A love that lights up the darkest time
In one of the most poignant Valentine’s Day stories you will ever read, a Northern Ireland couple tell Laurence White how a devastating cancer diagnosis has made them treasure every moment together
Today Steve Andrews enjoyed breakfast in bed, cooked by his wife of nearly 13 years, Stephanie. On his plate was a heart-shaped egg to mark Valentine’s Day — typical of the small romantic gestures the couple are fond of sharing.
They don't do grand flamboyant declarations of their love. Instead they like to keep the romance in their lives through thoughtful intimate gifts. Stephanie is keen on antiques and retro furnishings and objects, so from time to time Steve surprises her with a gift in that style.
They still celebrate the day they met — December 10, 1993 Steve tells me without any prompting — as well as more obvious dates like birthdays, wedding anniversaries or Valentine's Day.
Often the celebration consists of dinner at home with Steve cooking the main course and Stephanie the dessert.
She is an accomplished pastry cook — “my mother won't eat anyone else's caramel squares”, says Steve — and was hoping to get the time to rustle up a cake for today.
For this Valentine’s Day is very, very special. Just over two weeks ago, the Bangor couple got devastating news. Steve has pancreatic cancer and the prognosis is gloomy. His condition is terminal.
It is difficult even for an outsider to come to terms with what they are going through. Steve is 39, Stephanie a year older and they have four children, David (21), Evan (11), Corey (10) and Rhys (8).
Yet, says Stephanie, Steve has been a rock through this crisis. She recalls with a tear in her eye: “Steve underwent an operation on January 27 this year and later when I went to visit him, he took my hand in his and told me how pretty I looked.
“There he was lying in bed after horrendous surgery and he was being so lovely.”
Steve shrugs off the compliment: “You were looking a bit down and I was trying to cheer you up. I thought I could lift your spirits by saying something nice.”
Stephanie says that later Steve tried to pretend that it was just the after-effects of the anaesthetic that had led him to compliment her. “He is just a big softie really,” she adds.
But it is obvious that both have a soft spot for each other. They describe themselves as Team Andrews — “you have to be a team when you have four boys to bring up,” says Stephanie — and they are still pulling together through this latest crisis.
Stephanie admits she reacted badly to the news of her husband's illness but has been buoyed by his courage.
“Steve is so incredibly brave and I am so proud of him and how he has been so strong and how he has handled this devastating news,” she says. “He is just amazing in my eyes.”
The couple were nominated for the Belfast Telegraph/Lidl Valentine’s competition by neighbour and long-time friend Alan Reid. He reckons the couple are born romantics and that Steve's illness has just allowed everyone else to appreciate the strength of their relationship.
Of course, he did not tell the couple that he had nominated them and the first they knew was earlier this week when he called at the house.
Stephanie says: “Alan said to me, ‘come in and sit down’. He then told me we had won the competition. That was amazing. I was really, really delighted. It was so nice to have some good news after so much sad news.”
The prize was meant to be a romantic break to the Eternal City of Rome, but doctors have advised Steve that the flight would be too stressful.
Instead the couple will have a short break in a luxury hotel in the centre of Dublin, just chilling out and people-watching.
For Stephanie it will be a bitter-sweet trip.
She recalls how a couple of years ago she had travelled to the Irish capital with her mum for a break — “Steve wanted me to go to give me a rest from looking after the family, a typical gesture of his” — and she had a ball.
This time the pace will be more sedate as Steve tires easily after his operation but “every moment we spend together will be so precious”.
The couple joke that the trip will be a Valentine’s Day, anniversary present and belated honeymoon all in one.
They met in 1993 when Steve needed a date for a party. Stephanie lived next door to him in another part of Bangor but felt she couldn't go because there was no one to look after her son David, then aged five. Steve quickly sweet-talked her mother into babysitting and the rest is history.
They have been together ever since that first date and married on March 15, 1995. Steve had proposed the previous December when they were on a night out. Due to pressure on their time, their honeymoon consisted of one night at the Marine Court Hotel in Bangor — Stephanie is embarrassed to admit this detail.
This year, just after they return from Dublin, they will celebrate 14 years of wedded bliss. Steve says they have had few rows during their marriage and raising a large family has taken up most of their energies.
The news of his illness came like a bolt from the blue. On his birthday last year on August 29 he experienced severe pains in his stomach which “radiated” through to his back.
An initial diagnosis suggested gall stones but the problem persisted and on Stephanie's birthday on September 28, work colleagues — he manned CCTV cameras as part of the security team at Belfast's Odyssey complex — remarked that he had lost a lot of weight, was a bad colour and looked ill.
His GP took blood tests the following day and that evening telephoned him to say he had to go to the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald immediately.
“I was severely jaundiced. In fact, I looked like Homer Simpson, I was so yellow,” he jokes.
A month and a half of scans and other procedures followed but still no definite diagnosis was arrived at. One suggestion was that it was some sort of condition attacking his immune system.
He got out of hospital by mid-November but was still feeling unwell. After his Christmas Day dinner he had to go to bed because of his severe tiredness.
In January he was back in hospital and then a consultant surgeon carried out an operation on his pancreas where a “shadow” had showed up on scans.
It was only then that a proper diagnosis was made. The tumour on his pancreas had spread to a vein and to the liver. He has been offered chemotherapy but will have to weigh up the potential benefits against the decreased quality of life that could ensue.
However, Steve has approached the crisis with typical courage. He has even drawn up his own ‘bucket list' — things to do before the inevitable — and top of it was a trip to Anfield to see his beloved Liverpool. He has been a supporter since the age of seven and his father Michael has already booked the tickets for a table-topping clash between Liverpool and Aston Villa on March 27 — “my last chance to see them challenge for the title”.
Another part of his wish list is to meet some of the Liverpool players and also to see a rugby international in Dublin, although so far he has been unable to get a ticket for Ireland's only remaining home Six Nations game against England.
A few pints — he hasn't had any drinks since September — and outings with his children feature strongly on the things to do. Minature golf, swimming, fishing and going to see a film are events he wants to share.
And, poignantly, “enjoying each other's company”.
Such a simple pleasure, so often taken for granted, but now so very, very precious.Manager’s tribute to|Steve and StephaniePeter McMillan, deputy store manager of Lidl in Bangor, says: “We were astounded by the number of great entries that we received to the competition.
“Alan’s entry on behalf of Steve and Stephanie really caught our attention, and was a clear winner. Obviously Steve and Stephanie’s story is a sad one, but Lidl Northern Ireland was delighted to be able to do something to make their remaining time together a little more special. Due to his illness, Steven is unable to fly to Rome, so as per his request, we have arranged a fantastic weekend in Dublin for himself and Stephanie to enjoy.
“We hope that they both have a wonderful, relaxing time in Dublin, and congratulate them once again on their prize.”