A father-of-three who was told he looked like “Casper the ghost” before being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and given three weeks to live, meaning he has planned his own Requiem Mass and funeral, has defied doctors’ expectations by outliving his prognosis by more than a year and said he is going to “keep fighting”.
Dennis Blackman, 62, a former chartered building surveyor and carer who lives in Eltham, London, said he has always been active – playing rugby, lifting weights, and going to the gym at least three times a week. However this all changed when he suffered an unexpected stroke in 2015.
His health deteriorated over the following years, he had a hip replacement at 58, and after experiencing symptoms of extreme exhaustion, cold hands, and muscle weakness in early 2022, his wife Sally, 62, a former flooring showroom manager, suggested he book a doctor’s appointment.
After weeks of blood tests and blood transfusions in hospital and being told he looked like “Casper the ghost” because he was so pale, he underwent a bone marrow biopsy, and this led to the devastating news in March 2022 that he has AML – a type of blood cancer – and three weeks to live.
Dennis told PA Real Life: “I just broke down and I had this unbelievable feeling of guilt because I said to the consultant: ‘What have I done wrong? How do I tell my children and wife?’
“It’s a huge burden to put on someone, to tell them that you’re dying and it’s going to be very quick.
“We had many dark days, and every time I looked into my children’s eyes I just burst into tears… it was a very emotional period for all of us.”
Dennis, who has lost 50kg (7st 9lbs) since his diagnosis, did not start chemotherapy until months later due to him being too weak, and in January 2023, he was told the chemotherapy was “not working any more”.
From that point on, he said he wanted to “enjoy each day” rather than pursuing more aggressive forms of treatment – and since then, he has planned his own Requiem Mass with hymns such as How Great Thou Art and Ave Maria (As I Kneel Before You), as well as the arrangements for his funeral.
Now, Dennis continues to drive, go shopping, and enjoy time with his family, and he said he is going to “keep fighting” during the time he has left as “you only have one life”.
“Every day you go to bed and you think: ‘Am I going to wake up tomorrow?’ And then each morning you think: ‘Is it going to be today that I’m going to die?’” Dennis explained.
“It was extremely difficult in the beginning and I tried to shut the world out… but as time went on, I realised you can’t live like this forever.
“You only get one life, so I’m going to do everything I can to keep fighting.”
During his 40s and early 50s, Dennis said he enjoyed going out for meals with his wife Sally, playing rugby with his sons James, 37, and Joe, 31, and keeping fit by going to the gym several times a week.
He foresaw spending his days in retirement with his family, out in the garden, or fishing, but he said this all changed when he had a stroke in 2015, aged 54, and his health declined from then on.
In early 2022, he spent six weeks at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in London after noticing some unusual symptoms and was told: “You look like Casper (the ghost), you’re very anaemic.”
He then underwent several blood tests and blood transfusions, and although he had “an idea” that he may have cancer, he said he could never have prepared himself for his diagnosis on March 31 2022.
“About one o’clock, I had a knock at the door and I thought: ‘That’s ominous’,” Dennis said.
“The consultant and the specialist nurse came in and they said: ‘Unfortunately it’s bad news, you’ve got severe AML and there’s not a lot we can do at this stage.’
“’You’ve got three weeks to live, and I’d advise you to go home and tell your wife and family, and make sure everything’s in order because you haven’t got long left’.”
Given Dennis has severe neutropenia as well – a low number of white blood cells – he is at a higher risk of contracting serious infections, and this meant he missed several family celebrations in the months that followed, including his grandson’s birthday party and stepdaughter’s wedding.
He developed multiple chest infections and fevers and was not deemed fit enough to start chemotherapy straight away, and he ended up spending three months in hospital from July to October.
“We thought we were going to lose him, he was so ill,” Sally, who has been married to Dennis for 10 years, explained.
“Even the consultant thought we were going to lose him.
“I was scared because I just thought: ‘How can this be happening when we’ve only just met each other?’ We just thought we were going to have the rest of our lives together.”
However, Dennis, who is Catholic, said he “fought and prayed every day”, adding: “I said to the consultant: ‘If you promise to me you won’t give up on me medically, I promise I’ll fight this all the way.’”
Dennis was determined to get better and, with the help of a physiotherapist, he built up his strength – and at one point, he was walking 10,000 steps a day along the hospital corridor.
Towards the end of October 2022, Dennis said “everything seemed hunky dory” and he commenced the first of four rounds of chemotherapy, where he experienced nausea, exhaustion, and “tremendous leg bone pain”.
By January, he was told the chemotherapy was “not working”, but rather than trying other forms of treatment, he said he wanted to “enjoy the little things” and the time he has left.
He has planned his own Requiem Mass and funeral to relieve any pressure from his family, but also to give him “strength” and some control over his destiny – and aside from his regular check-ups and blood tests each week, he is setting himself small milestones, such as attending a Madness concert at the O2 in December.
Although he is “struggling to survive”, he said he would do “anything to get another day” – and that is why he is holding onto hope and wants to encourage others never to give up.
“Even though I pray every day, not once have I asked God to take it away from me – all I ask is that He’s with me when I need him, to give me the strength to carry on fighting,” he said.
“Leukaemia is painful and every day I question whether I’ll see another day, but we just try and keep going and I hope that my story gives hope to others.
“I’ve still got lots of memories to make yet, so I’m going to fight this all the way.”
For more information and support, visit Leukaemia Care’s website at leukaemiacare.org.uk