Andrew Strauss & Glenn McGrath on dealing with cancer
“A couple of weeks before, Ruth had been absolutely fine. Suddenly here she was, gravely ill, and we were having to get our heads around the fact that her days are numbered.”
On Thursday, on day two of the second Ashes Test, Lord’s will turn red for the Ruth Strauss Foundation, which former England captain Andrew Strauss has established in memory of his wife.
Ruth died as a result of a rare lung cancer in December, aged 46.
Strauss sat down with former Australia fast bowler Glenn McGrath, who lost his wife Jane to breast cancer in 2008, to talk about the way the disease has affected them and how they are trying to help other families.
Strauss met Ruth in 1998. She was diagnosed with a rare lung cancer that affects non-smokers in 2017, and Strauss stepped down from his job as England director of cricket to care for her.
Strauss: “I remember the day she was diagnosed very vividly.
“It could have been five years, it could have been three years, it could have been one year, but we knew she was going to die of this cancer.
“We all live in this little bubble that we just expect to live forever and I think those of us that have been with people battling cancer, you realise, actually, this surrounds us everywhere we go.
“We seem to isolate ourselves from that, and we’re not involved with it until you are. Then in the middle of it you’re entering this very strange world of scans and incredible anxiety and new terms you’ve never heard before and relying on doctors whose judgement you’ve got to trust. It’s a brutally tough journey.”
McGrath’s wife Jane was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. She was in remission for several years and established The McGrath Foundation to support and educate people about the disease.
McGrath: “I’m a little bit different to Straussy in that the doctors kept telling Jane it’s going to be a chronic disease, something you’re going to have to live with for a long time.
“To me, the worst part, always, was waiting for scans. You’d go for the scans, you’re waiting for the results; you’re in no man’s land. You can’t plan, you can’t do anything, whereas even if you find out it’s bad, then OK, this is what we have to do – you can focus and put your energy into it and off you go.
“It was only up until the final two weeks where things got that bad. Prior to that, we thought: we’re going to beat this. And then bang. We’re in trouble. You’ve got to try to remain positive but it’s not easy.”
For both men, telling their children about the diagnosis was one of their most difficult moments.
Strauss: “What Ruth and I were most petrified about was the effect this was going to have on the kids. The kids are your everything.
“Telling the kids was by far the hardest thing to do. I remember it like it was yesterday, taking the boys to one side and saying, ‘listen, we’ve just come back from hospital and the doctors have said we’re going to have to say goodbye to mum soon’.
“That’s something you never want to have to do with your kids. I had some advice [on what to say] but ultimately, as a parent, you’ve just got to tell your kids what is going to happen and then try to provide the right sort of support for them and allow them to go through.
“Where we were very fortunate was that Ruth was still very much herself, right through to the end. She wasn’t actually that unwell, which seems odd to say, but she could speak and she was recognisable as herself, which made it a bit easier for the kids as their memories of their mum are of her being well and not really sick.”
McGrath: “Once we realised that was it, three days out, to tell James and Holly that mummy was going to pass away is easily the hardest thing I’ve had to do.
“Hearing Andrew there takes you right back there. Jane was at home, we had a nurse looking after her, and she passed away there. The kids went up, gave her a kiss, said goodbye as she left.
“The fact that we’d prepared them a little bit three days prior made that so much easier. But still, telling them what was about to happen was worse than actually, for me, when it did happen.
“I think Jane got that bad that it was probably a little bit of a godsend in the end, that she wasn’t suffering any more.”
Strauss: “The kids came and said goodbye to her probably five or six hours prior to her dying. That was their choice.
“We had some great family time in the last couple of days. It’s still hard to think about. That’s the hardest thing of all, that moment where it all finishes and then you’re like, ‘wow. OK, we need to find a way forward from here’.”
The McGrath Foundation works to make breast care nurses available to patients and families who are dealing with the illness. Australia’s Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground – McGrath’s home ground – is known as the ‘Pink Test’, with the third day called the Jane McGrath Day. Players wear pink caps while supporters often wear pink outfits.
McGrath: “Jane never wanted it to be about her. It’s about the support you’re providing.
“Sport is something that crosses all boundaries and can really bring people together. That’s what it has done back home.
“The SCG [Sydney Cricket Ground] is my favourite ground in the world and Lord’s is a very, very close second. I’d love to see something similar here at Lord’s.
“It would be very special and it goes to show the power of sport and the power of people.”
Spectators at Lord’s will be encouraged to wear red – Ruth’s favourite colour – on the second day’s play of the second Ashes Test.
Andrew Strauss: “Ruth would have gone ‘no, don’t do that, please, it’s not about me!’ – and this isn’t about her, actually.
“It’s about her experience and using it as a way to make something positive come out of the situation.
“While Ruth was going through the cancer journey, I felt a need to go through that very privately. I didn’t want us to be sharing every scan result or whatever. Now, luckily enough, I have a platform I can use.
“If I want people to talk about grief and be more open about it, I have to role model that, and I’m OK doing that.
“I want to make this foundation a success, make it a worthwhile legacy for Ruth, and I want people to have a better experience as a result of it.”