Just a few months apart, a kidney cancer diagnosis was made for a father of three and his companion Labrador.
By the time he learned he had kidney cancer in 2022, Simon O'Brien, 48, had already been devastated by the news that his golden Lab, Bella, 8, had only months to live after being told she also had the disease.
Both started showing the same symptoms, such as always feeling weary and thirsty, until examinations indicated they had potentially lethal kidney lesions, later confirmed as cancer.
Simon, who believed his days were few, went to the Marie Curie website to arrange his own funeral and take care of family business.
He even wrote letters for his three daughters, Ivy, 27, Callum, 18, and Niamh, 14, to read on special occasions.
Thankfully, this turned out to be unneeded when he learned that his cancer was in remission earlier this year after having his kidney removed during a seven-hour emergency operation.
Bella, who only has a limited time left to live, is sadly too vulnerable for the procedure, so Simon is now making the most of their limited time together.
“If you are not an animal person, then you probably don’t get it, but if you are, then you understand,” stated Simon, an IT project manager at NTT Data who resides with his wife Ruth in Aintree, Merseyside, said.
“She is my best friend and is so much more than a dog to us; she is family.
It was like a bolt out of the blue, and having two cancers in the family at the same time has been awful.
You are aware of the burden you put on others. Even though they might not show it, you can see their worry and concern.”
How Simon Found Out Bella Had Kidney Cancer
In May 2022, Bella began to lose weight, sleep more, and drink more water.
“Bella was your typical, cliche Labrador—just a family dog, who is always happy and loves playing with children,” said Simon.
“She was usually very prim and proper and groomed herself, but she had stopped and constantly had her tail between her legs, which was unusual, so we knew something was wrong.”
Bella's family brought her to the veterinarian, who sent them to a Chester animal hospital, where a scan revealed that she had deadly kidney cancer.
“The vet said there was nothing they could do, and she had months to live and to enjoy our time left with her and make memories,” said Simon.
“We’ll get her on some meds and make the most of the time you’ve got.”
Simon, a dedicated half-marathon runner and the Liverpool Running Club member, began to feel worn out after his regular training a few months later (in October 2022).
“I was struggling to finish a training session with the guys and thought I must have really let myself go during the pandemic,” he said.
“But then I found myself getting really tired and thirsty and losing weight without wanting to.”
Unaware, he went to his doctor and was told to visit his neighborhood hospital for tests in November.
There, a CT scan showed a mass on his right kidney.
“They told me over the phone that they had found a mass on my right kidney, that they suspected it was cancer, and that there was a chance it had spread to my lymph nodes.
At that point, I was feeling pretty rubbish because I had continued to lose weight and was feeling very weak.”
That following month, Simon and Ruth decided to tell their kids the terrible news.
“Telling the kids was one of the hardest things, but we decided it was best to all go through it together.
Of course, we played out the best-case scenario to them because they are only young.
Quietly to myself, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this, me and my poor dog.
At least I can get the op.’”
Simon began preparing for his death and wrote letters for future milestone events like his children's significant birthdays and weddings.
“I was hoping for the best but planning for the worst,” he said.
But owing to a seven-hour emergency kidney removal procedure he had in December at Royal Liverpool University Hospital, his cancer is now in remission.
“We only officially got the news last month,” he said.
“Seeing the sense of relief on family and friends’ faces was very emotional—a real good feeling.”
Tragically, Bella's cancer is terminal, and the same could not be said for her.
Despite this, Bella has survived much longer than anticipated, although taking £600 worth of medication per month.
“The medication is very expensive but has been amazing, and after a week or so, we pretty much had her back,” Simon said.
“The one thing we have kept going is taking her to the beach because she loves the waves, and for five or ten minutes, she’ll forget everything and be a puppy again.”
Simon, who quit his job following his diagnosis, thanked NTT Data for continuing to pay his wages during his struggle.
He has signed up for a Park Run challenge in an effort to raise money for Marie Curie, a charity that provides care and support to terminally ill patients and their families.
“Everything on the Marie Curie website was in one place with support on finances, funerals, wills, and all the practical information you need when in that situation,” he said.
“It removed the worry and gave me all the information to protect my family’s future.
I wrote letters for my children and even planned my funeral songs.
It gave me peace of mind, whereas my health was out of my control.”
Dr. Laura Chapman, medical director at the Marie Curie Liverpool Hospice, said:
“This is such a sad situation. To have Simon and Bella diagnosed with the same type of cancer at the same time is something I have never heard of in my medical career.
The chances of a dog getting this relatively unusual cancer at the same time as her owner are around a million to one.
It’s heartbreaking for the family who are now making cherished memories with Bella.”
Matt Williams, associate director of information and support at Marie Curie, said:
“I am glad our website was there when Simon needed it most. People with shock diagnoses have nowhere to turn and need information fast.
So we have created a one-stop information hub to help people put their affairs in order and plan their funeral and finances when the worst happens.”