I attached a ticking timebomb to my heart

There are rituals a woman inviting a man into her bedroom for the first time might follow: shaving her legs; laying out her best bed linen; placing scented candles around the room. 

But for me, welcoming Martin into my bed — a man I had only known for a couple of months but was already falling deeply in love with — required profoundly different preparations.Martin was dying. He was coming to me straight from the hospital, following radical surgery after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. 

Any closeness we might share in the room I was getting ready for his arrival would be anything but sexual. 

This was where I would be caring for him after his operation — washing him, feeding him, willing him to get stronger.Instead of candles, I placed painkillers and a thermometer on the bedside table. 

Melanie Cable-Alexander fell for her husband Martin quickly after his cancer diagnosis.Pictured today

As I saw the final pictures of the brave and inspiring Dame Deborah James last month, it brought it all back to me — the fear and the intimacy of the sick room, the bubble you enter beyond the outside world. To be the person Martin trusted to look after him like this felt like a great privilege.Especially because I had known him for such a short time. 

Yet it would see me become deeply emotionally invested in someone who might end up leaving me in the most devastating circumstances. That thought terrified me, and yet still I didn’t pull away. 

Martin and I first met at a dinner party on the very day he was told he had terminal cancer; I just didn’t know it at the time. By then, he had been living with bowel cancer for three years — surgery, plus nine months of chemotherapy seemed to have it under control.But then a routine check-up discovered tumours in his lungs. His consultant told him he was dying just a few days before Christmas 2013. 

In shock, a few hours later he joined me and a party of 12 mutual friends for dinner at a restaurant near my Somerset home.While the rest of us made merry, Martin sat in a daze, thinking about the impact his death would have on his children — a son and daughter in their early 20s. All I saw was a rude man who stared blankly at his food and, try as I might, refused to engage with me. 

I was sleepless and wondered what I had got myself into 

He seemed utterly bored, which I found infuriating.On the odd occasion he looked up, it was with a vacant expression. Of course, now I know he was sitting there in existential agony, confronting his own mortality while I wittered on. 

I felt relieved when I could finally head home, hoping never to see this charmless man again. And yet, as we were leaving and I was planning another supper with these local friends for mid-January — this time at my house — I felt obliged to invite him along, too.I could hardly have left him out of a general invitation. 

He turned up that evening, four weeks later, utterly transformed. He was upbeat and charming — a change, I later discovered, that arose from a sudden injection of hope.His consultant had decided Martin could be a candidate for pioneering surgery to remove the tumours in his lungs. 

It was risky, but it might give him more time. All this buoyed him up enough to join my dinner party. 

At midnight I waved everyone off at the front door.But for some unfathomable reason I called Martin back and asked him to stay for a nightcap. 

Melanie and Martin on their wedding day in 2015.Melanie describes how even though knowing Martin may not be around for long, she couldn’t help falling deeply in love with him and caring for him

There hadn’t been any special connection between us; we’d sat at opposite ends of the table and had barely spoken all evening.And yet something compelled me to usher him back inside. 

A bottle of red wine later, we both kicked off our shoes, curled up on a sofa next to the warm Aga in my kitchen, and began baring our souls. We stayed up talking until 5.30am, our legs casually entwined as we shared a conversation that would have a profound impact on us both. 

I sensed very quickly that Martin — who ran a gardening business, designing and exhibiting Gothic follies at the Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court — was a man I could trust. 

Usually, I struggle opening up to people, and yet I felt safe telling him about very private elements of my difficult past. 

I got to know his body more lovingly than I had any man’s 

That included a dreadful period that I loathe discussing with anyone — how, in 1998, I was revealed to be the secret lover of Princess Margaret’s ex-husband Lord Snowdon, father to my now 24-year-old film-maker son Jasper. 

We met through my job as features editor on Country Life magazine.

Being part of that much publicised scandal — he was married to his second wife at the time — was devastating. The affair lasted for three years and when it ended it left me a single mother whose private life had been plastered, humiliatingly, all over the newspapers.

Thankfully, Tony and Jasper maintained a good relationship, and he and I remained friends until his dying day. But the experience left me feeling horribly exposed.

‘The world can sometimes feel like a very scary and dangerous place,’ I told Martin, recalling that awful time.He nodded in agreement. 

Then he shared his own terrible news, instantly putting my own worries into devastating perspective. 

‘I have terminal cancer,’ he said, his voice remarkably steady.‘It’s spread to my lungs; things don’t look good.’ 

I remember looking at his face and thinking how handsome and kind-looking he was — and, I now knew, brave, too. 

His voice didn’t falter, his face passive as he explained how his ex-wife had kindly agreed he should stay with her, so that he could spend one last Christmas with their children. 

The last few weeks had, he said sadly, felt like one long, heartbreaking goodbye. 

Melanie with her son Jasper as a toddler.She explains how it was difficult to navigate life thinking that Martin was going to die

Now, though, there was this slim glimmer of hope. ‘I desperately don’t want to die,’ he told me. ‘I’m going to put my faith in this treatment.’ 

Martin left early the next morning, with us both admitting we’d like to see each other again. 

I went to bed, lying sleepless and fretful as I wondered what I was getting myself into.I called my sister and told her everything. ‘However lovely this man is, I’m worried you’ll get terribly hurt if you fall for him,’ she warned. ‘This sounds like a very bad idea.’ 

‘Too late,’ I remember thinking.I could already feel the stirrings of emotion towards Martin — part sympathy, but there was genuine attraction too. 

He phoned the next day and asked me out on a date. He’d spoken to a friend about me, saying he liked me but wasn’t sure if he should ask me out.

‘You’re dying!’ his pal had exclaimed.‘What have you got to lose?’ 

Well, he had nothing, I suppose. It was different for me, and my sister’s words of warning rang in my ears — getting into a relationship with Martin would be a huge emotional gamble. And yet, I still said yes.It was like a magnet was drawing me towards him and I was powerless to resist. 

 He had a magnetism I couldn’t turn away from

We drove to Lyme Regis, where we walked along the beach, Martin taking my hand in his.His cancer wasn’t mentioned. We explored the Dorset coastline and had lunch at a pretty cafe. It was a lovely first date. 

Every so often, though, I’d remember Martin’s story and feel a rising panic. The words ‘What are you doing?’ kept popping into my head. 

Falling for him would be like attaching a ticking timebomb to my heart. 

But hope — for me, that here was a man I liked, who seemed to like me, and with whom I might find true happiness; for him, that he really would get to live — drowned those words out.Since Tony, I’d had relationships, but none that had lasted. True love was something I longed for, but it had always eluded me. Yet I had such a strong and good feeling about Martin, as though he really might be ‘the one’. 

The next few weeks were strange, not least because they were building up to Martin’s first operation — keyhole surgery on his left lung, which was scheduled for Valentine’s Day.This would be followed a couple of weeks later by more open surgery on his right lung. 

These operations — a brand new way of treating lung cancer — were to remove the cancerous tumours surgically. It had to be done in two stages because of the risk of the lung collapsing. 

Dating someone who is fighting for their life concentrates the mind.There was no time for dancing around. Every conversation we shared was open and honest, taking each of us to the heart of who the other really was. 

We did normal dating — we went to the cinema, to restaurants and for long countryside walks.But it was all done at pace, as the clock ticked down to Martin’s surgery, and we grew closer with each passing day. I introduced him to my most trusted friends. ‘You’re right,’ they told me. ‘He’s wonderful.’ If they had any concerns, they kept them to themselves. 

Meanwhile, it didn’t frighten me that Martin had cancer; I had recently helped nurse both my beloved stepfather and my dearest friend through the final stages of this illness, so there was no mystery for me there. 

But I felt dreadfully afraid of the love I was developing towards him, because I knew how devastating losing someone else to this disease would be. 

I was still grieving for two loved ones.Could my emotions cope with going through it again, with a third? I was wrestling with all that when I got a call from Martin’s ex-wife, Mandy, with whom he had managed to stay good friends since their split 12 years earlier. 

‘I hear you’re dating my ex,’ she said cheerfully.‘I think that’s a great idea — you’re so good for Martin.’ She was trying to be kind and encouraging, but her words gave me pause — making me think, once again, of the emotional burden I was taking on. Instantly, I felt horribly overwhelmed. 

And yet, still, I couldn’t turn away.This wasn’t through pity for Martin, or a fear I’d look bad for abandoning him. 

It was because Martin seemed the epitome of my perfect man — kind, funny, interesting and emotionally strong — and I genuinely wanted to be with him, for as long as possible. 

His first operation — the less invasive of the two — was a success.Dropping off a Valentine’s card at his ex’s house, since he was staying with her after his first surgery, felt strange; her handing me one from him while he lay on an operating table even more so. But within a couple of days Martin was back on his feet, bracing himself for round two with his surgeon. 

By now, we had been dating for just four weeks.I’d started attending appointments with him and had been at his hospital bedside after his first operation when his surgeon came to discuss how it had gone. This now felt like a shared journey. 

And so it felt natural to suggest he come home to me after the next operation, a month later. 

At that point we had held hands, we had shared every emotional intimacy, but we still hadn’t made love. 

When he did ease himself into my bed for the first time — weak and unable even to take himself to the toilet — our relationship became physical in a way that transcended sex. 

It’s testament to the love that had grown between us that neither of us baulked at what came next.Martin wasn’t remotely embarrassed at the very personal care I now gave him. Meanwhile, I got to know his body more lovingly than I had any other man’s. 

For the next five weeks I barely left his side. I fed him, bathed him, read to him and dressed him.Lying next to Martin each night, drifting off to sleep hoping the morning would see him a little stronger, it began to feel like we were melding into one person. When he was finally strong enough to leave my home, neither of us wanted him to go. Eight years on, ficken and he’s still here. 

Finally, we became lovers, then in 2015 we became husband and wife. 

As time went on, astonishingly, every scan he had came back clear.Martin’s body was free of cancer. He’s still being monitored because his surgery was part of a trial, but after five years, as with anyone who has had a cancer diagnosis, he was classed as being in remission. The year after our wedding we turned our home into an upmarket B&B, which we’ve been running together ever since. 

All that has been possible because Martin’s faith in his surgeon paid off. 

Good can come out of life’s darkest times 

Cancer is a devastating disease, but not all stories connected to it end sadly.I wanted to share that, to show good can come from life’s darkest experiences, and hopefully give others hope for their future. 

We don’t dwell on the fact that, as with any form of cancer, it could return. We live for today, which is all any of us has. 

I still look back with wonder that I embarked on a new relationship with a man who might not be able to stick around, no matter how good things were between us. 

There was just something about Martin I couldn’t turn away from; a magnetism that drew me towards him with astonishing force right from the start. 

I’m so glad I did.Each morning, the first thing I do on waking is trace with my hand the scar on Martin’s back from the surgery that saved him. Then we turn to each other and smile, glad to be together and alive. 

We don’t take either of those things for granted — I’m certain we never will.And the life we feel endlessly lucky to share is all the richer for it.

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