For Stockport actress Clara Darcy, she found the real thing while undergoing treatment for a brain tumor at Christie Hospital in Manchester.
She fell in love with another patient, Tom Vinnicombe.
As they opened up about the emotional impact of living with cancer, something blossomed.
When they met at Christie in October 2019, they were both benefiting from pioneering proton beam therapy. They were attracted to each other and after the treatment they kept in touch.
Tom, 34, is from Cornwall, but the distance couldn’t separate them.
Now they are planning a future together.
Clara, 38, who has had guest roles on Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, ITV’s Emmerdale and The Royal, and BBC2’s Eric and Ernie, said: “It’s wonderful that something so positive is out of our trials. I never dreamed that cancer would lead me to the man of my dreams.
“We understand what everyone has been through. If I have a wobble, Tom is there for me and I’m there to reassure him when he needs it. I am so grateful to have him by my side. “
Clara was diagnosed in July 2019 after suffering from severe headaches for six months. She had seen her GP several months earlier who attributed her headaches to migraines and prescribed her medication.
Desperate for relief, Clara saw a musculoskeletal physiotherapist, believing she may have damaged a nerve, as the pain was mostly in her neck. then she saw a chiropractor.
“Nothing worked and the pain intensified,” said Clara, who was born and raised in Heaton Moor.
One weekend, she went to her local A&E in agony. By this time, she had also had other intermittent symptoms, including a hoarse voice, blurred vision and vomiting,
Doctors told her that she had a very rare clival chordoma, a type of cancer that develops in the bone at the base of the skull and can develop into the brain.
“My neurosurgeon said it was the biggest he had ever seen – the size of his fist,” said Clara, who attended Tithe Barn Elementary School and Priestnall High School, where she was a principal. , before going to Marple Ridge Sixth Form.
A week after being diagnosed, Clara underwent a 2-hour endonasal keyhole surgery at Royal Salford Hospital.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me they were going to remove my brain tumor through my nose.
“But it was the safest way to do it because my tumor was right in front of my brainstem and very difficult to reach with traditional surgery.
“My family were terrified of not surviving the operation, but I knew I would – thanks in part to my amazing surgeon, who removed 95-98% of my tumor. “
Clara returned from surgery wearing a large halo cage to support her neck. After five more days of testing, to her relief, the doctors decided she didn’t need a spinal fusion.
She was unable to eat or speak for a week because she had an elective tracheostomy during the operation as the tumor pressed down on her windpipe. After three weeks in the hospital, she went to her mother and father’s home and recovered well from the operation.
Three months later, she started eight-week proton beam therapy at The Christie, the only UK center to offer the treatment – which is more targeted than conventional radiation therapy and causes less damage to healthy tissue – on the NHS since 2018.
Clara said: “I felt blessed to be eligible for treatment, especially since the hospital is on my doorstep. “
By a twist of fate, marine engineer Tom, 34, was also undergoing proton beam therapy at Christie, six years after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in September. 2011.
His family had already suffered a tragedy when Tom’s twin brother , Christian, was killed in a car crash in 2009, and his mother was diagnosed with incurable cervical cancer 18 months after Tom’s diagnosis.
Tom said: ‘When I was accepted for proton beam therapy at The Christie, the doctors told me I was the first person from Cornwall to receive the treatment on the NHS in the UK. “
He didn’t know it, but was about to meet his soul mate.
“Tom teases me as he vividly remembers meeting me on the first day of our treatment, but I have no recollection because I felt so bad,” Clara said.
“At first he spoke more with my mother than with me because he would meet her in the waiting room while she was waiting for me to come out of treatment.
“But we got closer to each other because we were the only patients of the same age.
“My first impressions were ‘he’s cute’ – he had the most beautiful sparkling blue eyes and I loved his Cornish accent.
“I remember thinking that under normal circumstances I would have asked her out, but I felt so brutal during the treatment that romance was the last thing I thought about. “
On December 5, 2019, Clara finished her treatment the day before Tom and rang a bell to mark the milestone, while her family watched.
“It was such an emotional moment and Tom gave me a huge hug,” Clara said.
“The next day I decided to surprise him by going back to the hospital to watch him ring the bell because I knew it was too far for his family to travel from Cornwall. “
But when Clara arrived, Tom had already completed the ceremony so he could leave early on his long journey home.
“I was really disappointed and wanted to keep in touch with him, so I asked the staff to send me a luck card that I had bought for him,” she said.
Clara had put her phone number on the card and a few days later Tom texted her thanking her. They started texting each other about once a month, comparing notes on their recovery.
“I look forward to hearing from him more and more,” said Clara.
“Over the next summer, texting became more frequent and appealing, and then we finally started chatting on the phone daily and facing each other. “
In December 2020, after a year of staying in touch, Tom gave Christie a review and suggested they meet.
“He was going to stay in a hotel but I invited him to stay with me,” Clara said.
“It was romantic going to the Christmas light show together and that was really it, we were a couple and things got serious quickly.
« We’re totally different and don’t have much else in common other than having brain tumors – I don’t know anything about maritime genius and the world of acting is foreign to Tom, but we just freeze. and that makes it interesting.
Now Clara and Tom take turns doing the 700 mile round trip every four to six weeks to see each other and plan a future together.
“It’s a heavy trip, but it’s worth it to be together,” Clara said.
“Sometimes we went longer without seeing each other due to the Covid restrictions, which was difficult.
“We have to get to know each other and, for now, we have the best of both worlds: the beauty of Cornwall and the trendy vibe of Manchester. Once we decide where to live, we hope to move in together.
“Tom is the only other person who directly feels the fear, anger and apprehension that comes with living with a brain tumor,” said Clara, who co-wrote a play about her tumor, which she hopes to perform. at the Edinburgh Fringe. Festival next year as part of a national tour.
« It’s so reassuring to know that Tom understands how I’m feeling and we both now have scans every six months.
“Tom also helps me deal with my anxiety that my tumor is malignant and very likely to come back at some point; and, while hers is of poor quality, there is a chance it will happen again, too. ”
« Being diagnosed with a brain tumor is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, but it has also brought us closer together and we are blissfully happy.
« We hope that sharing our story will help give people hope that you can find love even in the darkest of times.
“Now we both want to enjoy every ounce of life together because we know how precious life is. “
Tom said: “From the start our relationship was simple and relaxed – she felt good.
“We keep each other’s spirits up when the other is having a rough day. I love how cheerful Clara is, she always seeks the positive and is never depressed for long.
“The staff were amazing at Christie, but the best part was meeting Clara. It was such a random place to meet someone under difficult circumstances, but I feel so lucky that we found each other.
Eve Kelleher, Head of Services at The Brain Tumor Charity, said: “Our warmest wishes go out to Clara and Tom and we are delighted for them that something positive has come out of their joint experience diagnosing brain tumors.
“We are extremely grateful that they are sharing their story to help us raise awareness about brain tumors – the biggest killer of cancer in children and adults under 40 in the UK.
“While Clara and Tom’s experience is such a happy story of their diagnoses bringing them together, we know that a brain tumor diagnosis can be a huge emotional strain on relationships.
“Our Losing Myself report found that two in three people felt their diagnosis had a negative impact on their relationship with their partner, and 72% said it affected their physical intimacy.
“This is why we are offering a free counseling service in partnership with Relate for couples and individuals whose relationship has been strained by a brain tumor diagnosis.
“And, overall, since March 2020, we’ve seen an overall 40% increase in the number of people seeking our support and almost 50% more people have joined our online communities for help.
“Anyone affected by a brain tumor can call our toll-free information and help line on 0808 800 0004 or send an email to [email protected]
For more information: www.thebraintumourcharity.org