Gill Harler had been worried about her health for three years before she finally learned she had ovarian cancer.
She had visited three doctors to try and find out what was causing her lack of appetite: “A cup of tea would feel like a three-course meal,” says her husband Anton, 70.
It was only when she spoke to a family friend, who was a gynaecologist, she had the scan she needed and by that time her cancer was at stage 3. Anton said: “She just had a feeling she had a problem.”
Gill who had been a primary school teacher in Chickerell and Radipole, was found to have a burst ovary. The other had a grapefruit-sized tumour. She had a hysterectomy and started treatment.
She was relatively lucky to live another six years, says Anton: “Most of the ladies she supported didn’t live for anything like that long.”
And she made the most of her time, launching her own charity (The Gill Harler Fund) to highlight the symptoms of ovarian cancer – often called the Hidden Cancer because the symptoms are so often dismissed as other conditions, such as IBS and menopause.
She was helped to form the charity by Weldmar’s former fundraising director Caroline Nickinson.
Now, after her death in February 2017, Anton and daughter Karen Symons are carrying on her wish, to educate as many women as possible about the signs of ovarian cancer. They have produced clutch bag-style folded cards to remind women of what to be aware of.
Anton said: “We hope to help women get diagnosed earlier, to give them a better chance of life.”
In 2009 Gill’s mum had been diagnosed with peritoneal cancer – a similar cancer to ovarian – the year before and she attended Weldmar’s day services at Trimar in Weymouth. She lost her fight against the disease 18 months later, a few months after Gill’s diagnosis. Gill herself attended Weldmar’s day services in Dorchester up until October last year, and produced stunning works of art there.
“She used to say she went to give me a break but she did enjoy it,” Anton said.
She was a great advocate for Weldmar, and spoke to participants before the Midnight Walk and Colour Run events last year. Anton said: “She made people aware of the services Weldmar offers and why it was important they were taking part. She told them about the support they give to families, not just to patients. I will be stewarding the Midnight Walk this year.”
The pair met 50 years ago, when Gill started working at Anton’s parents’ café in Overcombe. They married three years later on July 4, 1970, going on to have two children – Martyn, now 43, and Karen, 41. Anton was a joiner, and had his own firm on the Granby before selling up and eventually working for a firm on Portland. Gill taught at Chickerell Primary until the children came along, then went back to teaching in 1983. She went part-time after Anton had ‘a massive stroke’ aged 38, which paralysed him for a while.
Then in 2001 she contracted the inflammatory disorder Behcet’s Syndrome, and lost her short-term memory. It meant she had to retire.
But more time together was never going to be a hardship.
Anton said: “She was very selfless. She always wanted to help and thought more about others than herself. She was a wonderful wife and mother.”
Among Anton’s most prized possessions is a book full of their memories – pictures of when they met aged 17 and 20, photos of their son and daughter, and granddaughter, pictures of all the significant moments in their 47 years together.
Accompanying the photos are Gill’s words, full of her sense of humour and fun and her love for her family.
The book was produced by Weldmar’s creative therapy team, with Gill secretly gathering material over many months to produce a hugely evocative book charting her life. “She would quickly hide things when I walked in the room,” Anton said.
“She was working on it as a surprise for me, there is so much in there.”
Among the photos are ones of Anton and his treasured classic cars.
He now has a gleaming 1960 Rover P4100, having previously restored a 1935 Riley Monaco, which took him six years to return to glory: “I always said that was my therapy,” he said.