I’m not in denial.”
I got to know Dave from his work on the Taste of Birmingham food festival with Marketing Birmingham. I last saw him in 2009, at a Champagne do at a cool Birmingham hotel. He enjoyed the social side of life out but insists reports of his party-going were greatly exaggerated.
The day before we speak, Dave had returned to work at Dubai’s hyper-luxury Meydan development, famous for holding the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race. He joined Meydan as director of corporate communications in July 2010, having previously worked in consultancy in Dubai.
When I last saw Dave, he weighed 17-and-a-half stone. He now weighs 13 stone. He is chuffed to be back at work and his spirit is undiminished but his voice, as he takes me through his story, has a whispered softness to it.
It was in January 2010, a few days before he was due to move to Dubai, that Dave’s life took a dramatic turn. He had previously seen his GP about a wart on the side of his body. He had caught it in bed and it started bleeding. The doctor removed it, sent it for “routine tests” and said that as it wasn’t a mole there was nothing to worry about.
Dave’s phone went as he was walking through Stratford-upon-Avon. It was his doctor.
“He said, ‘You know this routine test? There’s a problem.’
“I said, ‘Oh, what’s the problem?
“He said, ‘I’m afraid you’ve melanoma cancer.’
“I said, ‘I have no idea what that is.’
“He said, ‘It’s skin cancer.’
“I said, ‘That’s unfortunate. I’m about to go to Dubai.’”
Dave asked how bad it was and the GP explained doctors measured the size of the growth to establish severity. If it was more than 2mm thick, “you are in big trouble.” Dave’s was 1.8mm.
“I said, ‘I’m OK then?’
“He said, ‘You should be. You need to come in and we need to do an operation.’”
The melanoma was removed at Warwick Hospital on January 20 and Dave recuperated for three weeks before flying to Dubai. Subsequent tests were clear.
Following the operation, Dave had been taught how to self-examine to detect early signs of problems.
He says: “I am standing in the shower, washing under my arm, and I noticed my glands are up. I’d had a bit of a cold. I thought I’d keep an eye on that. I remember the doctor saying ‘Your glands shouldn’t swell. If they do swell, you need to come and see us.’”
Dave’s glands were still enlarged when he returned to UK for a routine check at Warwick in November. “By this time, they felt they were the size of a golf ball,” recalls Dave.
The doctor told him the melanoma was probably back. It was metastatic: “What that means is that the cells start travelling around in your blood stream and latch on to things like lymph glands and your other organs. The doctor said, ‘As long as it’s not in a major organ, we can deal with this because the only cure for melanoma is surgery. The only way to get rid of it is cut it out.’”
Dave had surgery at Christmas. Medics found 14 lymph glands in the left armpit, nine of which had melanoma, one the size of an orange. He returned to Dubai and was told he would need radiotherapy to kill any “stray cells.” For three days a week, for a month, Dave drove to Abu Dhabi for treatment and carried on working.
He and Natalie returned to the UK in April 2011 for a marriage blessing at Aston Cantlow in Warwickshire and later have a honeymoon in the Maldives. “It was the dream wedding. It was everything we wanted it to be. It was a beautiful, romantic emotional time. It was the perfect day,” says Dave.
The couple returned to Dubai but Dave did not feel well. Now under the care of an oncologist in Dubai, a scan was ordered. “I thought, ‘Here we go. Every time I do a CT scan, it’s always bad news, they always find something. Lo and behold, my small intestine has four large melanoma tumours. The cancer’s back. This is its third time.”
Surgeon Dr Nader Salti removed the tumours at the American Hospital, Dubai, in May. Having got to know Dave, and his sense of humour, he took a picture of the intestine and sent it to the patient’s Blackberry. “It always amuses me – and is always good at dinner parties,” says Dave.
Two months later, in July, Dave was re-admitted to hospital suffering wild temperature fluctuations, uncontrollable shivering and pain in his right side. He was sitting in his hospital room with Natalie when oncologist Dr Maroun El Khoury walked in. Dave remembers the date and the time – 5.45pm, July 12.
“He says, ‘I got the results of the CT scans. I’m afraid the melanoma is back. It’s in your liver and it’s about 10cm big. It’s very, very aggressive.
“‘The other thing is, the only way to get rid of melanoma, as you know, is surgery. We don’t believe surgery is possible.’”
“I said, ‘So what are you saying?’
“He said, ‘I think you’ve got 12 months to live.’
“Natalie is in fits of tears because the oncologist has just told me I’m going to die. That’s the guy looking in the whites of your eyes and saying it.”
Dave recalls feeling confused but he says he was neither angry nor sad.
Then a possible lifeline was thrown his way in the form of a new drug. Ipilimumab, a type of immunotherapy, is administered as an infusion into a vein, once every three weeks for a total of four doses. It is thought to boost the body’s immune response against melanoma cells.
Dave spoke to hospitals in the UK about the possibility of being treated with the drug. “I am talking to Birmingham, London, Leeds and there seems to be a reluctance. It’s ‘Oh, yeah, it’s very expensive.’ And I say, ‘It’s my only chance of life.’ They say, ‘Yeah, but it’s very expensive.’ It’s all I get back.”
Fortunately, his employer Meydan’s medical insurers agree to pay for the treatment, which is available at the Lutheran General Hospital, Chicago. His bosses say his job will remain open for his return: “This was personally coming down from the top to say, ‘We want you. We believe in you.’”
It was in Chicago that Dave encountered one of the many people who have inspired his faith in humanity: Nurse Mary Lappe, his “guardian angel.”
“I am sitting there, waiting for the first IV to go in, and Nurse Mary comes across and says, ‘You OK?’ I said, ‘No.’
“She said, ‘You are frightened, aren’t you?’ I say, ‘Yeah, yeah.’
“I am frightened because this is unknown. This is a new medicine. She just holds my hand and says, ‘I’m here to help you. I’m here to try and cure you. That’s my job. Don’t worry.’ She becomes my guardian angel for the next 12 weeks.”
In Chicago, where his condition deteriorates so rapidly it is feared he might die, Dave fulfils some lifelong ambitions, such as visiting Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. “Everybody’s eating peanuts and getting beers and hotdogs and I am just having one of those moments. I’ve wanted to do this all my life and cancer’s let me do it,” says Dave.
After the second dose of ipilimumab, he is struck with severe fatigue. “I didn’t know what fatigue was until I got it. I was lying on the bed and I had a glass of Coke on the bed-side and it took me an hour to pick it up. I didn’t have the energy to lean across to pick it up,” recalls Dave.
“Despair started to kick in. The pain was bad from the tumour but the fatigue was draining me. I spent five days where I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t eat, barely drank and was spiralling into depression.”
He had previously paid $200 for a ticket to see a Chicago Bears football match but had not moved for five days. “That morning, I forced myself to go and live another of my dreams,” says Dave.
“I got up, showered, felt dreadful, got a drink, managed to eat something and went and had one of the best days I’ve ever had in my life. I watch this game. Amazing stadium. Then I had a two-mile walk to a taxi rank afterwards having not been out of bed for five days. And did it. I was on top of the world. I felt amazing. I was back in the game.”
The respite proved short-lived. Dave became seriously ill just before his fourth and final dose of Ipilimumab: “I am scared again. I actually don’t think that I am going to leave the hospital. In fact, I am almost convinced I am going to be dying in Chicago.”
Tests reveal the latest problems have been caused by bleeding to the liver. Somehow, Dave pulls through again: “The power of positivity. From me going, ‘I am going to die to ‘I am not.’ I’m a different person.”
Dave flew back to Dubai after his final drug infusion. He had another scan on his liver and tumour which will be checked against another scan that is planned for late December, in a few weeks’ time. This, says Dave, is his “ground zero.”
“The tumour will either shrink, which means the Ipilimumab has worked on me; the tumour will have stayed the same, which means it’s buying me some life; or it will have grown, which means it hasn’t worked and we are back on our original ‘I’ll be dead in July.’”
He adds: “I am just cracking on, day by day. When we get the answer, we get the answer. If it hasn’t worked, I know I have done everything possible, including going to another country, trying every single option. There’s nothing more I could have done. For the six months I’ll have left to live, I am going to do something great. I am going to take Natalie to places she has never been before. I am going to enjoy it. I am going to do what my meds will allow me to do. And I’ll have a good time and a fun funeral. Anybody who wears black can get out. There’s no black at my funeral.”
Dave says he might to a “comedy video” for his send off: “Where I talk to everybody during the funeral service. Which I think looks terrible, so I might have a go at that. ‘Hello, from beyond the grave!’ I kind of fancy it, with a bit of strange music.”
He would also like to have a funeral party, or rather a pre-funeral funeral party.
“We always had stag do’s, wedding do’s and we’ve had divorce do’s. I want a death do and we’ll all go somewhere and we’ll have a party to celebrate my death. That’s if the bad scenario comes along. If the tumour shrinks, we get into different scenarios. I may have to have a little more Ipilimumab.
“Utopia is that my tumour shrinks so much that eventually they can do a liver re-section. By the time that would have happened, my immune system would have killed the melanoma that is in my blood system. We would remove the tumour in my liver. If the liver could grow back through a re-section, that’s cure. That would be curing the incurable. That’s Utopia. There is a modicum of chance of it. I don’t hold on to the modicum of chance like perhaps my mum does, my sister does, or my friends do. But it is a chance.
“Certainly, if there is any sign of shrinkage that is buying life and one thing that Natalie and I are really keen on is life credits. Any life credits we get back past July are happy days. And we only deal in happy days.”
Dave takes only one break during our two-hour conversation and that is to ring Natalie and check everything is fine at home. There is one question left before I ring off. It is at the bottom of my list, to ask last, and there’s a ring round it. It says: “What’s the hardest bit?”
“The hardest bit is dealing with the unknown and not knowing whether or not that is the last birthday party I will see of Olivia’s,” says Dave.
“I used to work in the holiday industry. This is the time of year you start thinking about your holidays and booking your best two weeks away. I might be able to go on holiday in April. If I’m going on holiday in June, I’m probably going in a wheelchair. And I’m probably not going on holiday in August.
“The hard thing is seeing other people, seeing Natalie upset, hearing my mum upset. Talking to my sister on Facebook and realising she’s dealing with it badly. Talking to my mate on Skype the other day and him seeing me looking ill, and seeing in his eyes that he was fighting back tears. The hardest bit is the other people.”
Tweets from the cancer ward – and a dog called Honey
During his treatment for cancer, Dave becomes a keen user of Twitter, the micro-blogging site.
He tells the world about his feelings, the operations, the predictions and intense pain, his love for his wife Natalie and his thoughts on the travails of Wigan Athletic.
In one entry, he sums up his story as told on Twitter: “It’s a tale of footy, the desert, love, cancer, 6 mnths to live, racing, a dog, family, roadtrips and pies.”
The “dog” refers to Honey, his inseparable canine companion. It was via Twitter that he heard a puppy, a Saluki, known as the Persian Greyhound, had been abandoned on building site in Dubai.
“She was a couple of months old and was covered in ticks. No weight on her at all. She had no home and was going to be put down,” says Dave.
“Natalie and I went to meet the puppy. Natalie loved her straight away, but I fell in love with her straight away. The way she looked at me. I thought, ‘Oh, my god. You are just sensational.’
“We called her Honey. We brought her home the next day. She was a puppy who didn’t know how to play. You’d give her a squeaky toy and she didn’t know what to do with it. If she wanted dinner, she thought she had to dig. She didn’t know what a cuddle was. She was timid. She was all over the place.
“But she had these eyes that looked at you and said all she wanted was to be loved.
“Now the puppy plays and we have built an amazing relationship. I was just sitting on the sofa two nights ago. She got out of bed, walked over, climbed up, snuggled into me for five minutes then got back up again and went to bed. It was at the time I was holding my side because I had twinges in my liver. I had a burning sensation. Every time I am ill, the dog knows.
“She’s not allowed in our bedroom. So she sat for two hours at the door, looking in and watching me when I was very ill one time. I was moaning and groaning and rolling and tossing and turning. And she just sat there quietly, looking at me for two hours.
“Then when I got up and came out, she licked my feet, gave me a cuddle and she went off and played.
“My view is that I gave something a second chance because I’ve got a second chance, I hope. The family love her and Honey is part of the family.”
It is through Twitter that Wigan and its fans have learned of Dave’s battle. The club’s manager, Roberto Martinez, sent him a personal video diary to wish him well.
Dave says: “All these Wigan fans I speak to on Twitter want to buy me a pint and come to a game. I am going to get to a game by the end of the season somehow and I am going to meet them all.
“It’s a lot harder watching Wigan than it is dealing with melanoma. With melanoma you just get pain and the pain goes away. With Wigan, you lose hope. That’s the difference. At least I’ve got hope with my cancer. I’ve got no hope with my football team.”
A woman living in Dubai, who Dave met on twitter (@LesleyCully), sorted him out with an iPad 2 so he could keep in touch with his growing global band of 2,000-plus followers more easily.
Dave says: “Suddenly, my faith in humanity has grown. Someone I don’t know has just given me an iPad because they want to hear what I am saying about cancer.
“The Twitter thing grows and grows. I get a message from Matt Lucas from Little Britain saying, ‘Hey Dave. What’s going on? Hope you’re well.’ I am thinking this is bizarre because I am actually now pouring out my heart.
“When I’m having dark days, I’m telling people what’s going on. When I’m having good days, I’m telling people what’s going on. I am joking and laughing all the way through it. I’ve got a whole series of cancer jokes, like ‘Laughter’s the best medicine – except in my case its Ipilimumab.’”
The wit and wisdom of @Dave_Hodgson:
Say what u like about football but for the last 5 hours I totally forgot I had #cancer. Thats what it does to u. #wafc [Wigan Athletic Football Club] till I die!
And todays surgery will be ... Not happening. Delay of 24 hours. And its not even a football day! ARSE!
I’m wearing what can only be described as long, womens pop socks. Apparently for blood clots. But just adds to the hot look #cancer
its the new unexpected steps I don’t like. I’m happy 1 step at a time but then u get bowled a googly and it stuffs it up
And now instead of floating off on a pink fluffy cloud, I’m stuck in pink fluffy candy floss! #meds
I’ve taken every med in every which way possible. Surely there’s no other way to take meds ?? ... Oh! There is! Eeewwwwww
Another scan. Another pain. Another issue. #rollercoaster #cancer
Mums here now so it’s Christmas in Dubai with the family. Bloody love Christmas. Fun is the word.
When u r 6’4” and u lose 4 stone u look dramatically different – like ill! I’m so self conscious at the moment. Weird. Ud think I’d not care
Footy is like cancer, all u have is hope! When the hope goes u’ve gone. Oh and a good surgeon/striker is vital #keepthefaith
I try to conduct myself with dignity and impartiality on twitter. However ... Dear Sunderland. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha Kind Regards Dave
The power of positive thought... and a blue slide
Dave’s father Derek and grandfather Eric Willan died from cancer.
It is while he is at the American Hospital in Dubai for surgery on his small intestine that Dave encounters fear for the first time.
Unable to eat or drink, he is being fed via a tube in his nose. He decides to take a stroll:
“I am walking down a corridor and I look out of a random window and I see a blue slide. It looks like a water park.
“I go on my walk and do my lap and I come back to the same point and look out of the window. The blue slide’s not there. The water park’s not there. I think, ‘I just hallucinated seeing a water park.’
“My father died of cancer. My grandfather also died of cancer. One thing I remember during their deaths is they both hallucinated.
“I have got this tube up my nose that is driving me insane. I’m hallucinating. I know I’ve had cancer removed and for the first time in all of this I feel scared.
“Before this, it wasn’t really real. It [cancer] happens to other people. But when you have it yourself, you don’t really know what to do, so you pretend it’s not there and everything will be okay. When it manifests itself in a way you’ve seen before, and that went badly, then you get frightened. About a day and a half goes past. I keep walking down this corridor. It starts to drive me insane. The tube up my nose is driving me crazy. Dr Salti [Dave’s surgeon] says, ‘You can’t remove it unless you eat or drink and there’s no sign of your body allowing you to do it.’
“I said, ‘I’ve got to take the risk.’ He said, ‘All right, fine. I’ll pull it out now.’ He pulled the tube out.
“I took a big breath and within an hour my body was suddenly working again properly again. I went for a walk again down the corridor. There’s the big blue slide. I thought, ‘This is odd. What’s going on?’”
Dave realises what has happened.
On the day he was admitted, he looked through an open door and saw the slide through a window. The door had subsequently been closed.
When Dave returned to what he thought was the same spot, he had been looking through a different open door – and the slide was not visible from this vantage point. The blue slide had been there all along – he just couldn’t see it.
Dave says: “During those four days, I had gone through this frightened, scared ‘can’t eat, can’t drink, losing weight’ hell. And then somebody had opened that door. I could see the slide again and I realised it was real. It was a water park in a hotel. But the only way you could see it was through this particular door.
“I rang my wife and she came an hour later. I took her down there, to the door, which was closed this time. I opened it and said, ‘Look. There’s the blue slide. I’m not going mad.’
“Within 24 hours, I was out of hospital. Within three days, I was at work. That’s the difference between positive and negative thoughts.
"When you think things are bad, you can’t do anything. When you are positive, you can do anything you want. The recovery was remarkable.”