The phone rang. Ian Hayley knew who it was: John Price. They had never met, and as far as Hayley knew, all they had in common was chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). This is the most common type of blood cancer; it affects white blood cells, slowly worsening as the years pass.
Hayley, who had been diagnosed six years earlier, picked up the phone. He was, he admits today, “a bit apprehensive. There was a strange man on the end of the line!”
But 18 months later, he is sitting next to Price; then a stranger, now a friend. That phone call was the first of many. It’s no wonder that Hayley was apprehensive, because he was about to discuss his condition with a man he had never met.
The phone call was part of a trial of Leukaemia Care’s buddy system, giving people with blood cancer the chance to share their experiences and worries with those in a similar situation.
Price had been diagnosed 15 years ago; after years of support from Leukaemia Care, one of three charities represented in this year’s Telegraph Christmas Appeal, he had offered to be one of its first phone buddies.
The call went well. Almost 200 miles apart, Price in Trearddur Bay, Anglesey, and Hayley in Billingham, Co Durham, they introduced themselves, shared details of their leukaemia, and began getting to know each other.
“Within five or 10 minutes,” Hayley says, “and I think John would probably feel the same” – Price nods – “we realised we had such a lot in common. We were similar ages” – Hayley is now 70, Price 67 – “but John had been diagnosed a lot longer than I had: it proved to me that you could live with CLL.”
By the time they put the phone down, the two men felt they’d built a rapport. They began speaking fortnightly, sharing more and more.
Price, who today is resplendent in a wine-red jumper and burgundy trousers, explains how beneficial the conversations have been. “Sometimes you don’t talk to your family in the same way you talk to somebody who’s a pal.”
Hayley, dressed smartly in a thick grey blazer and striped blue tie, picks up the sentence. “Because they appreciate what your condition means to you. Fatigue is one of the principal symptoms of CLL. You’re trying to explain it to someone else, and they think, ‘Oh, you’re just tired.’ It’s not tiredness – it’s something more insidious. It’s there all the time and it’s very difficult.”
It’s made worse, Hayley says gently, by his insomnia, which deprives him of the rest he desperately needs. “Having someone I can say that to, who knows what I’m saying, is good for me.”
Price began his career as a mechanical engineer at Rolls-Royce, worked at University College London and wrote a book about agriculture, and, having moved into teaching, became a deputy head at Cheshire High School. At the age of 50, he was a mountaineer, cyclist and sailor.
In September 2002 he came back from a six-week cycling trip, “and I was on my knees. I had this fatigue that nobody can quantify, that nobody can measure, nobody can describe. But you know when you’ve got it.”
He had a blood test. The doctor phoned him at home at 6pm the next Monday. “He just said over the phone, ‘You’ve got cancer’,” Price recalls. “It was an awful way to tell somebody, but it was his way. The children were in the lounge with [Price’s wife] Anne and I had to go in and tell the three of them, ‘Dad’s got cancer.’”
He continued working, reducing his hours over three years, but ultimately had to retire aged 53. Leukaemia makes its sufferers vulnerable to illnesses they might have shrugged off, which made schools, along with environments like shopping centres and public transport, dangerous places.
“I was getting viruses off kids,” says Price, “taking loads of antibiotics, which are no good for man nor beast.” Price, who loves cars, took a part-time job delivering Range Rovers. “It was a bobby’s job!” he crows, cheerful again. “It was a great job!”
He doesn’t work at all now, a privilege that he ruefully notes may not be available to other leukaemia sufferers. The charity’s work, he and Hayley agree, is especially important to these individuals.
Although his condition makes it hard to get travel insurance for foreign trips, Price now spends a lot of time travelling within Britain. He and Anne have a second home in Wales, visit their two children in Devon, and are trying to make trips to as many of Britain’s islands as they can.
“Have I ever told you?” he asks Hayley. “We collect them – we do the Orkneys, and we’ve done the Hebrides, and we’re also trying to go around the whole coastline.”
Hayley was a design engineer, and travelled around the country to help build power stations. Suffering from cold sores in 2012, he too had a blood test. A few days later, he had a phone call from the hospital asking him to come in to see the oncologist.
He took his daughter Lucy, a nurse, with him to the appointment. The oncologist broke the news. “As soon as he mentioned the C-word,” says Hayley, “I just zoned out.”
“Horrid, horrid time,” says Price, shaking his head.
Hayley has retired too. Like Price, he has had to live a quieter, healthier life. The buddy phone calls have helped him become used to his condition, and the long-distance companionship has culminated in real-world meetings.
Our meeting today, at the Principal Hotel in York, is not their first. “It sounds very romantic,” jokes Price. “We met over a bacon sandwich in Sheffield.”
They hadn’t seen pictures of each other, Hayley says, but “I had an idea in my mind – there was a gentleman of a similar age to me, so I was expecting grey hair, and as soon as I saw this smiling face coming towards me I thought, ‘That’s John!’”
Despite their shared dislike of the touchy-feely word “buddy”, Hayley and Price have become totems of the buddy scheme. Last Tuesday they were invited to Leukaemia Care’s offices in Worcester to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the charity’s foundation.
Staff introduced them to the Duchess of Gloucester so that they could tell her about the scheme. “Quite an honour for both of us,” Hayley says.
Their phone calls have become monthly – the first Monday of the month, at 2pm – but no less good-humoured. Price has been diagnosed with cortical atrophy, explaining it in terms of an E-type Jaguar (his brain) being fed “cr-p petrol” (17 years of suboptimal blood).
“I’ve been given the good news that my brain is atrophying,” he says wryly, “but as you know from today, you can’t tell. So I’m quite happy. I look fit, I act fit…”
“You’ve come over very positive,” Hayley assures him, “and that’s what hit me when we first started talking, how upbeat you were, and having had the illness for so many years, you’re dealing with it very well, and that gave me confidence to feel the same way."
It’s a “true friendship", Hayley concludes.
Price agrees. “As long as we’re still here, we’ll keep phoning.”
To make a donation to our Christmas charity appeal, visit telegraph.co.uk/charity or call 0151 284 1927