Gallery: Family of Tuddenham’s Alistair Wheeler insist his short life will not be defined by the illness that killed him - and make every effort to ensure his legacy lives on
- Credit: Archant
It’s just over a year since Alistair Wheeler died. He was only 24, fresh out of university, bursting with ideas and a desire to make his mark on the world.
But despite the random unfairness of the hand fate dealt him, Alistair never felt sorry for himself or stopped making the most of every day.
In his last few months he holidayed with this family, watched tennis at Queen’s Club and Wimbledon and saw his favourite bands, including Eric Clapton, in concert.
He was passionate about renewable energy and wrote in the blog he began after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, of how he wished he could have contributed to the sector.
“I find it a great source of frustration that I’m kicking the bucket at this point in my life,” he wrote, “chiefly because I feel I haven’t given enough back to the world yet. I don’t want to sound like a pretentious do-gooder but I haven’t had too long in the ‘real world’, outside of the education system.
“Up until 2011, I was mostly a ‘taker’, sucking up education and the food and money of my parents until I could be independent earning a reasonable salary on my own. I was just starting out in the real world and boom! This comes along and screws things up.”
But, indirectly, Alistair has achieved more than he thought possible.
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In the last year his parents, Rosalind and Tony, and younger brother, Cameron, have raised around £25,000 for some of the charities that made such a difference to Alistair.
The biggest money spinner involved Cameron, now 20, undertaking a 420km cycle ride through Death Valley, Nevada, with friends Scott Girling and Tom Caraccio-Hewitt, for the Teenage Cancer Trust.
Alistair would have been impressed. He was full of praise when Cameron and his friends at Woodbridge School organised a non-uniform day and fashion show in February 2013, writing: “I was overwhelmed with pride. Well done mate!”
The fundraising has been a way for the family to give something back and also helps give them a focus when grief threatens to be overwhelming.
The last few weeks have been especially difficult, with November marking the first anniversary of Alistair’s death and Christmas Eve, his birthday.
“It is not easy because we all miss Alistair so, so much,” says Rosalind. “But we wanted to see a positive come from what happened to us as a family.
“We all started doing things, some while Alistair was still here. At the dental practice where I work we dressed up as superheroes and raised £1,700. Tony cycled in the RideLondon-Surrey 100 two years on the trot and Cameron did the non-uniform day and the Death Valley Challenge in November 2014. He and his friends are all so young and we have complete admiration for what they achieved.”
At the family home, just outside Ipswich, a strong sense of Alistair, his interests, energy, sense of adventure and personality remain.
Along with the family photographs on display, he has left his mark in other tangible ways.
“He was good at electrical things,” says Rosalind. “He put in CCTV here and solar panels on our summer house so we could have music down there. He put a fountain in the pond and some blue lights around the summer house, which we still have as a memory of him.”
It’s important to the family that Alistair’s memory does not come to be defined by his illness, which was diagnosed in October 2012, when he was just 23. A swelling on his foot, which he first noticed at the start of 2012, turned out to be a rare but aggressive sarcoma.
“It looked nothing,” says Rosalind. “When he first went to see the doctor he was told to put an insert in his shoe. But it didn’t go. Some time later he broke his foot. That’s when it was picked up. It was very rare – a one in a million chance of someone his age getting it. Sarcoma often doesn’t get picked up until it is terminal. This one was very aggressive and had already gone to the groin and lungs.”
The family want people to know the sort of person Alistair was: his sense of humour and his bravery.
Alistair, who was educated in Hertfordshire where the family lived until moving to Suffolk in 2007, studied geography at Exeter Uni and rose to any challenge, says his mother.
“He loved cycling, liked to skydive and loved travelling, which he did a lot of in his gap year.
“It was really amazing the way he coped with his illness. He always had a sense of humour and never gave up. After his hip replacement (because of the effects of the cancer) he came out making jokes about being like the bionic man. His humour is something we will always remember.
“He was determined to carry on living. He got a motability car so he could drive to see his girlfriend, Hettie. I am sure he had his bad days, I know he did. When I think back to when he was little it was possible to soothe things but with this, I felt so helpless. There was nothing I could do to make it right. I had to try and keep a brave face but there were times it was difficult.”
Soon after the hip replacement, Alistair started to get back pain.
“It had gone to his spine,” says Rosalind. “That was the only time I saw him cry. It was so difficult. You know what the outcome is going to be. It’s something you never think is going to happen to you. That’s the hardest thing. You feel guilty for still being here. He was 24 and had so much to do. He had barely finished his education.
“People are not familiar with sarcoma and more awareness and funds for research are needed. Many GPs don’t even recognise it.
“Alistair was unique. There were times, I know, when he was very scared but because he wanted to protect us he didn’t always want to say too much about how he was feeling. Despite that, towards the last few months, we constantly cuddled each other. He needed that.
“The fundraising has been very important. You do have days when you feel sorry for yourself but this has given us all a focus.”
Although there was a six-year age gap Alistair and Cameron shared a love of music and of the comedy character Alan Partridge, often talking to each other in phrases he used. Rosalind is proud of how Cameron has dealt with losing his brother.
“He was the youngest participant in the Nevada cycle ride. Tony and I went out and met the boys the day they finished. Cameron has shown massive maturity throughout.
“We have taken advantage of support that is out there and I am in touch with a couple of other mums who have lost sons. We have negative days but feel we want to be positive. Alistair is gone but we need to do what he would want. Laugh, smile and carry on.”
Most of the money raised has gone to the Teenage Cancer Trust, which funded the ward at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge where Alistair was treated.
“It wasn’t like any other hospital ward you could imagine,” says Rosalind. “It had everything for teenagers and young people, individual rooms, a social zone... Alistair realised it was unique and it made a difference to him. He knew each time he had to go in that it would be easier to deal with because of the Teenage Cancer Trust.”
Clic Sargent, which still supports the family, has been another beneficiary, along with Sarcoma UK.
Alistair’s blogspot was his outlet for dealing with the disease.
He also left a piece of writing on his computer called, As I See It, which Cameron read out at his funeral. In it he wrote: “Life is a fantastic thing. I’ve tried my best to make the most of my time left, to squeeze every last bit out of each day, to do as many things as possible, see people, places and get every last laugh out of the day.
“I’ve had some fantastic, hilarious and brilliant moments since my diagnosis and have tried not to let a silly little thing such as cancer get in the way of that.”
To support the fundraising visit their Just Giving page.