Hospice helped young mum and cancer sufferer to get married before she died ... and now her heartbroken family are spreading the word about tongue cancer.
A young mum died from a rare form of cancer hours after getting married – and now Emma Gilhespy’s heartbroken family wants to spread the word about the tongue cancer which killed her, as well as highlighting the work of St John’s Hospice, where Emma was looked after in her final days.
Emma was a month short of her 29th birthday when she died, leaving a five-year-old son, Callum.
She passed away 12 hours after marrying her partner of three years, Michael Gilhespy, in a ceremony in the hospice’s chapel.
Emma’s mum Debbie said: “It all started with an ulcer on her tongue; she told me she kept getting it.
“In the end she went to the doctor and was referred for a biopsy last December.
“On January 6 she went to get the results – she went on her own with Callum as we weren’t expecting anything major – and was told it was tongue cancer.”
Michael is in the RAF and was serving in Cyprus at the time.
Sadly, the couple never got to share a Christmas together.
Michael said: “This year would have been our first Christmas. The first one I was in Afghanistan and last year I was in Cyprus.”
Emma underwent two operations in a bid to fight the disease, including surgery to remove part of her tongue in February.
But despite intensive radiotherapy, the family was given the devastating news in July that the cancer was non-curative.
Debbie said: “We were told the cancer had gone but that they would give her radiotherapy for six weeks to make sure none was left.
“Four weeks into the radiotherapy the skin on her neck starting weeping and needed to be drained.
“They kept draining it and said it was clear, but in July they thought it might be infected. We were then told the cancer had spread to her liver, lungs, neck and pelvis.”
The family was stunned by just how quickly Emma’s illness progressed.
Just two sessions into a course of chemotherapy, consultants decided to stop the treatment as it wasn’t working.
And when Emma was due to stay in the hospice for a couple of days in November, her family was suddenly given the devastating news that she may not survive more than 24 hours.
Debbie said: “When they said that we were gobsmacked. I don’t think anyone wanted to believe what was happening.
“We had been going to hold the wedding in the hospice on November 28, but it was brought forward to the 20th. Emma didn’t want to get married then, she wanted to hang on.
“I had bought a wedding dress for the day but she didn’t want to wear it; she wanted to save it. Instead, we dressed her in it in her coffin.”
Emma and Michael were married in the hospice chapel at 11am, and Emma passed away at 11pm that night.
Michael said: “I was with her when she died, and I will never forget that.”
Emma’s best friend Kelly Brown made purple ribbons – the colour Emma had chosen for her bridesmaids – for family and friends to wear at Emma’s funeral service, raising £457 for the hospice in the process.
Along with other fundraising, the family this week handed over a cheque for more than £1,500 to the hospice as a thank you for the care and support they gave Emma and the family.
Her dad Dave said: “You obviously know about St John’s but it’s not until something happens and you have to use it that you realise what it does.
“When we went to look around the hospice before Emma went in, we talked to them about the wedding and they were marvellous.
“They did the flowers and supplied food and drink for us. They couldn’t do enough for us. You couldn’t get any better care or support.
“You just don’t realise what they have to offer until you need it.”
Emma remained positive throughout her treatment, and was determined to raise awareness of the killer disease.
Non-smoker Emma was among a very small number of people who suffer a form of mouth cancer each year.
Michael said: “Even through the whole thing Emma never complained.
“She was very loving and caring, and she was just so positive about beating it.”
Debbie added: “I still don’t believe it has happened sometimes. It’s hard to believe because she was doing so well.
“For a non-smoker it’s very unusual; it’s something that usually affects heavy smokers or drinkers
“Emma always said she wanted people to be more aware of tongue cancer, and how people should have regular dental checks.”
Emma went to Lancaster Road Primary School and then Morecambe High, where she was in the same year as Michael, although they didn’t get together until three years ago.
She had trained as a care worker, although more recently was working at the Trimpell club, where a collection for the hospice after her funeral service raised £350.
Michael said: “Getting married was something we had talked about doing in the future. We had talked about buying a house and having children.
“We had it all planned out for when she was better. She really wanted to go to Venice, and we were also planning to go to Lapland.
“We had our whole lives ahead of us.”
• Cancers of the mouth are relatively rare. Including cancers of the lip, tongue, mouth and oropharynx, there are about 6,800 people diagnosed in the UK each year. Overall, about two out of every 100 cancers diagnosed are mouth or oropharynx cancers.
• Only around one in eight cases are in people less than 50 years old. Mouth cancers are around twice as common in men than in women.
• Smoking tobacco (cigarettes, cigars and pipes) and drinking a lot of alcohol are the main risk factors for mouth cancers in the western world.
• A poor diet may also increase your risk of certain types of mouth cancer.