How two Belfast mums fought cancer with a little help from their friends on the school run
Una Brankin finds out why Laura Meyer and Diane Dunlop are baking 500 cupcakes for a special Macmillan charity event this Friday
Cancer survivors Diane Dunlop and Laura Meyer are forever indebted to their fellow mothers of pupils at Campbell College Junior, Belfast, for all the school runs and dropped off dinners they provided during their darkest days.
Now close friends, Diane and Laura are baking 500 cupcakes for their Macmillan Coffee Morning at the school on Friday, from noon-3pm. Everyone is welcome and the women are expecting hundreds of guests.
Cancer can be devastating at any age, and especially so for women with children at school. But lasting relationships can be formed over school runs for busy mothers, bonding with others over their children's education and well-being.
Yes, the school gates can sometimes be a sporting ground for competitive "yummy mummies" looking to outdo one another in the style stakes, but on the whole, they are the epicentre of a support network that is much-needed in times of illness.
By 2020, almost one in two people in the UK will get cancer at some stage in their lives. There are currently 2.5 million living with cancer in Britain, of which 25 are diagnosed every day in Northern Ireland, a total of 330,000 a year. Given such statistics, the mums' network is one of the most important support systems to have in place.
And where better to reinforce that network than the World's Biggest Coffee Morning, Macmillan Cancer Support's annual flagship fundraiser, which celebrates its 25th birthday this Friday. Anyone can participate, by getting together with family, friends or colleagues over coffee and cake, to raise money for people affected by cancer. Go to www. macmillan.org.uk/coffee for more info.
‘That instinct to get tested was my mother guiding me’
Diane Dunlop (40) lives in Dundonald with her husband Mark, a property developer, and their children Dylan (8) and Heidi (2). A former PE teacher, Diane recently underwent a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy. A BRCA2 carrier, she lost her mother Sylvia to breast cancer at 35, when Diane was only four. Diane says:
I was fit and well - I swam competitively for 20 years and took part in the Commonwealth and European Games. But because of my mum, I knew the risks and always self-checked. I did consider getting a genetic test done in my early 20s but the GP thought it wasn't the right point for it and it wouldn't be 100% certain. So I had to live with the risk of being a carrier.
After my second child was born in 2010, I had a strong gut instinct that I needed to take control of my health and get tested. I have a strong spiritual faith and I believe that instinct was my mother guiding me. I don't really have clear memories of her - she died in August 1977, just before I started school - but I know she's with me.
When I went to get my family history, I discovered my mum had been adopted. There was no way of finding out anything from her side, so I pushed for an early screening at the Ulster Clinic. The mammogram was clear but due to mum's history, I had a core biopsy there and then. A week later, they said I needed an MRI and another biopsy, and that showed an early stage tumour.
I got the diagnosis on what would have been mum's 70th birthday - I was expecting it. I'm sorry, I promised myself I wouldn't cry during this interview but that maternal bond you have with your mother is always there …
I was determined to have a double mastectomy. This was in September 2013, Angelina Jolie came out about hers in May 2013 and saved lives, without a shadow of a doubt. But before that, I was called for the genetic blood test, which was quite a long process, like finding a needle in a haystack, as it was described to me. It came back initially as DR positive for the oestrogen receptor, which made me even more determined to have the mastectomy.
I was never that attached to my breasts - I always associated them with my mum's illness. I just wanted to get rid of them. It was quite straightforward and I had reconstructive surgery on the same day. The only thing was I started to bleed in surgery and had to have a second anaesthetic, which was traumatic for my husband. I remember waking up and a nurse saying to me, 'Was it a number nine bus?' I thought for a second that it must have been- I couldn't move at all, but the healing process was great and the staff at the Ulster Hospital's special unit were fantastic the whole way through.
The surgeon removed 12 lymph nodes and found small cancer cells in two.
He recommended both chemo and radiotherapy to ensure I'd have a good 30 years ahead of me. I started it in January 2014 and was lucky to have very little nausea. I viewed it as a six-month training camp. Shaving my hair off when I started to lose it was emotional; it was my husband who did it. That was the lowest point for him.
My hair grew back completely chemo-white, like a newborn chick. I had a lot of grey before, though. The kids thought it was strange, but I have my bob back now.
Throughout my treatment, I was inundated with offers for cooked meals and school runs for Dylan. The school mums were such a brilliant support for me, which was all the more appreciated as we'd only recently moved back home from Jersey.
When the treatment was finished, I went into delayed shock. At the start of it, I had a focus; then I was left in limbo. The Macmillan nurses refer to this as 'treatment drop-off'. They told me it was normal and referred me to the complementary therapies at Action Cancer. They are angels there. I did Bach floral essence therapy, reflexology and massage, and it really helped.
I had to have radiotherapy every day for three weeks, which was a slog, but I got through it okay and didn't get that deep fatigue associated with it. I was put on a 10-year course of Tamoxifen, and that was that. They don't like to put your body through an MRI scan if they don't have to, so then you become your own advocate for your health and contact them if you have to.
In the middle of the treatment, the final result of the genetic test came back as BRCA2, which means I'm a carrier of the gene, so I was ahead of myself in the path I took. In January this year, I had a hysterectomy and my ovaries removed. It was keyhole surgery and they found a cyst, but it was benign.
I feel great now; I'm back swimming and enjoying life. You can't be 100% certain cancer won't come back, but having young children teaches you how to live in the present. They're my inspiration. My husband has been a tower of strength. He's a great listener and motivator, and Laura (Meyer) has been a great support. I believe people come into your life for a reason - she'd heard about me and sent me a beautiful card, and we became very close friends. She is very positive, and that's what you need.
I'd been told not to Google my illness, but you can't help it. I was always searching for stories of hope and I hope mine can help someone out there in a similar situation. And I do feel mum's watching over me the whole time. My kids were the same age as myself and my brother were when mum died, and I was diagnosed on her birthday.
I believe gut instinct comes from your spiritual guides and you should always listen to it."
'I told my little boy I would fight every day so as not to leave him'
Laura Meyer (49) lives in Belfast with her husband Lee, a banker, and their son Alex (9). The former long-haul flight attendant was diagnosed with secondary cancer of the brain and neck in 2012. Laura's 84 year-old mother was also recently diagnosed with cancer. Laura says:
I went through five years of IVF to have my son, so I was always going to fight my cancer, no matter what it took. Before the diagnosis, my health had been absolutely perfect. I was getting a bit tired, but you expect that at 46.
Then, one Friday evening, I put my hand up to my neck and felt a big lump on the left side. My husband couldn't see anything but I went to see my GP anyway. I'm a non-smoker and don't drink, so he wasn't concerned but referred me to Belfast City Hospital just in case.
They thought it could be a simple cyst and drained it. I had to wait a couple of weeks to get the stitches out and it just so happened Lee was off that day and came with me. He sat outside the clinic to wait for me. The moment I walked in to see the consultant, I just knew. He had his head down and there was a stillness. He said, 'I'm afraid it's bad news'. I couldn't believe it - I automatically asked him if I should go out and get my husband and he said 'yes'. I went white as a sheet and got Lee, and the consultant told us it was brain and neck cancer, and that I'd have to have a scan to see where the primary was.
I was like, 'What? There's more?'
He recommended chemo and radiotherapy but no surgery. I couldn't take it in; I couldn't understand why it had happened to me. It was the worst feeling in the world. After that, my sister came with me to see another consultant in the Royal. He told me straight up that it was more serious than had been thought and it was at stage three. I asked him if I could die from this. I was waiting for him to offer some hope but he was very blunt and said 'yes', and gave me all these pamphlets.
I had to wait another six weeks for the PET scan but my husband said I'd be half mad by that stage and booked me into to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London which specialises in cancer. I needed to tell my son what was happening. He was six at the time and he's a very smart boy.
The PET scan there showed up cancer in one node and they recommended that my tonsils be taken out for examination. I had them out the next day and that's where they found the primary cancer. They were very positive and that helped put me in the right state of mind to tell my son what was happening.
I picked him from school, strapped him in and stared straight ahead, and said I had something to tell him: 'Mum's got cancer.' His eyes filled up and he said 'Are you going to die?'
I told him I would fight it every day to prevent that from happening. Then, he said he didn't like the word, and could he change it to something else. So, we came up with can-can, and he was able to stand up at school and give a speech about it, which he won a prize for.
I was lucky to have Lee and my friends helping to look after Alex when I was having my treatment. It was brutal. I had the toughest cancer to treat; I had to wear a face and body mask. I can put up with pain but the nausea was awful, and I had this deep, deep sadness I'd never experienced before. I got through that Christmas and New Year badly, sick with worry.
I had six weeks of chemo starting in the January, then seven weeks of radiotherapy. I was so nauseous and tired. I lost all taste-buds and dropped four and a-half stone. Everything tasted of burn and I just couldn't eat.
It was tough but Lee is a very good, very strong man, and right from the start he said we'd fight this together. He said 'It will be the toughest fight of our lives but you're strong and we'll do this'. He took time off from work and my pals helped with the school runs and dropped off meals - women really need their friends at times like this, and you can make some lasting new friendships, like mine and Diane's.There are some that will avoid you, but that's only because they don't know what to say; most rally round and provide much needed support. Anyway, I told Lee I needed something to look forward to and focus on for the end of the treatment, so we booked the same hotel we had our wedding in Cape Town (Lee's South African) and eight weeks later, I literally dragged myself there. I was the only one in the heat in a long-sleeved vest.
The hardest part was actually when the treatment ended and there was no longer a routine to follow. I kept phoning the Macmillan nurses with loads of questions. I spent five or six months in bed in desperate pain and nausea, which is worse, but I had a special little pain management machine linked up to me, and the district nurse would call, and the GP for injections.
After three months, I had another PET scan but the results were a bit hazy. Inside I was still cooking and the scan lit up like a Christmas tree. I was terrified, and had to wait another three months for the next one. I'll never forget coming home from the hospital and discovering my friend had the whole garden planted with daffodils. Isn't that cute? We had great laugh at times, even when I was very sick.
I had the next PET scan in September and there were still a few questions about my thyroids. I was taking medication for them and taken off morphine. I didn't get the all-clear until the following January. They told me I'd have to wait five years to see if I'm cured but that re-occurrences usually happened in the first 18 months, and I was past that.
Smoking and drinking are high risk factors for neck and brain cancer, something I don't do. My immune system should have fought it off - for some reason it didn't, but I had the otherwise good health to fight it. Cognitive behavioural therapy was also a good help, for the psychological effects.
I always say, 'I had cancer but cancer never had me'. Every case is different and cancers can vary. That's what you have to remember when you go on Google. You're told not to, but it's only human nature to want to find out more. Anyway, I'm an organiser and I had a big white board for my journey through this and big list to tick off, one by one.
What I wasn't expecting was for my mother to be diagnosed this year - she had just seen her great granddaughter when she found a lump. She has just had a lumpectomy and is waiting to find out what's next. They're hoping it's early stage and they've assured me it's not hereditary. If all women lived long enough, they said, they'd develop breast cancer, the way older men get prostate cancer. My mother took it in her stride. She was dressed and had her make-up on when I went to collect her at the hospital, and she's out playing bridge every night. She's off on a bridge cruise soon with her boyfriend; she's incredible.
Looking back, I loved to hear of people praying for me, although I'm not religious. My sister-in-law in South Africa had a sewing class every Tuesday and they prayed and sewed for me, and made me a 'quilt of hope', which I took with me for every chemo session, to be wrapped in love.
I'm feeling good now; I'm back at Slimming World and going out for coffee with friends. Cancer is not the be all and end all."
- Visit www.macmillan.org.uk/coffee for more info on the World's Biggest Coffee Morning on Friday