My gaze is fixed on John’s right hand. I know his hands so well. Over our 33 years together, his hands have often held mine.
They have cradled first our children, then our grandchildren. They have tended to our house and garden. Now, his hand rests on our dog Angela’s large, untidy head. He is lying stretched out on the sofa and she is in her favourite position alongside him.
She looks up at him adoringly, as he rakes his fingers through her fur with a satisfying scratch. The television offers another round of Pointless. Nothing has changed.
Everything has changed.
Two years ago, we collected a sweet, squirmy, protesting puppy from her birthplace in Derbyshire and brought her home. We’d both grown up with dogs, and as an ex-Blue Peter presenter, I was very used to spending time with them. You were never far from fur or feathers in the Blue Peter studio!
Two years ago, we collected a sweet, squirmy, protesting puppy from her birthplace in Derbyshire and brought her home. We’d both grown up with dogs, and as an ex-Blue Peter presenter, I was very used to spending time with them. You were never far from fur or feathers in the Blue Peter studio! Pictured: Janet Ellis with her dog
Angela is our second Italian Spinone. Our first, Nancy, had died not long before, in February 2017, at the not-very-grand old age of 12, leaving us distraught.
John had been diagnosed with stage 1 cancer of the tonsil during Nancy’s last days and, truth to tell, neither of them minded about swapping long walks for afternoon rests. He needed to convalesce after six weeks of daily radiotherapy, and she loved the company.
Her death, which left a huge, dog-shaped gap in our lives (Spinones are not small dogs, either in size or temperament), coincided with positive news of John’s recovery — a clear scan.
Heartened, we went on a puppy search and, although they’re not a common breed, news of a litter came exactly when we needed it.
We went to choose our new puppy just before a cherished holiday to Japan. At least, we thought we were making the decision, but she made her feelings clear by settling on my lap at once and staying put, while we admired her brothers and sisters. ‘This one, then,’ we agreed.
The puppy sighed, loudly, and went back to sleep. When we went to collect her, a few weeks later, we were refreshed after a wonderful trip, and ready for the inevitable weeks of chewing, mewling and mess. Puppies are hard work!
We called her Angela, loved her immediately and were at her beck and call constantly, however much we’d promised ourselves that we’d be strict. Her big brown eyes were disarming and her appetite for life and adventure was infectious.
Janet’s husband John with their beloved dog Angela. She says: Angela is our second Italian Spinone. Our first, Nancy, had died not long before, in February 2017, at the not-very-grand old age of 12, leaving us distraught.
It didn’t take long for her to feel like one of the family. We enrolled in puppy training classes, replaced yet another ruined dog bed and found an excellent walker for when we needed him. So far, so familiar.
John was due to have one final scan before being effectively signed off and promoted to attending yearly check-ups and telling tales of victory over cancer.
His last scan had been good and our recent holiday had been a very active one, including walking and climbing in Japan’s Kiso Valley.
Of course, we kept some of our optimism back in case we heard bad news, but we felt positive. As we went into the doctor’s consulting room, we were almost convinced this was a formality. It didn’t work out like that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in front of someone who is speaking your language and telling you something important, but what they’re saying is so awful their words seem jumbled and impossible to understand. If you have, you’ll know how ghastly it is.
Speaking of Angela, Janet said: ‘It didn’t take long for her to feel like one of the family. We enrolled in puppy training classes, replaced yet another ruined dog bed and found an excellent walker for when we needed him. So far, so familiar’
Ironically, we got the results of his scan en route to the opening of the new Maggie’s cancer centre at St Bart’s in London — I’ve been a Maggie’s patron for ages.
‘I’m afraid we’ve found something,’ his doctor said. ‘In one lung.’ And we sat, smartly dressed, where only moments before we’d been thinking about celebrating another fantastic, necessary Maggie’s Centre, as the realisation dawned that the worst had happened.
The inexplicable, unfair, bewildering reality was that my beautiful husband — my truest friend, my champion, my love, the best person I’ve ever known — had stage 4 secondary cancer.
I’m slightly jumping ahead, because there were biopsies and scans and tests to come, to confirm what the medics suspected, but really we knew.
We knew in that instant that everything was going to be different. That plans would always come with provisos (‘if we can; all being well; treatment permitting; fingers crossed’). That our children, friends and families would have to cope with this situation in all sorts of unprepared-for ways.
Janet Ellis, pictured in 1983, with one of the show’s dogs
We’d all have to learn the grammar of treatment, outcomes and protocols. We’d become familiar with his doctors and the hospital, with the appointments and the regimes. We’d anticipate or manage the side-effects and complications.
In the early days, which coincided with the depths of winter, it was easy to believe all was bleak. The temptation to hibernate, to shut out the world, was overwhelming. Our dog, Angela, had other ideas.
The first time we saw her again — coming home broken and bewildered from the doctor’s consulting room — the way she bounded up to us showed that, to her, we were exactly the same. What mattered to her is that we loved, cared for and entertained her, and she couldn’t see any reason why that should all stop.
Sure, on occasion, she let me howl and rage. She allowed me to hug her, even when she ended up damp with tears, without flinching or pulling away. But then she reminded me that there was a world outside the window. For her, it was full of different sounds and sights and smells (especially smells), each one more entrancing than the last.
Throughout what felt like a winter of Siberian intensity, while John recovered from brutal treatments and investigations, I pulled on stout boots and thick coats and took Angela for walks. Day after day, I trudged on, while she ran and sniffed, and ran back to sniff again.
I was angry and resentful, knotted with fear and sadness. Angela bounded ahead anyway, as if she were only waiting for me to catch up. Which, eventually, literally and metaphorically, I did.
There’s a lot of kindness to be found, too. My puppy greeted everyone as if they were a potential friend. Her charm and lack of inhibitions (she really doesn’t care who you are) forced me into conversations I ended up enjoying
I finally admitted I couldn’t resist her enthusiasm for life any more. It wasn’t so much that she ignored my pain, she simply showed me how to live alongside it. Yes, she seemed to say, there is big stuff going on. Unknowable, frightening things are happening. But, look! There is joy in the detail, in the small things you won’t be able to see if you assume everything is terrible.
There’s a lot of kindness to be found, too. My puppy greeted everyone as if they were a potential friend. Her charm and lack of inhibitions (she really doesn’t care who you are) forced me into conversations I ended up enjoying.
She was thrilled by the sight of a squirrel, and tried to play with every dog she met, undaunted by rejection. She trotted along exactly the same route most days, yet still found new places to explore and different sticks to carry.
I slowly began to see beyond the mud and puddles, and marvel at new, green shoots and buds on the trees. I began to believe in the promise of a future, which might not be the one John and I pledged to each other when we met, but which was still, wonderfully, ours. Initially, John was fragile after a couple of false starts in treatment. His first chemotherapy regime in March last year was a weekly infusion in hospital, followed by five days with an at-home, portable dose of drugs. These were delivered, via a port implant in his chest, from a plastic bottle worn round his waist, .
Unfortunately this — rapidly — gave him chronic mucositis. For the uninitiated, it’s like mouth ulcers to the power of a hundred, including ulceration down his throat. Painful doesn’t begin to describe it.
He was then judged to qualify for that new, great white hope of cancer treatment, immunotherapy. A weekly injection with minimal side-effects (although a long, scary list of possible complications) promised much.
At first, he seemed to be thriving but, alas, immunotherapy isn’t for everyone. In John’s case, it ended up exacerbating his symptoms and enlarging the tumours.
With care and insight, his oncologist persevered until she found a chemotherapy cocktail that worked. Every three weeks, he visits the hospital for a day-long infusion. There’s a fairly predictable, steady recovery rate between doses.
Janet Ellis and Sophie Ellis-Bextor attends the Red Women Of The Year Awards at Skylon Grill on October 12, 2015
Angela and I couldn’t hide our joy when John decided he was ready for our morning constitutional again. She’s a big dog who needs a big walk, so our route takes us nearly five miles along the River Thames towpath. It is not — quite literally — a walk in the park.
Slowly, he grew stronger. And as we walked, we talked. It’s much easier to be open and honest under the sky rather than a ceiling, and to discuss difficult things side by side, instead of face to face. Nothing has been left unsaid. Angela has heard it all, of course — and she’s not telling.
But do not imagine for a moment that I’m the only one besotted with her. Actually, John loves her most of all.
He’s the person with her picture as his screensaver. He researches new toys and treats, and prepares her food with particular care. Hers is the first name on his lips when he comes home. More often than not, he’s coming home from his TV production company, as his chemo regime allows so many good, productive weeks.
He’s having fantastic treatment at Charing Cross Hospital, which is local to us. We’re particularly fortunate that John’s oncologist, Dr Sarah Partridge, is not only super-qualified, but is also a (knowledgeable) advocate of self-hypnosis. John listens to a tape daily. While it undoubtedly gives him terrific support, it’s also a chance for Angela to lie down, undisturbed, by his side.
Portrait of ‘Blue Peter’ presenter Janet Ellis with the resident pet dog ‘Goldie’ in 1983
Dogs are creatures of habit, after all, and she learnt this routine far more quickly than any lesson about recall or not eating rubbish. You may not be surprised to learn she’s still not very good at the last two, but her ‘Lying down while the Master has his eyes closed’ skills are excellent. Our lives, like those of the thousands who are affected by this diagnosis every year, have shifted to accommodate this new normal.
In many ways, we consider ourselves blessed. Anyone who knows us well won’t be unaware that our children, their partners and our five grandchildren are absolutely central to our lives. Our friends, too, are irreplaceable.
Everyone has responded magnificently to John’s diagnosis, with generosity and plenty of necessary humour. We have the gift of more time together, albeit in a very unexpected way.
I am writing novels now, and the publication of my second one recently showed me I can embark on a new career at any stage — despite what fate throws at us.
Janet, pictured in 2014. She says: ‘Each new day is the only one that matters. This hour is the one that counts.’
Much is as normal as it ever was. We can still moan about trivial ailments and petty annoyances. Cancer definitely doesn’t make saints of us. We can celebrate tiny triumphs and good times, too.
Secondary cancers are rarely curable. John’s is an ongoing condition without a date-stamped finishing point. There is no battle to be fought and won here. We are learning to live with it, and Angela is the most amazing teacher we could have.
Without realising it, she’s taught both of us to live our lives encompassing his illness fully, not just in breaks from treatment.
Our sometimes ridiculous, often naughty, always loyal dog gives us unconditional love. She tolerates our moods and pretends not to notice if our attention is elsewhere. Her insistence on routine has often anchored us, when everything seemed chaotic.
But, more than that, she reminds us that measuring time is a fruitless exercise. Who knows how long things will last? Why fret about an unpredictable future or rail against an unchangeable past?
Each new day is the only one that matters. This hour is the one that counts.
Angela is happy while there might be cats to chase or biscuits to covet. It’s hard to feel blue when confronted by your dog offering you a plaything with a happy face and wagging tail.
She asks us for so little in return. She’s content as long as there is the promise of a long walk, a full bowl on her return and a familiar hand ready to stroke her patient, tousled, most beloved head.
- How It Was by Janet Ellis is out now (£16.99, Two Roads)