‘He wanted to inspire others’: Family shares father’s diaries of life with a terminal cancer diagnosis
A prominent businessman known as the 'Father of Surfing' in Ireland, Brian Britton wished to do something to help others going through the same journey after receiving the toughest news imaginable in 2016
A woman who lost her husband to cancer three years ago is sharing their story captured across 16 months of diary entries in the hope of helping others.
In life, Antoinette Britton’s late husband Brian was one of the country’s most distinguished business leaders.
The fact that he was known variously as the ‘father of surfing’ in Ireland and a ‘champion of renewables’ speaks not only to his enterprising spirit, but also to the deep care he dedicated to the things that mattered most to him.
A long-time executive of Goodman International, he was intrinsically associated with the introduction of surfing to Ireland, and his passion for the sea nurtured from his earliest days in Donegal would eventually also express itself in his central role in the development of what will be Ireland’s first large scale off-shore windfarm.
One of his biggest ever business deals in September 2017 that secured the future of that landmark renewable energy project was also to be his last, for Brian had been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia a year earlier, a discovery that prompted he and wife Antoinette to take stock and consider how they would deal with the devastating news.
“We were on holidays in Italy at the time when we received a call from Brian's doctor in St James's. It turned out he happened to have the results of some tests they had run after his initial diagnosis, so we got home on the Friday and went straight to the hospital, bags still in the boot.
That’s when Brian was told he had terminal cancer.
“It was a surreal moment. We were told he would have at most 18 months to live, and he died within 16 months.”
The idea was first put to Brian by his consultant that he should write down his thoughts in a diary as he went through treatment.
That suggestion would set in train what would eventually become a lovingly-curated collection of thoughts and observations from Brian and Antoinette over his final months, as each of them documented the rollercoaster of emotions that a terminal cancer diagnosis brings.
“We would each write down our thoughts, and then discuss them over coffee between 11-11.30am every day rather than let it take over our whole lives. That was our way of coping; Brian knew he only had a short amount of time left to him and we wanted to spend it well,” Antoinette says.
“He would write down things that would help him through. He talks about his condition as his ‘new wee friend’ to be lived with, along with observations on ‘making the most of each day’ and ‘don’t be afraid to show weakness or to cry’, as well as memories of ‘pathways walked, waves ridden’.
“He’d always have a treat after a ‘good’ chemo session, and we loved stopping off in Skerries for lunch and a walk on our way home on those days. We tried to revisit places that were special to us in the time we had left together, and went on seven trips in nine months including to the beautiful little town of Ravello in Italy in November 2017 to renew our marriage vows. Nothing was left undone and Brian passed away in peace having done it his way.
“There were frustrations too; he was still working all throughout this time, but he would get annoyed because chemo would affect his thinking and he would forget things, and he didn’t like that.
“People knew Brian as this big businessman who seemed almost untouchable, but when it came to it he handed everything over to his medical team in St James’s. He took the mentality that ‘I’m a businessman, I know nothing about medicine’, and they were absolutely amazing. They gave him 13 months of a really good quality of life before the chemo stopped working.”
When it came to the final days and weeks of Brian’s life, Antoinette worried about how to fulfil his wish to die at home surrounded by loved ones. In the end, she was grateful to be able to rely on the help of the local community palliative care team, and the Irish Cancer Society.
“I first became aware of the Society’s services during a visit to the Daffodil Centre in St James’s. Brian always said he wanted to die at home, but I was feeling very fearful and anxious about how we could make it work as we approached that stage.
We were able to do it thanks to the Irish Cancer Society’s Night Nursing service.
“Myself and Brian’s children Neil, John and Naomi nursed him during the day and that was a privilege for us as well because we were able to be with him, and then the Night Nurse would tell us to go to bed at 11 so we could rest.
“It was wonderful because it meant we all had our own time and we could care for him until the end, but we also had that very necessary professional backup for things like medication.
“Brian’s brother Conor, who we have also sadly lost since then, was a big help with transport and helping me in the home in those last months. At first I thought I could do it all alone, but I was encouraged to call in help and it was a boost having another person around.
“We’re also so thankful to Maura O’Callaghan from North Louth Hospice who provided us with everything we required with regards organising equipment, a male carer to shower and shave Brian daily, and additional nursing when required.”
Antoinette was later able to avail of bereavement counselling at the Gary Kelly Cancer Centre in Drogheda after being referred through the Irish Cancer Society, something she found to be immensely helpful.
Brian’s three-year anniversary on 20th February happens to occur shortly before the Society’s major Daffodil Day fundraiser in March.
While Antoinette had been contemplating sharing her husband’s experience for some time since his loss, she hopes that doing so now will be of most help to others.
“They made sure Brian had everything he needed in the end.
“You know this all goes on when you’re not involved, but you just can’t believe the quality of care that is given until you’re in that situation yourself, and it’s so important that people know that the Irish Cancer Society’s services are funded through donations.”
“Dad’s philosophy throughout his life was ‘just go for it’ ”
Brian's son John shares a tribute to his father
Our father, or ‘Battler Britton’ as he was known in his school days, fought through his diagnosis with the most amazing attitude and always wanted to be a positive inspiration to his family and others with a similar illness. Hence his idea for ‘his journey’, a journal of his thoughts which was both cathartic as a means of expressing his emotions and feelings, and as something to leave behind so that others could gain inspiration from his thoughts.
Part of his ‘Journey’ was that his cancer wouldn’t stop him from achieving his goals or stand in the way of his lifelong ‘joie de vivre’. These goals kept him going, whether it was looking forward to a bar of chocolate after an appointment in St James's, picking up his grandchildren from school in Donegal or taking a road trip with Antoinette and his daughter Naomi, to the little island of Giglio in Italy that he’d read about in the paper and taking an impressive plunge into the sea there. Sometimes we thought he was mad to plan a trip to his beloved ski resort in Austria but this is what kept him going. And there was no stopping his determination to go on his annual road trip with his three children towards the end of his journey.
His final trip to West Clare had been postponed a couple of times due to his bloods not being right and allergic reactions. But five weeks before his passing, we all packed up and headed to an old surfing haunt of his, Lahinch.
That Friday he had received the terrible news that his treatment was no longer effective, and he was now fending for himself as transfusions would no longer work. When we arrived, we all sat down, and he told us the situation.
We had a great cry and one of his unforgettable bear hugs. But that was that. That was him.
The next day we drove out to Loop Head for what Dad knew was his last look at another love of his life, the Atlantic Ocean. He had brought surfing to Ireland and had surfed its swells. We all let out our whoops and hollers as a wild wind howled around us, and with a tear and a knowing smile he bid farewell to the Ocean.
Dad’s philosophy throughout his life was ‘just go for it’. He didn’t wallow or wonder ‘Why me?’ He wanted to do a final road trip with his kids, and he did it. He wanted to say goodbye to the Atlantic, and he did it. I know that I’ve personally taken inspiration from his philosophy since his passing and made life decisions based on health and happiness.
He often spoke about how much he would love if others gained comfort or inspiration from ‘his journey’ too. So if in doubt, ‘just go for it’.
Contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line
If you have worries or concerns about cancer, you can speak confidentially to an Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurse through the Freephone Support Line on 1800 200 700.
Monday to Friday, 9.00am - 5.00pm
For more information
1800 200 700