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A special mothers' makeover: We give out a style treat

By Una Brankin

From a fight for life against the odds to losing a husband, these three women's lives have been touched by cancer in different ways. As they undergo a Weekend magazine style transformation, they tell their awe-inspiring stories of courage and hope.

Mother's Day is particularly meaningful for the families of Liz Gardner, Cathy Heaney and Kelly McConnell. All three mums have been seriously affected by cancer in different ways - and each is truly inspirational in her own right.

Liz (55) has been fighting a terminal diagnosis for seven years, with ongoing chemotherapy keeping her alive for the last two. Cathy (49) lost a breast and her under-arm glands to the disease, which spread to her lymph nodes. And, sadly, 45 year-old Kelly's husband died from testicular cancer just over a year ago.

To celebrate the ladies' stoicism, we teamed up with leading beauty clinic River Medical to organise a make-over for them, just in time for Mother's Day. And with hair-styling, make-up and fashion styling provided by some of the industries' foremost experts in Northern Ireland, the trio left our photoshoot with a new look - and feeling like a million dollars.

Liz's story

Bangor mum-of-one Liz Gardner had just started a new life in the US when doctors told her she had only three months to live. On medical advice, she returned to Northern Ireland so that she could die at home, surrounded by her family.

But having so far defied the cancer that threatened to kill her, Liz is using her experience to help others through talks and fundraising. Her story is not only helping to raise awareness of the importance of early detection, but is giving hope to many cancer patients across Northern Ireland.

A hair stylist by profession, Liz had recovered from a breast cancer diagnosis at 38, in 1999, and considered herself lucky. In 2008, she and husband Dave, a Health & Safety Executive manager, were given the exciting opportunity of moving to the US. But within six weeks of arriving, their new lives were shattered when they discovered Liz's cancer had returned.

"I will never forget being in the hospital room with Dave when the doctor came in and told me I was very sick," says Liz. "He actually told me I was dying.

"Dave and I looked at each other and couldn't believe it. I really felt fine, but he said I had only three or four months to live."

The cancer had spread to Liz's liver and having been told she was too ill for treatment, she was advised to fly back to Northern Ireland immediately so she could die at home.

"We discussed what to do and Dave and I decided it would be best for me to return home to my family and he would follow, once he made arrangements with work," Liz continues. "It was devastating leaving him as I thought the next time I saw him I would be on my death bed."

As soon as she returned home, Liz visited her family GP who referred her to a cancer specialist. He told her that, in terms of treatment, they would try everything available.

"I have had courses of chemotherapy since then," she says, "and basically it is keeping me alive."

Liz was given her dreadful prognosis on St Patrick's Day 2008 but she's still here, and living life to the full.

"I have seen my daughter married and I now have a four-year-old grandson, Corey," she says. "Research has brought me this far and I believe if I can stay alive long enough, they will find a cure."

Mother's Day is being spent with her daughter Kim (34) and grandson Corey. She's looking forward to seeing her first granddaughter when Kim gives birth in seven weeks, and to wearing the flattering powder blue dress from our shoot.

"My chemo and other treatments have left me without any hair and made my skin tired looking, and I felt it was more refreshed after the lovely River Medical manager, another former nurse called Aoibhin, got to work on me. I loved my make-up and all the outfits picked - the personal shopper Katherin certainly got my personality.

"Before cancer I didn't have a sick day in my life; I didn't understand or know anything about any illness. The first time I was 38 and thought I was dipped in gold, and it was only a blip. It wasn't until nine years later, after being told I had only three to four months to live, that it had a dramatic effect."

Once Liz had made it past her prognosis, she was determined to make every moment count. She has whizzed across three zip-wire lines, two bungee jumps, abseiled down the Europa hotel and run seven times at the Race For Life.

"I was planning a sky-dive, but my collarbone is permanently broken due to cancer, so my skydiving days are over," she concludes. "But I'm stubborn and I'm going nowhere! I'm starting a new doubled-up treatment tomorrow - capecitabine and zometa at the same time. I don't know anyone on both together; I'm sure it'll be ok.

"My advice to anyone with a prognosis like mine? Never give up, never give in. My GP says he wishes he could bottle my attitude. Frame of mind really does make a difference - it's your life, fight for it."

Kelly's story

Brave Kelly McConnell (33) is gearing up to run her third Cancer Research UK Race for Life in May, in memory of her husband Peter.

Two years ago, Kelly was cheered across the finish line at the inspirational event by Peter, who was fighting testicular cancer. A postman from Ballymena, Peter was only 42 when he died in January last year. Now Kelly and children Adrian (15), Katie (13), and four-year-old Ellie-Mae are determined to raise vital cash for Cancer Research UK.

"I miss everything about Peter," says Kelly. "He was such a big part of our family, the love of my life, and the children were Peter's life. He was a proud dad. I have to stay strong for the children but remembering my husband's strength is all I need to keep me going."

Peter had been given only months to live in the summer of 2013, when he courageously stood on the sidelines at the Race for Life in Belfast. Dressed in a pink cowboy hat, he cheered on Kelly and their daughter Katie, who celebrated her 12th birthday the same day.

"The doctors told us to enjoy life as Peter only had about six months," Kelly recalls quietly. "I treasure the photos I have of Peter at the Race for Life that year. We were doing it for Peter and he was there to support us. He was over the moon to be there and we made a day of it. Looking at that photo, you'd never know there was anything wrong with him or guess all we'd been through."

It was a huge shock for Kelly, only weeks before Christmas in 2012, when Peter was diagnosed with cancer. He had finally gone to the doctor after a cold refused to go away and developed into pneumonia, twice. Doctors at Belfast City Hospital explained that Peter had a Leydig Cell tumour, a rare form of testicular cancer. A scan revealed the disease had spread.

Kelly says: "I was with Peter when he found out. The consultant pulled the curtains around his hospital bed and just told us. It was a horrible moment."

After surgery and three months of chemotherapy, Peter was told the cancer had further spread to his lungs and liver, but he was determined to live until Christmas to see his children opening their presents. He died on January 17 last year, surrounded by his family.

"Ellie-Mae was too young to understand but Adrian, Katie and I were all there when he died," says Kelly. "The children came to see him at 3pm after school and he died at 7pm. They had a chance to say goodbye.

"Before Peter died, he said to our son Adrian, 'make sure you look after your mummy and your sisters'. And he has done that. He's been great. All three of my children are helping me through this."

Adrian wrote a poignant tribute to his Peter, entitled My Dad, My Inspiration, which he read out at the funeral.

It read: 'My dad is not only my dad. He's my best friend. People say that anyone can be a father but it takes someone very special to be a dad, and this is very true. My sisters and I have been so privileged to have such an amazing man as our dad. He really was the best dad in the world.'

Kelly is looking forward to being spoiled by her children today.

"I think they were shocked with the way I looked after the shoot! After losing Peter, I felt my skin was dull and tired looking but after my treatments I saw immediate results - my skin is visibly more radiant and uplifted. Likewise, my hair was very limp but by the time the stylists were finished, it was very elegant.

"I felt confident getting my treatment with River Medical in the knowledge that my therapist Leanne is a trained nurse, and I loved the smoky eyes and false eyelashes the make-up artist did for me. As for fashion, I'm a full-time mum to three children; I am normally in a T-shirt and jeans, so I really enjoyed getting dressed up at Victoria Square. I felt so far out of my comfort zone but the personal shopper Katherin made me feel brilliant in the different dresses she picked for me - styles that I would never have chosen myself.

"I feel great after the make-over and I'm looking forward to taking part in the next Race For Life in May for Cancer Research and for Peter. Losing him has taught me never to take anything or anyone for granted, as it can all be wiped away in an instant."

Cathy's story

Cathy Heaney's first grandchild had just been born when she cracked a rib on a skiing holiday, at 39, in early January 2006. When she was checking her side, the civil servant felt a small lump in her right breast. By the end of the month, she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I would like to think I took the news quite well but my first reaction was, 'where else could it have spread to?'" Cathy recalls. "I had a chest and lung x-ray that night before leaving the clinic and thank goodness it was clear. I had to wait on the results of a blood test and of the hardest things I had to do was tell my family. I remember coming out of the clinic and sitting in my car for ages before I phoned a very close friend and for the first time I had to say the words 'I have cancer'."

Fortunately, Cathy's blood test results were normal but after undergoing a mastectomy, she had to wait another week and a half for the post-op results. "It wasn't the best news as the cancer had spread outside the tumour and into the glands and nodes under my arm," says Cathy, who's divorced. "I had a decision to make on whether to have my breast totally removed or just get on with my chemotherapy right away. I chose to get my chemotherapy started as it would cut down the risk of the cancer spreading to other parts of my body; then I had to have my glands removed, and radiotherapy."

Nine years on, Cathy's spending a quiet Mother's Day at her cottage in Killylea, Co Armagh, with her two grandchildren. The make-over was good timing for this sporty lady - she's planning a scuba diving holiday for her 50th birthday in May.

"What an experience the make-over was!" she exclaims. "Liz and I have our scars but we were all stripping off together in Victoria Square and the girls were on the floor laughing at some of the more outlandish things I tried on. The personal shopper Katherin ordered me to 'take that off immediately!' I'd recommend her any time - it was brilliant.

"The beauty therapists at River Medical really know their stuff. The treatments gave me a lovely healthy glow, and I learned how to use foundation and serums and blusher properly from Paddy McGurgan's make-up artist. I hadn't a clue before. I had to do a double-take when I saw the finished results."

Although Cathy considers herself one of the lucky ones, she urges others not to take their health for granted.

"It is so important for us all, both men and women, to follow the guidance provided on detecting the first signs of cancer, as early detection really makes a difference," she says. "Your health is your wealth, so don't be shy about looking after yourself. Cancer Research UK has made great strides in the treatment of the disease, so don't put it off if you have any concern, no matter how small."

From left to right: Kelly wears dress £115, Coast; shoes £130, Kurt Geiger; jewellery by Coast. Cathy wears dress £180, Coast; shoes £45, Monsoon; jewellery by Phase Eight. Liz wears dress £150, Coast; stilettos £86, Phase Eight; jewellery, Coast.

  • All fashion and accessories available from Victoria Square SC Belfast. Visit victoriasquare.com

Call for women to join Race for Life

Every single hour, someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer. That's why our three make-over mums are calling on women to fight back against this devastating disease by entering Cancer Research UK's Race for Life 5K or 10K events at Stormont Estate on Sunday, May 31.

"Incredibly, this will be Liz Gardner's eighth race," says Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Northern Ireland. "We're urging women of all ages, shapes and sizes to sign up now.

"It's not about being fit or fast. Most women are able to walk 5K in an hour while chatting and having fun. Or they can choose to jog, run or even dance around the course if they prefer."

Cancer Research UK's Race for Life, in partnership with Tesco, raises millions of pounds every year to help fund life-saving research. This year, organisers need 6,000 women and girls to stride out to help raise £350,000.

Cancer survival rates have doubled since the 1970s and Cancer Research UK's work has been at the heart of that progress. But more funds and more supporters are needed to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.

"Race for Life is to celebrate those who are with us, and also remember those who are not, like Kelly's husband Peter," adds Jean. "The atmosphere is electric, our participants are so inspiring and we're calling on the women of Belfast to help make 2015 our best year yet."

To enter Race for Life go to raceforlife.org or tel: 0300 123 0770.

Beauty treatments were tailor-made for our makeover mums

All three of our makeover mums had courses of high-tech beauty treatments over the last three months at River Medical's well-respected Lisburn Road clinic, opposite the City Hospital. Their beauty therapists, Leanne McKee, from Armagh, and Aileen Gillick from Meath, trained in nursing together 10 years ago, in London.

"We're nurses - it's in our DNA to want to help people, so it was fantastic to be involved in the Belfast Telegraph make-over for these ladies," says Aileen. "Due to Liz's ongoing chemotherapy, we recommended the Pelleve radio-frequency facial, which is similar to the Thermage treatment championed by Gywneth Paltrow, but gentler. Liz responded really well to Pelleve - it gives an immediate lift and brightens up and tones the skin.

"Chemo takes its toll on the complexion but the skin is a wonderful thing - it can regenerate itself very well with a little help."

Both therapists were astonished to discover that young widow Kelly (45) didn't use a cleanser or moisturiser.

"We had to tell her off," says Leanne. "She's on her own with three kids and had no interest or idea about skincare. We used Impulsed Light (IPL) heat treatment on Kelly for a bit of rosacea (redness) and did a super-cleanse for her blocked pores. Then we literally soaked her skin with vitamins and peptides, as it was dry."

Cathy (49) was concerned with her jawline, so she opted for Gwynnie's favourite, as well as a vitamin-infusing treatment.

"Cathy got great results - Thermage goes deeper into the fibre of the skin," says Aileen. "The radiofrequency creates a vibration, heating up the skin and drawing new collagen to the surface. You could really see the difference in Cathy's jawline."

For more information visit rivermedical.co.uk

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