Best friends since meeting at university in 1984, Kerry Fisher and Pat Sowa stayed close even as life took them in different directions.
Kerry became a successful author, living in Surrey with husband Steve, son Cameron and younger daughter Michaela; Pat, a head teacher, living in Harrogate with her husband Jan and sons Greg and Dom.
That cherished friendship was nothing less than a lifeline when, in a cruel twist of fate, both women found their sons facing life-threatening illness as teenagers — Kerry’s son Cameron diagnosed with a rare cancer; Pat’s son Dom struggling with mental illness.
In their new book, extracted exclusively for the Daily Mail, Kerry, now 53, and Pat, 54, share their heartbreaking story for the first time…
Kerry Fisher, 53, who lives in Surrey, and Pat Sowa, 54, (pictured) who lives in Harrogate, have penned a book about the moment that both of their sons were facing life-threatening illness
Pat My husband Jan and I are on our way to celebrate the 50th birthday of my friend Kerry. I feel torn between having this time for Jan and me, and being at home in Yorkshire keeping an eagle eye on our 16-year-old son Dom.
He was a golden-haired boy who grew up big on hugs and affection, and it never crossed my mind that he would struggle. But after he came out as gay at 14, his life rapidly turned sour.
We have lived on tenterhooks ever since, as he has faced bullying in school and online, shrinking into a pale shadow: hunched shoulders, eyes down.
We’ve talked to his school but nothing is working. I fret whenever he goes out, anxious until I hear his key in the lock.
Still, at the party I relax. It’s good to see Jan with Kerry’s husband Steve. They are both business consultants and, like Kerry and I, have that easy shorthand of old friends.
Then Kerry’s teenage children, Cameron and Michaela, stand up to give a speech, shining with youth and beauty. ‘We do really appreciate all you do for us,’ Cam says, with all the confidence of someone who knows he is loved. He comes to give his mum a hug.
With a jolt, I see up close what a healthy teenager looks like and it is not what I see at home. I feel disloyal comparing but I know Dom would not be able to do this. Envy courses through me that Kerry has two such accomplished teens when I can’t even get mine to come out of his room on a bad day.
I don’t begrudge Kerry her happiness, but I wish my life looked as simple.
Kerry recalls doctors discovering an unusual mass on her son Cam’s chest, after he had a chest X-ray for a stubborn cough. Pictured: Cam and Kerry
Kerry Just before Cameron heads off on a rugby tour to Australia, I’m in the pharmacy buying their strongest cough medicine for him — though my main fear is of my 17-year-old breaking his neck in a scrum.
My husband Steve picks Cam up from Heathrow airport after three weeks, luckily in one piece. Because of a mix-up over dates, I’m still on holiday in Greece with our daughter Michaela, 15.
Two days before I’m due home in Surrey, Steve tells me he’s taking Cam to the doctor because his cough hasn’t gone yet. When I finally get home, I hug Cam until he shakes me off. I don’t really notice the cough.
At the check-up, the doctor tells us we can try a different antibiotic or go to A&E for a chest X-ray; Steve says A&E.
At the hospital, a harassed doctor tells us there is an unusual mass on Cam’s chest and they need to get him a scan. He won’t be drawn on possibilities.
I beg one of the nurses to put me out of my misery. She tells me it’s probably some sort of lymphoma — a cancer of the lymphatic system.
On Saturday, I text Pat to let her know. And that I have never felt so sick with fear.
Kerry said Cam who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma was broken when he realised that he wouldn’t be able to play, despite being made rugby captain. Pictured: Pat and Kerry
Sunday, August 13
Kerry Pat’s reply to my text about Cam is to say she can be with me by this afternoon. I say yes, if she promises not to cry.
When Pat arrives, I let the words I’ve been squashing down reach the air, things I’m afraid to say even to my husband in case he agrees with me.
Cam has another scan on Tuesday and a new consultant talks about the size of the mass in his chest and lymph nodes. Then Cam asks if he has cancer. The consultant shrugs and says: ‘Eight out of ten cancer; two out of ten not. Tomorrow a biopsy.’
By Wednesday, Pat has to go back to her own life. We hug — the sort of hug that friends who’ve known each other for years give when there are no words to make it better.
The biopsy indicates it’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We are sent to another hospital to get chemo under way. Cam only breaks when he realises that, despite just being made rugby captain, he won’t be able to play.
Friday, August 25
Kerry Cam is allowed to come home from hospital. But when Steve arrives back with him, there is a flatness about my husband. He tells me it’s not Hodgkin’s but Grey Zone — a really rare cancer that is halfway between Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The prognosis is still good, he says.
‘But not as good?’ I ask.
Pat discovered that Dom had taken an overdose, while her husband Jan was away for work. Pictured: Pat and Dom
He shakes his head.
Cam starts his chemo at The Royal Marsden in Sutton. Days later, dressed in a new suit, he drives off for the first day of school as though nothing has changed.
Friday, September 8
Pat With my husband Jan away for work, I sleep more lightly. At 3am I hear a thud from the attic, Dom’s room. I get up to check and see an empty bed, then my teenage son in the bathroom doorway. He pushes me away and tells me to leave him alone.
Is he drunk? Then I spot the empty pill packets on the floor, and the empty bottle of alcohol.
I find myself in teacher mode, my first-aid training kicking in. Dom has collapsed on the bed and his speech is muddled.
Telling him to talk to me, I shake his shoulders and then I see it. Written in biro, above his bed: ‘LOVE YOU… NOT RESPONSIBLE… AT PEACE.’
Dom has taken an overdose. I run to get my phone. My hands shake as I dial 999.
I can’t watch as the ambulance crew manhandle Dom out of the house. At the hospital, I try to sound matter-of-fact about the painkillers and the empty bottle of alcohol, too.
Left in a side room, Dom asks for water, takes a sip and falls back on the pillow, eyes closed.
A doctor explains when the blood tests can be taken: we must wait four hours from when Dom took the tablets so they can tell how much is in his system, so nothing can be done until 7am. As my shock unravels a little, I try to digest what has happened. How have we got here?
Dom was in good form over the summer and we thought the bullying was behind us. I’d let my guard down but now I am looking at the past with different eyes.
The next morning, from my bedside chair in hospital, I reach for Dom. He squeezes my hand and my heart squeezes back.
Pat to Kerry: I have to let you know that Dom is also very poorly: he has taken an overdose and is very luckily still with us but we face an unknown future of mental health care.
I can imagine it might make you really cross to hear this when you have Cameron fighting something he hasn’t ‘brought on himself’ but for Dom his mental disease is just as deadly. Please think of us all.
Kerry to Pat: You poor, poor things. It doesn’t make us cross, it makes us deeply sad. I hope we can support you the way you have supported us. We send so much love and strength to you all.
Pat Jan and I are in the hospital with two women from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). They tell us Dom says he did mean to die but is sorry and wants to come home.
Effectively we are now on suicide watch, with the rather unhelpful advice that ‘if he is determined, there is a limit to what you will be able to do’.
That, a handwritten phone number for the crisis line (open until 10pm) and an instruction to put away all medicines is all the information we are given to keep our son alive.
Kerry Now the chemo is under way, Cam’s hair is falling out and he has asked me to shave his head. I buy clippers and squirrel away a lock in my memory box, next to the one from his first haircut. He laughs at his reflection, while I go upstairs to sob.
The challenge is to keep Cam well enough to bounce from chemo to chemo every three weeks. I have to inject him with medication to boost his neutrophils (blood cells that fight infection) and every week he has tests to make sure he can cope with the chemo.
Pat This new life is a lesson in living one moment at a time. CAMHS are confident ‘back to normal’ is the right strategy, so I swallow my doubts about Dom’s return to school.
Kerry In the weeks leading up to Cam’s 18th birthday, I want to make sure he knows how much joy he has brought us.
I cry through making a huge photo album for his birthday. Later, I call Pat and put the phone down feeling so much better. There is at least one person in the world who really gets it.
All our attention is on the scan in November that will tell us if Cam’s tumour is shrinking.
Pat I’m in Cornwall with Jan and Dom, visiting Dom’s older brother Greg, 19, a student down here. We’re staying in a holiday cottage attached to a hotel, and I want to make the most of these precious few days. But I can’t relax whenever Dom is out of my sight.
The day before we are due to head home, Dom goes out for a walk. Jan and I sit on the terrace in the sunshine. An overwhelming sense of dread about Dom engulfs me and I run to his room, flinging open the door. Everything is in order. My imagination is running away with me. I text Dom: ‘Have you seen the sunset?’
‘Yes,’ he replies, he’s watching it.
Sunday, October 29
Pat We’re heading home from Cornwall today. In the morning, I tap on Dom’s door to wake him up. There is no reply, so I open the door and a strong breeze flows past me. The window is open and, apart from the lazy flap of the curtains, all is silent. I call Dom’s name. No answer.
Panic. Something is wrong. And then dread gut-punches me. I call again and again, louder and more painful. The bed is crumpled. His phone is on the bedside table.
I reel back towards Jan. My voice is high and thin as I tell him Dom has gone.
Jan heads out to hunt for him as I race to the hotel reception. My hands are shaking so much I can’t press the buttons on the phone, so I pass it to the manager to ring the police. Afterwards, he escorts me back to our holiday cottage.
The police arrive and the world moves into action. I am asked to describe Dom’s clothes and go to his room to see if I can work out what he is wearing by checking what is still there. He’s in black jeans, black coat, grey sweatshirt. Doggie, his cuddly toy, has gone, too. My heart thuds downwards.
Kerry It’s the day before Cam’s 18th birthday, so we are heading to London for afternoon tea with family. Next week, Cam will have the big scan.
We are in a taxi when Jan, Pat’s husband, rings Steve. I know by Steve’s face there’s bad news. ‘Dom’s missing. There’s a coastguard search for him. I could hear the helicopters flying overhead.’
We sit in silence for the rest of the journey. I can’t get away from the image of Pat sitting waiting for news. I decide something is better than nothing and text to tell her I am sending love, that I can’t imagine what she is going through. She texts straight back: ‘The answer is hell.’
The afternoon has a veneer of normality as we toast Cam, but questions clamour in my mind — Will Cam die? Will Dom be OK?
I wonder what will be left of any of us when this is all over.
Adapted from Take My Hand, by Kerry Fisher and Pat Sowa, published today by Thread Books at £8.99. © Kerry Fisher and Pat Sowa 2020. Also available in ebook for a limited period at the special price of 99p from amazon.co.uk
Samaritans 24-hour helpline: 116 123
PAPYRUS (UK charity for the prevention of youth suicide): 0800 068 4141 (Weekdays 9am-10pm; weekends and Bank Holidays 2pm-10pm). papyrus-uk.org