When Mark Cowell’s wife Anna was diagnosed with terminal cancer he was devastated. SSAFA arranged for the couple to have a last holiday together and supported them through Anna’s final months. Since losing Anna in March 2018, Mark, 50, has trained as a SSAFA volunteer caseworker and is now supporting veterans himself.
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Mark, from Canvey in Essex, joined the Army at 16 with two friends and served six years with the Army Air Corps including two tours of Northern Ireland before settling in Germany for eight years.
He and Anna had been together three-and-a-half years and were planning their wedding when she fell ill. “Initially they diagnosed her with asthma and it took them six to eight months to decide it was lung cancer,” he said. “We got married in 2016 and we got the diagnosis on the day between our wedding and our honeymoon. They said she had a one per cent chance of getting that type of cancer at her age. It was a huge shock. They could not operate or give her radiotherapy because of where it was so she had chemotherapy.”
Anna, who has sons aged 14 and 19, was accepted onto a medical trial in London. “For the first couple of weeks she felt better but in the third week she started deteriorating and ended up in intensive care in London. Eventually she was transferred to Basildon and finally we got all the equipment we needed to bring her home.
“We wanted to get a stairlift for Anna as she could no longer get up the stairs, so my mum suggested contacting SSAFA as they had previously helped my grandad who was a gunner in WW2. But by this point Anna didn’t have long to live so the caseworker Michele suggested a holiday for the family instead so we had some memories.*
“They sent us to the Norfolk Broads for a few days. Anna’s son Alfie and my daughter Charlie came with us. Anna spent the days wrapped up in a blanket looking into the fire. I took the kids out and it was great for her to hear what they had been up to when we got back.”
Anna became more and more unwell and it became harder for Mark to look after her at home. He said: “Originally they had given her until Christmas and then another month. It got to the point where she was on so many drugs and we couldn’t cope any more so Anna went into a hospice for a couple of weeks. They were brilliant there. The day before she died we got her outside with her sunglasses and she drank a glass of wine with her mum and her sister. She was only 40.”
Anna’s youngest son continues to live with Mark, who also has two grown up daughters in Germany and a two-year-old grandson. His experience persuaded Mark to train as a SSAFA caseworker himself and he now fits the volunteer role in around work as a maintenance person.
“Case-working is very challenging and there’s a lot to learn but it’s good to know I can help,” he said. “I enjoy it and my first case was really successful. What’s nice about being a caseworker is the automatic bond that’s there with fellow veterans. It’s really important that people know that SSAFA is there and what we can do. I would never have thought to ask for help if my mum hadn’t suggested it.”
*Funding for the holiday was provided by the Royal British Legion.