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Philly on Philly

An extract from a letter written to one of Philly's friends shortly after her diagnosis. Philly was 17½. (Approximately March 2000)

I am sitting in my bedroom with an open window and a thunderstorm raging outside. The most gorgeous thing about living here in Scotland is how many different colours a day brings and with the sun setting behind me, the sky is all orange and brown, with the rain so heavy that the clouds are literally falling out of the sky. It's getting darker and darker and we are experiencing the joys of this ancient house with a power cut. No hot food. No heating. No hot water. The stone has turned from grey to deep brown as it always does in the rain and the mist obscures the mountains in the east, opposite my window.
I know I'm rambling, but somewhere in here there should be a point. You're right, of course, that the supposed ovarian cyst turned out to be cancer. I probably should have told you all from the beginning and been straight with you, but I sort of laboured under the hope that you wouldn't find out until the whole thing had died down, because it is always difficult to know how people will react. When I got out of hospital, people looked at me surprised, as if to say, "My God, you haven't actually fallen apart!" I can honestly say that it is more difficult for them to deal with than for me. Fear of the unknown is the most acute fear, leaving it to your fevered imagination to construct some idle fantasy of what it is all about, without reference to or justification by science. For me, having spoken with some fantastic surgeons, doctors and nurses, it's no longer a mystery. I know the situation, and so I can be hopeful of a good outcome. For others that is more difficult.
I read an article by John Diamond in the Saturday Times recently (do you read him - he's fantastic!), which says very much more eloquently what I am trying to say. He writes, "I continue to reflect that one of the wonders of life is the extent to which we can ignore death. However imminent it may be, it is certainly true that a positive attitude makes life worth living." The sentiment with me is the same. Cancer plays such a small role in my life. I worry about other people worrying about me, because for me, there is very little fear involved. Life deals you a blow - so what? You learn the strength of yourself, your innate power in the bad times, not the good.
Please don't concern yourself; it's not like I am suffering at all and - I don't know - I think the beginning of this letter was just to show that it makes you appreciate life more. It makes you realize just how lucky you are and I have absolutely no intention of letting that go. Not now, or ever.

Support in coping with fear, uncertainty, lack of knowledge and the physical symptoms of both disease and treatment can greatly help a cancer sufferer, as we can testify, Philly's medical team and her Macmillan nurse gave just this and were towers of strngth. The new Maggie Centre offers, free of charge, an extension of this help providing companionship, information and practical assistence in a building whose design recalls a lighthouse, symbolic of strngth, safety and hope with an interior which is intimate and domestic.

Pauline, Robert, Rebecca and Matthew Gower

Philly was diagnosed with cancer in January 1999 when she was seventeen. She was in her final year at Glenalmond College, had won an organ scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, and was intending to read philosophy and theology. She had raised the money necessary to go on a World Challenge expedition to Kenya in the summer holiday, which involved helping to build an orphanage, followed by travel in East Africa. She had an exciting gap year planned, working initially at a prep school in Suffolk, followed by two terms at an American school as a pupil on an English Speaking Union scholarship.

Philly's illness changed all her plans, and altered her future irrevocably. After recovering from her first major operation her treatment began and continued with only brief pauses for the next two and a half years. She underwent radiotherapy, several courses of chemotherapy, another major operation, and several more minor but disfiguring procedures. Although Philly was never able to leave home for the wider world, these treatments enabled her to continue with her life, work for the College, be organist of St. Ninian's Cathedral in Perth for ten months, start a children's choir, learn to drive, and maintain the hope of starting at Oxford, finally, this autumn.

It is possible to live with cancer, but the treatments and the nature of the illness take a heavy toll, physically and mentally. Philly frequently felt sick and nauseous. She was always tired. One course of chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair, and another course cost her much of the hearing in one ear.

She became depressed and suffered panic attacks. It is easy to imagine how frightening Philly's situation was, to understand how her confidence and self esteem could ebb away, and to realise what an enormous effort it was for her to try and continue as normal. This was also true to a lesser extent for us, as her immediate family living from her from day to day.

Support in coping with fear, uncertainty, lack of knowledge and the physical symptoms of both disease and treatment can greatly help a cancer sufferer, as we can testify. Philly's medical team and her Macmillan nurse gave just this and were towers of strength. The new Maggie Centre offers free of charge an extension of this help, providing companionship, information and practical assistance in a building whose design recalls a lighthouse, symbolic of strength, safety and hope, with an interior which is intimate and domestic.


Robert and Pauline, Rebecca and Matthew Gower

October 2005

Rebecca on Philly

When Philly was first diagnosed with cancer, I made the same assumption as most other people: that she would fall apart. She had always been a strong, vibrant character, but I was sure that even she wouldn't be able to cope with the strain of having such a serious illness in her final year at school. I also expected it all to be terribly melodramatic. In the event, it was nothing of the sort. Philly came out of hospital and didn't talk about it. She got on with her music and her A levels and her drama, and instead of the tearful histrionics that I had anticipated, a bizarre sense of normality descended, which endured for a long time. It was all because, despite the constant physical pain and the endless trips to the hospital and her ever worsening condition, Philly never behaved like I thought a cancer patient should behave. With the steely determination that she applied to every area of her life, Philly kept enjoying herself as best she could. I have a particularly vivid memory of her getting ready for a night out with her friends: she was wandering around, wearing a miniskirt, and there wasn't a single hair on her head.

It had never been easy to be Philly's younger sister. She was inevitably successful at most things, and I continually felt overshadowed. We had never been particularly close: while I resented and adored her in equal measure, we had had very separate lives. Philly having cancer did not suddenly change the situation, but very gradually, we became friends in a way that we never had been before. Due to her illness, Philly was constantly around, and I used to tell her about all of my little struggles and frustrations; her sense of humour was such that she could always make things seem better. I only ever really learnt to laugh with Philly after she became ill, but we laughed a lot, as Philly was bent on seeing the humour even in her illness. One time, when we were sitting in a supermarket car park, she made with cry with laughter at her account of being rushed to hospital in an ambulance, being injected with morphine all the way. And just as I confided in her, she began to confide in me. She told me all about the politics of the cathedral where she was organist, and eventually, once she had sorted things out in her mind, she started to tell me about how she felt about having cancer. She wasn't scared of death any more, she told me; she was just curious to see what would happen next. Even as she was telling me this, it was as if she was reassuring me not to worry about her. I think that was one of the things that made Philly such a joy to be around. While she had moments of anger, for the most part she didn't want people to be concerned about her, and she worried that they might.

When I think about Philly after she was ill, there are countless memories. She became a committed shopaholic, and already generous, she became ever more so. She wore more and more outlandish clothes, as if to complement her hair, which she dyed red after it grew back. She flirted outrageously with the boys in my father's boarding house. But with all that, she retained her dignity and continued to show all the qualities that had marked her out as such a remarkable young woman to begin with. The more time passed, the more Philly treated me like an equal, and I felt like one; looking back now, though, I am very much in awe of her.

Plaque at St. Ninian's

In March 2003 a plaque was unveiled on the organ console of St Ninian's Cathedral, Perth. It reads:

Affectionately remembered, Philippa Gower aged 20 years, choir trainer and organist 2001-2002.

The plaque was dedicated at the morning service on March 2nd, with special music sung by the Choir, including some of the children from St. Ninian's Episcopal Primary School, who were recruited and initially trained by Philly.


In addition to the money raised for the Maggie Centre in Dundee, £8,100 has been donated to Oriel College, Oxford, where Philly was to be Organ Scholar. This money has enabled the College to set up two Choral Scholarships and also to establish a creative arts fund which will allow for the commissioning of new work, art, music, poetry or prose, from time to time.

A photo of Philly, taken at the console of the organ of Carlisle Cathedral, hangs in the ante-Chapel at Oriel.

Philly - a teacher's view

For two vibrant years Philly was, at least partly, my responsibility. For two pulsating years, I was her academic tutor. And I like to think that I taught her quite a lot: but she taught me quite a lot as well. Our relationship was not entirely smooth, for academically the still small voice of calm was rarely heard at Philly's address. With the brash confidence of youth she would spark with some gross generalisation, and it might take some time to get her to admit, for example, that a harsh character - let's say Milton or Swift - could yet write stunning poetry. Yes - we had arguments - over English Literature, Renaissance theology, the existence of God, the beauty (or not) of Oxford, out-of-town shopping centres: the list was endless. Philly's fellow tutees watched in wonder as we went at it hammer and tongs (how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?) and then made up over coffee and Garibaldi biscuits afterwards. And actually, it was fun and before long the whole group was arguing like troopers - Philly's influence had a habit of spreading.

So looking back on it, Philly was rather like a can of 7 Up, sparkling, bubbling and with a fizz that occasionally got up the nose - in the nicest sort of way. Academically, she was, happily, a success: top in the country in GCSE English Language examinations. Philly went on to notch up excellent results at "A" level and Associated Board music examinations and she won an organ scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford. Quite the all-rounder, many people said - and yet she was more than that - for she still had time, while gaining an English Speaking Union award, to follow up her great interest in people. Nobody went past her ken unanalysed. No soap opera (and there seemed to be few she had not watched) had a shrewder observer. Philly had percipient comments to make, and she was delighted to find, after a time, that living in the confines of a school boarding house which her parents ran, she was indeed in the midst of a non-fictional soap opera full of real live boys. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!

Though less queenly than Cleopatra, Philly had a touch of "infinite variety". "That boy" she would say of some hapless fifteen year old, "is your genuine space cadet*" - which was probably true, but would not prevent her going out of her way to make him feel noticed and valuable later in the evening. She was an inveterate tease. "Sir" she said to me one day, when one of my bookends collapsed leading to a literary avalanche "you really ought to read more: these books are getting bored". And boredom, I suspect, was something that Philly never really knew - what time she had she spent in reading, working, making music, and conversation with great facility, drawing, cataloguing and writing to her friends. It was all go - and in her last year she learned to drive. I made some remark to her about firing on all cylinders. "Yes" she replied, "the engine is fine. Pity about the bodywork, though". Wry, funny, apt - Philly could look the facts in the face, and I'll remember a girl of fiendish determination, great acuteness and warm personality who bid high stakes in life - and won.

*space cadet: a late 1990's term for an individual with impaired powers of organisation

Dr John Byrom
English teacher at Glenalmond College and Philly's academic tutor in the VI form.

Page dated October 5, 2015

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