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How could my big, strong TV star husband just wither away Widow of Spartacus star Andy Whitfield reveals the heartache behind his death from cancer
21:03 GMT, 23 June 2012
14:44 GMT, 24 June 2012
Built like a warrior: Andy Whitfield as Spartacus in the television remake of the 1960 film
Vashti Whitfield is sitting in the garden, explaining why her two young children get excited when a butterfly flutters past. ‘They call out ‘‘Hi Dad!’’ every time they see one,’ she says.
It is the legacy of their father Andy, who died aged 39 last September after an 18-month battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He left seven-year-old Jesse and four-year-old Indigo with a beautiful image to remember him by.
‘In his final words to them, Andy said he had to go to sleep as his body didn’t work, that he was like a butterfly with broken wings, but he would always be with them, watching over them,’ says Vashti.
Not only did the timing of Andy’s illness seem so at odds with his happy home life as a loving husband and father but he had just found international fame. He was cast in the title role of the big-budget television remake of Spartacus, and the Welsh-born actor’s performance had captured the imagination of Hollywood.
Andy was preparing to shoot the second series when he was diagnosed and filming was put on hold while he fought the disease. It was a battle he chose to document with the help of award-winning documentary maker Lilibet Foster, who captured hours of intimate footage as Andy fought to get well; in turn, defiant, angry, scared and tearful as he confronted his mortality. ‘Andy believed that documenting his fight might help others,’ says Vashti.
The documentary is also a love story. Andy and Vashti, now 39, were in their early 20s when they were introduced by a mutual friend in London. Romance blossomed quickly: within three months they moved to Sydney after Vashti was offered work in a design agency.
They settled there, marrying in 2001. Jesse came along in May 2005 and Indigo two years later. Andy worked as an external engineer – ‘like a really hot Spider-Man, scaling buildings’ smiles Vashti – until, aged 30, he was scouted on the beach by a modelling agency. Work flooded in, followed by TV commercials, inspiring Andy to retrain as an actor.
In 2009, Andy was offered the title role in Spartacus. While it was to prove his breakthrough, the part was gruelling, requiring hours of training to hone his body into that of a warrior.
When, towards the end of filming, he began to suffer backache, Andy put it down to his training schedule. He consulted sports physicians but none could diagnose the problem. By early 2010 the pain was unbearable. ‘Sometimes he would lie on the floor howling like a woman giving birth,’ says Vashti.
Family man: A happy snap of Andy with his wife Vashti and children Indigo (left) and Jesse (right)
It was at this point he had a full body scan, revealing he had high-grade B Cell lymphoma – the most common form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to Dr Kirit Ardeshna, consultant haemato-oncologist at University College Hospital.
‘Lymphomas are divided into two groups, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s,’ he says. ‘The latter is seven times more common, while the former occurs more in young people and is often more treatable.’
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Clear fluid called lymph flows through the lymphatic vessels and contains infection-fighting white blood cells known as lymphocytes.
In lymphoma, these lymphocytes start to multiply in an abnormal way and collect in certain parts of the lymphatic system, such as the lymph nodes (glands). The affected lymphocytes lose their infection-fighting properties, increasing vulnerability to infection.
There are, says Dr Ardeshna, no typical risk factors for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma except older age and being male. Initial symptoms are not always easy to spot.
‘Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma tends to manifest in a painless lump, a gland swollen by a centimetre or so. Less commonly, there are night sweats, unexplained fevers and weight loss,’ he says.
'The big strong man I fell in love with was so fragile, as if he was made of tissue'
Andy’s back pain was the result of a
mass of tumours pressing against his spinal column. Without treatment,
the oncologist said, Andy had three to six months to live. ‘He said
that, given Andy’s age and fitness, with treatment there was every hope
for a full recovery,’ says Vashti.
five-year survival rate after initial chemotherapy is about 60 per
cent of patients, with the two-year figure standing around 75 per cent,’
says Dr Ardeshna.
underwent six sessions of chemotherapy. ‘In some ways it was a special
time,’ says Vashti. ‘Andy was able to spend a lot of time with the
children. Underlying it all was this feeling it was all going to be OK.’
so it seemed. Six weeks after Andy’s last chemotherapy session, a scan
showed the cancer had gone. ‘We thought it was a chapter closed,’ says
Yet not for long.
In September 2010, Andy had a routine medical ahead of filming the
second series of Spartacus. ‘The scan showed a small inflamed lymph node
in his abdominal area,’ says Vashti.
night, ahead of further tests, the couple went out for dinner and
afterwards got matching tattoos on their arms reading ‘Be Here Now’ –
the title of the documentary.
‘It was our way of saying that whatever happened, we would live in the moment,’ says Vashti.
The next day, a biopsy confirmed their worst fears: the cancer was back, and this time the prognosis was much more severe.
Cherished memories: Vashti with Jesse and Indigo, the children she had with Andy. They are reminded of him every time they see a butterfly
‘If you relapse early the chance of surviving and responding to further treatment is much lower,’ says Dr Ardeshna. ‘Rather like bugs and antibiotics, some cancer cells can become resistant to chemotherapy. The resistant cancer cells are the ones that continue to grow and so you have to try a different type of chemotherapy.’
Without treatment Andy had three months to live, while even with further intervention a successful outcome was far less likely. ‘We had gone from “You’re going to get better” to “You’re going to die”,’ says Vashti.
The treatment now called for an aggressive form of chemo, followed, if successful, by a stem-cell transplant. Andy remained positive, inviting a documentary team to share his journey.
In early 2011, Andy embarked on his first round of high-level chemotherapy with a new drug regimen. This time the experience was markedly different.
‘He was very ill. Some days he could barely drag himself out of bed. He had terrible hallucinogenic nightmares,’ says Vashti.
After six weeks, a full body scan showed only a mild improvement, which was another blow. ‘But Andy refused to be bowed,’ says Vashti.
'Andy had become so weak he couldn’t climb the stairs to our apartment'
The second series of sessions left
Andy weak and spending more time in hospital – although a scan showed
the cancer had reduced by 50 per cent, a major change, yet far from
‘On one level we were excited – but it had come at a huge cost,’ says Vasti.
In May 2011, Andy embarked on his final round of chemo. ‘This was the worst,’ says Vashti. ‘He was in so much pain. The big, strong man I had fallen in love with was now so fragile it was as if he was made out of tissue paper.’
A scan showed why: the cancer had not shrunk and Andy now had a mass of tumours pressing on his spinal column. ‘The oncologist said nothing more could be done with chemotherapy and referred us to a radiotherapist. It was now a case of trying to manage the cancer rather than cure it,’ says Vasti.
The first session of radiology was ‘hell on earth’. ‘Andy said it was like a knife being thrust into his nervous system,’ says Vasti.
Yet, over the next couple of sessions, he rallied sufficiently that, while still in pain, he was able to go out for drinks to celebrate Vashti’s 38th birthday last June.
The hiatus was short-lived. By Andy’s sixth radiotherapy session in July, he was in agony. ‘He had become so weak he couldn’t climb the stairs to our apartment. He had to stay in a hospice for a week,’ says Vashti. Three days before his death, drifting in and out of consciousness, Andy returned to the hospice.
‘To me, he had already gone. He rallied enough to say goodbye to the children. It took everything he had to sit up and pull them on to his knee then say goodbye. That’s when he spoke of the butterfly.
‘Then he turned to me and said, “That’s all I can do now” and I had to take them away.’
He died the following day, in Vashti’s arms.
‘Andy wasn’t embarrassed to admit he was terrified, or to cry on camera,’ says filmmaker Lilibet Foster. ‘The idea is the film will make you go out there and do everything you’ve ever wanted to do.’
It’s a view echoed by Vashti. ‘Andy felt so strongly that you only get one life, so you should make it count.’
Click here to find out how you can help fund the making of Be Here Now, the inspiring documentary of Andy Whitfield's fight for life.