James Holyfield is a former English teacher who was awarded an MBE for his services towards helping creating NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) and apprenticeships.
When James was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called a chordoma, he was determined to share his experience with others in a similar position, so began to write a book entitled Dancing With Dolores.
During his illness, James spent time at our Hospice and it became such an important part of his journey that, upon his death, he asked his family to ensure all proceeds from the book were donated to our Hospice.
We sat down with James’s two nieces, Siobhan Simpson and Lisa Doherty, and his nephew Scott Simpson to discuss who James was, who Dolores was and what the Hospice meant to them.
When James was first diagnosed with cancer he found the amount of information that was being thrown at him by doctors overwhelming. “When you’re sitting in front of a doctor and you’re being given bad news you over analyse everything,” says Siobhan. “You run it through your head and it becomes blurred so you cannot remember the specifics. Taking notes gave James clarity, and those notes became a diary which, in turn, became a book.” says Siobhan.
The book is an inspiring read and – perhaps unexpectedly, given that it’s dealing with cancer – often funny. “What James was so good at showing and writing about was that cancer doesn’t change who you are,” says Lisa. “You can still be you, you can still laugh and make jokes. There is a power in that.”
The title of the book itself stems from James’ sense of humour, arising from a character that James created for the tumour that was his cancer. “James had a whole backstory for his cancer,” says Lisa. “Dolores was a showgirl from Vegas who took residence in his neck. He used to call her ‘the b*tch’ and say, ‘Okay Dolores, either you’re going or I’m going. And, I tell you what, it ain’t gonna be me.’
“James wanted people to see that you can still put a smile on your face and still go out. He wanted to show people that a terminal illness was not an excuse to stop being who you are,” says Scott.
Having a strong sense of pride is clearly something that Scott, Siobhan and Lisa all remember with great fondness about their uncle. “James was just an amazing person,” says Siobhan. “About a month before he died, he told me that ‘growing up gay in the 1960s was never easy and I never imagined I’d have a family, and now I have all of you. I cannot tell you how much joy it brought to my life as I’d resigned myself to never having a family of my own.’”
Eventually, the pain James was in became too great for him to remain at home. So he came to our Hospice, primarily for pain management. As expected, his family had reservations about the idea of James coming to a hospice. “When you say the word ‘hospice’ you don’t instinctively think of somewhere full of joy – but that’s what St. John’s Hospice was for James,” says Siobhan. “For him the Hospice was like a luxury hotel. He just loved it there,” says Scott.
As with all our patients, James became part of our Hospice family. “We would come to visit him and he would know everyone by name,” says Scott. “He would proudly show off his room with this amazing view of the Hospice garden. He was able to go home when the pain was under control but when it returned he was all too happy to go back to the Hospice. He couldn’t get back there fast enough sometimes.”
“The day after he died, Lisa, myself and his partner – our Uncle John – went back to the Hospice to collect James’s things,” says Siobhan. “We sat in this lovely room and all the doctors and nurses who had cared for James came to say hello and shared stories about him. It made us see the connection he’d made with them and the Hospice itself.”
We are proud to call James Holyfield a part of our Hospice family and incredibly humbled and blessed that he would choose to donate the proceeds of Dancing With Dolores towards our essential palliative care. We like to think he lives on through the book and his family’s memories of him. “James once said to me, ‘You know, the best thing about being sick is all the fabulous attention you get,’” says Siobhan. “He would love the fact we’re still talking about him.”
To buy Dancing With Dolores by James Holyfield follow this LINK and remember, all proceeds go towards funding our Hospice. When reading it, laugh, it’s the way James would have wanted.