A dad and his beloved pet Labrador who were both diagnosed with kidney cancer just months apart are now making the most of what precious time they have left together.
Simon O’Brien, 48, is now in remission but his ‘best friend’ devastatingly only has a short while left to live.
The dad-of-three was crushed when he learned of eight-year-old Bella’s diagnosis before discovering he too was suffering from the killer disease in 2022.
They both shared similar symptoms – feeling constantly tired and thirsty – before scans revealed they had potentially lethal lumps on their kidneys, which were later diagnosed as cancer.
Convinced his days were numbered, Simon visited the Marie Curie website to plan his own funeral and get his family affairs in order.
He even wrote future letters for his three children, Ivy, 27, Callum, 18, and Niamh, 14, to open on big occasions.
Thankfully, this proved to be unnecessary and he was told earlier this year his cancer was in remission following a seven-hour emergency operation to remove his kidney.
But for Bella, the surgery is too risky.
“If you are not an animal person, then you probably don’t get it, but if you are are, then you understand,” said Simon, who lives with his wife Ruth in Aintree, Merseyside, and works as an IT project manager for NTT Data.
“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.”
The family first noticed something was wrong when Bella began to lose weight, and started sleeping and drinking lots more water in May 2022.
“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.”
They took her to the vet, who referred her to a specialist animal hospital in Chester, where a scan confirmed she had terminal 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.”
Just a few months later in October, keen half marathon runner Simon, who is a member of the Liverpool Running Club, started feeling exhausted after his routine training.
“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.”
Oblivious, he visited his GP and was referred to his local hospital for tests in November where a CT scan revealed a mass on his right kidney.
He said: “(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.”
Simon and Ruth decided to break the devastating news to their children that same month.
“Telling the kids was one of the hardest things, but we decided it was best to all go through it together,” he said.
“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 cant believe this, me and my poor dog.
“At least I can get the op.”
Fearing the worst, Simon started preparing his children for a future without their dad.
He penned a series of letters for special milestones like their big birthdays and wedding days.
But after a life-saving operation, he has been given a second chance at life.
“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.”
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Bella, whose cancer is terminal.
Despite this, Bella, who is on £600 worth of medication a month, has lived far longer than was originally expected.
“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 stopped working after his diagnosis, heaped praise on his employer NTT Data, which has continued paying his salary throughout his ordeal.
Determined to enjoy his time left with Bella, he has since embarked on a Park Run challenge to raise money for Marie Curie, which supports terminally-ill people and their families at the end of life with care, information and support.
“Everything on the Marie Curie website was in one place with support on finances, funerals, wills and all the practical information you need when you are 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 that our website was there at a time when Simon needed it most. People with shock diagnosis often have nowhere to turn and need information fast.