Family of young Crowborough man who died of cancer share his story

The family of a young Crowborough man who tragically died of cancer have shared his story to encourage young people to be alert to the signs and symptoms of the deadly disease.

Wednesday, 21st October 2020, 3:36 pm
Updated Wednesday, 21st October 2020, 3:38 pm

Matt Tullis, 28, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.

After a year of treatment, the super-fit rock climber was working his way back to fitness and became passionate about spreading the message that cancer can happen to anyone, at any age.

But, tragically, this summer, the cancer returned and he died before he could tell his story.

Matt Tullis tragically died this summer. Picture: Cancer Research UK

However, Matt’s family are now doing that for him.

His father, Chris, said: “Matt very much wanted to finish what he had started with Cancer Research UK.

“He was a remarkable young man with an inner strength and determination that made us so proud.

“He faced his cancer as he did life – ‘it is what it is, I’ll just get on with it,’ he said.”

Matt's passion was climbing. Picture: Cancer Research UK

Chris said once Matt knew medicine could not help him anymore, he decided to focus on the things he could control, by spending more time at home than in hospital.

“He decided to get discharged from Maidstone ITU and go home,” said Chris.

“The doctors told him he wouldn’t make the journey, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Once he was home, he immediately was more relaxed and happier and we got to spend some quality time together.

Matt (left) with his grandfather, Terry and father, Chris. Picture: Cancer Research UK

“Matt passed away peacefully on his own terms on August 28, with his family around him, exactly as he wanted.

“As per his wishes, his family and friends held a humanist service for him.

“Only a very limited number of friends were allowed at the crematorium but his second ‘family’ took it upon themselves to meet up at Harrison’s Rocks near Groombridge, and live stream it, then spend the day climbing, reflecting and reminiscing.”

Climbing was in Matt’s blood. His grandmother, Julie Tullis, became the first British woman to summit K2 in 1986. Sadly, she died while descending the mountain.

His grandfather Terry and father, Chris, were climbers too, and Matt followed in the family tradition. He specialised in bouldering and taught the sport.

Matt’s illness first came to light when he had a health check at the start of 2019.

“I only went to the doctor for something minor – if I drank alcohol, I felt sick,” he said.

“They did a blood test to try to identify the problem and I got a phone call telling me to go straight to hospital.

“I was told I had blood cancer. It was a massive shock. I had no symptoms and hadn’t felt unwell. They didn’t know how long I’d had it, but if it hadn’t been for that blood test, I’d never have known.”

Within days, Matt started chemotherapy, which he found tough, although not as tough as missing climbing.

He said: “The chemo was hard. It was the longest I’d gone without climbing in 17 years. It’s all I wanted to do and as soon as I got out of hospital, I was back at it.”

As part of his treatment, Matt needed a bone marrow transplant, and at one stage, had sepsis after his PICC line became infected.

“That was the worst time,” said Matt.

“It all happened fairly quickly and it was scary. I couldn’t walk for three weeks. I had to use a zimmer frame to get around my hospital room.

“I spent my birthday in hospital learning to walk again and building up the strength in my legs – not something I’d imagined having to do.

“My attitude was ‘It’s happened, I have to deal with it and do what I need to do’. The mental side of things is as hard as the physical. I’ve just tried to stay positive and take each hurdle as it comes.”

His mum, Julie, added: “Matthew’s passion and career was climbing but he very much wanted to get the message about cancer across to young people.”

Matt knew that advances in treatment save lives and had given him, and millions of others, more time with their families.

He was keen to support Stand Up to Cancer, the joint fundraising campaign between Cancer Research UK and Channel 4.

One SU2C-funded project focuses on cancer cells taken from people with AML to see if the cells that carry a specific mutation can be treated with drugs that target a protein called SRPK1.

If successful, this could lead to the development of effective new drugs for certain people with this type of cancer.

Lynn Daly, Cancer Research UK spokesman for the South East, said: “Matt wanted to help make others cancer-aware, and he wanted people to know the stark reality of the current situation.

“We’re so grateful for that, and feel honoured that he was thinking about us, even in his last days.

“We’re also thankful his family has decided to share his story on his behalf.”