Tears streamed down my face as I tapped out the message: ‘I totally understand if you want us to stop talking.’ As I pressed send, I thought I could feel my heart breaking.
Dave and I had been texting each other for a month. We were yet to meet in person, but I’d enjoyed getting to know him gradually. We shared a flirty sense of humour and his wonderful, warm messages triggered little bubbles of happiness inside me.
Of course, it was still very early days for us but Dave had begun to represent something I’d dared not dream of: a happy, loving future. My sadness was at having to end something so promising before it had even begun.
Earlier that day, I’d discovered the breast cancer I’d battled four-and-a-half years before was back.
The timing seemed intolerably cruel: just as my four children, Jake, then 11, and triplets Louis, Theo and Ella, five, were all finding their feet and I’d met the first man to spark excitement in at least half a decade.
Mother-of-four Emma Campbell (pictured with Dave and her triplets -Louis, Ella and Theo) revealed how she was able to find love with 60 Minute Makeover’s Dave while battling cancer
As painful as it was, I knew I had to give Dave the option to walk away. After all, taking on a woman with four children is baggage enough, let alone one with a cancer recurrence. Who would want to get bogged down in all that?
My triplets were newborns when I discovered the first small, hard lump in my breast. It took six months to pluck up the courage to see a doctor — grimly, I booked the appointment on the day Marc, my partner of seven years and father of my four children, left me for good.
Our relationship had been heading downhill for months. We’d struggled to have another child after Jake was born in 2003. Years of trying had taken its toll on our sex life, then came the slog of IVF and the shock of triplets. Our relationship was often rocky but, with three newborns, I had no energy left to fight. He didn’t want to leave, but the situation was impossible for all concerned.
It was my dad who sat with me as the consultant confirmed I had cancer. I was cowering, absolutely terrified. A few days later I bought a book called Mummy’s Lump to help me tell Jake. Within a fortnight, I’d started chemotherapy.
My life was in freefall. How could I look after four children when I needed so much looking after myself? Paying for any kind of help just wasn’t an option: I was on maternity leave from my job as a receptionist at a talent agency and Marc, a Parisian, was still finding his way in London and largely waiting on tables for a living.
Dad and his partner lived nearby and did all they could — minding the babies and cooking. Mum wasn’t as close by, but even if she had been, the night shifts would still be my responsibility. Three babies, three-hourly feeds with each one taking up to two- and-a-half hours. Each evening, I’d stagger upstairs at bedtime, carefully carrying a tray that held 18 bottles of formula.
I’d place the tray on the floor alongside a changing mat, a pile of nappies, baby wipes, spare dummies and teething granules for their sore gums.
And I’d become adept at changing, wiping, feeding, burping and mopping, all while propped up in what used to be my side of the bed.
Emma (pictured during chemotherapy with son Jake and triplets Louis, Theo and Ella) had help from friends to look after her children while undergoing treatment for cancer. She broke up with their father on the day she had the doctor’s appointment to discuss the lump she found in her breast
Snatching 20 or 30 minutes of sleep had worked before chemo. Once the treatment began, it all started to feel impossible. It lasted six months and I spent much of the time sleeping, crying and feeling like I’d been hit by a truck.
You may well ask who looked after my children while I was having treatment. This is where the chink of light comes in. For what life takes with one hand, it gives with the other.
It started with my school mum friends, a group of strong, grounded women I’d known since Jake started nursery. As the news spread, my phone began to ping with constant offers of help. Weekly laundry, lifts to hospital, walking the babies. I wasn’t alone.
Soon, I had so many helpers I started to lose track. Which friend turned up one day, cleaned the house and left before I returned? And which generous friend of a friend of a friend asked for my bank details so that she could contribute in some small way?
One day, I even walked into my kitchen to find newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky up to her elbows in bolognaise sauce, batch cooking for my freezer with our mutual friend, Lucy.
How likely is cancer to return?
Most cancers that are going to come back will do so in the first two years or so after treatment
The deluge of genuine love often brought me to tears.
The treatment — chemo, surgery, radiotherapy — took the best part of a year. I emerged bald, skinny as a rake and missing a boob, but it had gone as well as it possibly could. It took a long while for my mind to catch up. I was terrified of leaving my four young children motherless, and tortured by the thought I’d never see them grow up.
Gradually, I returned to work, the triplets started nursery and Jake was hurtling towards senior school.
Shortly before I reached the magical five-year point (the milestone that all cancer patients aim for), my best friend Mel nominated me for the daytime TV show, 60 Minute Makeover, where houses are given a speedy facelift while their owners are out.
I loved everything they did in my home: the fluffy white lampshades, the orange feature wall, the triplets’ bedroom with decor inspired by a Fab ice lolly.
And this is where Dave comes in. He was the ‘carpet man’ from the show — the man who refurbished the floors in the houses. As the whole thing was a surprise, we didn’t meet when he was at my home, but he messaged me on Twitter the day the show aired.
Emma (pictured with Dave on their wedding day) was nominated by her best friend Mel for the daytime TV show, 60 Minute Makeover. Dave who was the show’s ‘carpet man’ messaged her on Twitter after the makeover was complete and they began speaking regularly
‘Hi Emma, never got the chance to say hello on the day, loved doing your show — it was one of our favourites! Hope you’re well. Take care, Dave x’
How sweet of one of the crew to get in touch. I clicked on his profile. Bloody hell, it’s him! The hairs on my arms stood to attention.
I had spotted Dave on TV years before. I’d only caught five minutes of an episode of DIY SOS, which he’d done a few times in the past, but I very much remember loving the look of him — mainly because here was a man who was obviously capable and practical.
A few weeks later, Dave and I were in full texting flow. We hadn’t taken the enormous step of talking on the phone, but the messaging was gathering real momentum with morning and night-time texts coming thick and fast.
Our humour was clearly in sync and the light-hearted but decidedly flirty banter was increasing daily.
Then I got the dreaded phone call from the hospital. A routine blood test had showed rising tumour markers. A rash on my chest was suspicious, too.
At the oncology department I was told that the cancer was back, this time in my skin. I needed more chemo and if I made it through that, a regime of ‘maintenance treatment’ for life.
Emma (pictured during treatment) received a message from Dave saying that he was ‘going nowhere’ when she told him that her cancer had returned after a four-and-a-half years battle
My friends and family rallied once more, but honestly the world had never felt darker. So much for the hallowed five-year point. That evening, I texted Dave the get-out clause: ‘I feel such a connection with you, but you don’t need this and we haven’t even met xx’
A few moments passed before he replied. My heart pounded as I clicked it open.
‘Ems, I know this is a terrible day but we’ve connected for a reason. I’m going nowhere. I’m here for you. xx’
Relief flooded through me. We kept messaging that evening and it felt as if — even though miles apart — Dave held me in a way I’d never experienced before.
We met the very next day. There was no time to waste. Whatever was happening between us, we needed to know so we could face the next chapter.
My dad took care of the kids for a few hours so I could drive down to Dave’s cottage in Surrey. His first marriage having ended years before, he lived alone with his beloved cat, Charlie.
We made small talk for a while, enjoying the carrot cake he’d bought especially. Then at some stage we stopped talking and just looked at each other.
‘Come here,’ said Dave, opening his arms. I stepped towards him and he held me close. He felt so strong and I knew instinctively that I was safe.
Emma (pictured with Dave) who believes the cancer bound her and Dave together tightly, made their relationship official on September 2016 at Chelsea Register Office
You’d think falling in love would be hindered by the misery of chemotherapy, the fear of death and so on. But this is where the chink of light revealed itself again.
Whereas before it might have been tricky to see each other, now nights at Dave’s were considered respite care by all those who rallied round so wonderfully.
My small but incredible ‘sleepover’ team made it possible for me to stay over at Dave’s house for a night or two, every couple of weeks.
Despite the strands of hair on the pillow and the ulcers on my tongue as the second lot of chemo kicked in, I’d lie in Dave’s bed and feel truly happy.
Life was dark and light. Two extremes. The most wonderful of times and the hardest that I’d ever experienced. Lust, sex, tenderness, laughter and a deep, deep connection. They were all in such abundance that I’m not surprised I responded so well to the treatment.
Within a year, I was feeling well again. Dave had sold his house and moved in with me, despite the understandable concerns of some of his friends: ‘I know you love her, but four kids? Cancer?’
The truth is it was cancer that bound us together so tightly. But for cancer, perhaps the demands of our very different lives would have seen us drift apart.
Emma has written about her experience in a new book, two years on from her wedding
The thing about the disease is that it brings your priorities into sharp relief. Maybe cancer’s gift to Dave and me was clarity.
The fact was, Dave loved me and I loved him. And eventually — after one or two false starts — he loved the children, too.
A few months after Dave moved in, he arranged for us to have a night away at beautiful hotel in Egham, Surrey. Bottle of bubbly on the side, he dug into his suitcase and produced a box.
Inside was a princess cut platinum ring — at that moment, a Coke can ring would have seemed just as perfect. Through my sobs, I spluttered: ‘Yes!’
We made it official in September 2016 at Chelsea Register Office. I wore a dress from ASOS and earrings from Claire’s Accessories because they sparkled just like the real thing.
Dave went up a notch in a beautiful navy Hugo Boss suit and brogues.
By some miracle, 13-year-old Jake agreed to wear a suit and I don’t think I’d ever seen him look lovelier. Louis and Theo, now six, were bribed into wearing shirts and trousers. Ella, my beautiful, feisty girl, embraced her party dress moment.
Afterwards we hailed cabs and went for pizza. No frills or fuss, just good food, cheap wine and as much ice cream as the children could eat.
Two years on, I take drugs every three weeks to help keep the cancer at bay, but I’m doing well. And I’m more grateful for my family than ever.
Together we are doing our best to live full, authentic, strong and happy lives. To believe it’s safe to be truly happy. And perhaps I have cancer to thank for that.
Visit Emma’s instagram @emplus4
Adapted by Alison Roberts from All That Followed by Emma Campbell (Mirror Books, £7.99). © Emma Campbell 2018
To order a copy for £6.39 (offer valid to September 6, 2018) visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15.