2 April 2024

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Alan’s story of getting to France for the Rugby World Cup

Alan and Louise wear England Rugby World Cup shirts in the stadium with the pitch in the background

We helped Alan get to the Rugby World Cup in 2023

How do you tell the story of Alan Newman?

“Who’s going to want to read about me,” he says. In his view. “It’s all a bit boring.”

That comment pales as he begins to reel off story after story.

Tales of kayaking in the French Alps in wild rapids with drops up to 7ft, or of driving 150mph in a Supercharged XKR Jaguar. And that is just what the 62-year-old has been up to since his cancer diagnosis in 2021.

Before that, Alan, whose nickname is Mr Incredible, spent his holidays mountain climbing in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland, once sleeping next to a 600ft drop tied to a crucifix.

His wife Louise sits next to him in the St Christopher’s Anniversary Centre. Alan has just had an appointment with his pain team and his consultant, Dr Sara Robbins. When he was asked the question we strive to ask everyone who comes under our care – What Matters to You? – his response was instant: watching England’s Rugby World Cup game against Samoa in Lille.

Alan and Louise wear England Rugby World Cup shirts in the stadium with the pitch in the background
Alan and Louise at the match in Lille

“They were worried about me going, they were going to try and stop me,” Alan says. But Dr Sara soon got the measure of him, explains Louise. “Once they realised it was a goal that he wanted to achieve, Sara and the team were all over the pain relief,” she adds.

At this point, Alan – who has an advanced tumour in his head – had got used to challenging medical opinions. His oncologist advised him of the risks of going skiing in 2023, warning him that it would not be nice for his family to bring his body back in the hold of the plane.

“Well, my son Dan is driving so they can sling me in the boot,” was Alan’s reply.

To prepare for the trip to Lille, he had a brief admission to the hospice’s inpatient unit – fittingly he was on Rugby Ward – to get his medication levels right. After that first match, buoyed with optimism, Alan secured tickets for England’s quarter-final win against Fiji and then the subsequent semi-final defeat in Paris against eventual winners South Africa. That trip was booked with all the lads in the pub at 10.30pm, just six hours before they left for Paris.

It was not all plain sailing during the trips over to France, though. With Louise not there in Paris, his nephew and sons were in charge of the medication as well as helping with the wheelchair.

“They nearly piled me out of it a few times,” Alan says, adding: “To be honest, people looked at us like we were mad.”

When Alan was first referred to St Christopher’s in Autumn 2023, his oncologist at Guy’s Hospital had given him just a few weeks to live.

“Anytime someone says that I’ve only got roughly this amount time left, in my head I know I’m gonna beat it,” he says. “It’s never crossed my mind to not approach it like that.”

As a child, Alan had to try to keep up with his older brother and two older cousins. The four of them would spend all their free time out on their bikes, pulling crazy stunts such as cycling straight into a wall.
Alan’s dad was a Commander in the Police and would take all four of them out on his police motorbike. And he once built a zip-wire in the garden which ended with six-year-old Alan smashing into a wall. “Blood everywhere,” he says.

“We called it a ‘yabbadabba-doo’ machine. After I hit the wall my dad said, ‘oh I’ll just go and find a mattress that you can land into’.”

As he got older, he channelled this sense of adventure into rock climbing, off-road biking and skiing. His sons, Dan and Will also took to this way of life as did Louise when they first got together 20 years ago – also during a Rugby World Cup when they travelled over to watch England’s victorious campaign in Australia.

“We realised on that trip that we wanted to be more than friends,” says Louise. “Maybe we got overtaken by all the excitement of Jonny Wilkinson and England winning,” she jokes. “But it was an amazing trip and we started seeing each other when we got back.”

Alan is held up by his two sons after a night at the pub

For Alan, the main difficulty has been the physical impact of his illness, rather than the mental. Despite being able to defeat the odds of his diagnosis by going skiing last year or by that kayaking trip in July 2023, it is becoming harder.

“Since that kayak trip, it’s been downhill. This season I know I’m not going to be able to ski or kayak… so that’s going to be worse for me. Of course, mentally it is hard but nothing like I’d expected,” he says. “Getting up the stairs, getting in and out of bed, not being able to do what I want, that’s harder.”

“Al’s always been incredibly strong mentally and physically,” adds Louise. “He has a built-in resilience.
So, approaching his diagnosis in this way is just how he has to do it. The strength he shows in everything he does is incredible.”

It inspires other people too. A close friend of the couple’s also has cancer. “Al kept encouraging him to go out as much as possible as he knew it would help him,” Louise says.

One of the ways he has kept up with friends is his regular Friday night trips to the couple’s local pub in Chislehurst. Around 20 of Alan’s friends – including his sons and their mates – spend the evening together in what Alan’s dubbed ‘Moretti and Morphine’ Fridays (M&M).

“Then they’ll all pile around my house afterwards,” he laughs, showing me a photo of his two sons helping him home from the pub after a recent trip.

“My boys have been brilliant,” he says. “I’ve got an amazing wife and my big sons who can help me up the stairs or down the pub.”

The couple are also full of praise for the support they have received from the NHS and St Christopher’s.
“I’ve been blown away by the amount of support we’ve had,” says Louise. “When you first hear about palliative care in hospital, you think ‘have we been written off?’ A lot of people don’t realise that palliative care means helping with pain and helping to live. They just think you’ve got hours to live but it’s not like that,” she adds.

“That’s what I thought, to be honest,” says Alan. “But it’s not true. St Christopher’s have been amazing, the place is really great, Dr Sara, the nurses, receptionists, everyone is amazing.”

As the conversation comes to a close, Alan picks up his phone. “I’m gonna give my mate a call to see if he
and his wife want to go for a curry and a pint.”

Mr Incredible indeed!

:: This story was from our Spring/Summer issue of Connect magazine. To read the full magazine, or to sign up to receive future editions, please click here.

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