I went extra mile for my tragic mum with a marathon - when I crossed the line, it was like all the pain escaping
Belfast mother-of-two Frances Johnston, who with the help of Action Cancer ran last year's New York Marathon in memory of her late mum, Margaret, raising more than £30,000 for charity in the process, tells Stephanie Bell why it was the perfect tribute to the woman she loved
If the challenge of running the New York Marathon is on your bucket list, a Belfast mother is hoping to inspire you to take part this year and raise funds for a leading local cancer charity. Frances Johnston surprised herself by signing up for the marathon for the first time last year, which she ran in aid of Action Cancer and in memory of her late mum, Margaret Grieve, who passed away from the disease in April.
The 36-year-old mum-of-two hopes that by sharing her exhilarating experience, others will be encouraged to join the 20 people who have already signed up to run the marathon in aid of Action Cancer this year.
She says: "New York is amazing. Running through the Big Apple with its towering buildings, iconic bridges, bustling streets and world-famous landmarks is just fantastic."
Frances is an accountant and is married to fellow accountant Kevin Johnston (37). They have two children, James (5) and Hannah (4).
She experienced a traumatic few months while watching her mum, Margaret (62), succumb to lung cancer following a shock diagnosis in January 2015.
Having to come to terms with a terminal illness was traumatic, and Action Cancer counsellors helped Margaret to face what Frances says was for her "an unimaginable prospect".
To thank them and as a tribute to her late mum, Frances signed up for the New York Marathon last year as a bit of a novice, having only run one marathon before - Belfast City in 2015.
She recalls how her family's world was shaken to its core with her mum's diagnosis. "It was just days after my sister's wedding in January 2015 when mum complained of a pain in her rib," Frances says. "At the time, mum had lost a lot of weight for the wedding, and looked fabulous - like a model, my granny said.
"She looked after my children and my brother's children at the time and thought she'd pulled a muscle, so she went to the doctor to get checked out.
"The nightmare that unfolded following this run-of-the-mill doctor's appointment was the biggest 'rug-being-pulled-from- under-our-feet' event that our family had ever faced."
Margaret was sent by her GP for an X-ray and the next day was told there was a shadow on her lung.
After that they received the devastating blow that she had inoperable lung cancer.
Despite the bleak prognosis, Margaret rallied for the sake of her family and vowed not to give in.
Frances recalls: "Mum was overwhelmed and afraid, but her instinct was to protect those closest to her, so we only saw a glimpse of these emotions.
"She rallied, vowed to fight and work with her wonderful medical team to live the life she had left to the full.
"In the 15 months that mum had following her diagnosis, she went on holidays, visited family and attended her nephew's wedding, where she was the life and soul.
"In August 2015, she organised an amazing party to celebrate her and dad's ruby wedding anniversary, attended by our lovely friends and family, where she gave a flawless rendition of Annie's Song by John Denver."
Frances adds that despite Margaret's determination to live out her days to the full, she was often in pain and desperately sad.
"During this, there was terrible suffering, both physical and emotional, and that's the true horror of living with terminal cancer," she says.
Margaret underwent chemotherapy at the cancer centre in Belfast City Hospital.
Initially, she responded well to the treatment, although her daughter says she was always aware it would buy her time rather than a cure.
The chemo hit her hard. She was physically sick and dehydrated, which led to numerous stays in hospital.
Her last weeks were spent dependent on oxygen 24-7, which meant she couldn't leave her home, but she still managed to come downstairs at dinner time and still very much remained the heart of family life.
Coming to terms with death was tough on her and Frances says that the counselling services provided by Action Cancer were "a Godsend".
She adds: "When mum was offered the counselling services of Action Cancer, she went along very reluctantly at first.
"Emotionally, mum had to deal with the fact that she was fighting a battle she would never win. Her counsellor at Action Cancer helped her to face this unimaginable prospect.
"The service provided a much-needed outlet where she could voice her pain and fears without burdening those she loved."
It was when accompanying her mum to one of her counselling sessions that Frances noticed an advertisement for the New York Marathon.
She had taken part in the Belfast City Marathon in 2015 and felt she wanted to give something back to the cancer charity.
She persuaded her sister-in-law, Joanne Johnston, to do it with her and the girls signed up with a heavy heart, knowing it was unlikely Margaret would live to see them take part in the event in her honour.
Frances says: "When I signed up at the beginning of 2016, mum was very poorly and I knew it was unlikely she would be here to find out about me crossing the finish line, but I wanted to have something to focus on - in her memory and her honour.
"I knew the pain that she had endured over the last 15 months, and this was my way of taking some of that pain on and giving back for her.
"Mum sadly lost her battle in April 2016. She made sure she was still here on Easter Sunday to give my sister and me a crash course in cooking the Easter lamb."
It wasn't long afterward the tragic death that Frances was spurred into action.
"Shortly after losing mum, I set about fundraising - vowing to keep her memory alive and give back to the charity that had helped her."
Joanne and Frances organised a table quiz last August in the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast, where more than 250 people enjoyed a great night and raised lots of money in honour of Margaret.
They also carried out a bag pack and set up a JustGiving page, raising more than £8,000 for Action Cancer.
As the date of the marathon loomed in November, the women were both nervous and excited.
Nothing prepared them for the wonderful sense of achievement they felt crossing the finishing line.
Frances says: "When we arrived in New York, marathon fever took over as we realised the enormity of the achievement.
"The atmosphere was truly electric - from the expo before the event, to the queue in the deli at 4am that morning. The overwhelming emotion I felt as I crossed the finish line was incredible - like all the pain of the last few years escaping, coupled with immense pride in what I had accomplished in memory of the most amazing woman, my mum.
"The people of New York were amazing - people congratulated me every few minutes. We wore our medals for the next few days in the city and people shook our hands, making us feel like Olympic athletes."
The experience of taking part in such a famous marathon has left Frances determined to encourage others.
"I would recommend anyone thinking of taking part to go for it," she says.
"The support of the Action Cancer Team in the run-up to the event was great - from helping with fundraising to ensuring the logistics of the travel was all organised.
"I felt very proud to be part of Team Action Cancer, along with 18 other runners from Northern Ireland. Together, we raised over £30,000 for the charity and the sense of achievement when we crossed the finish line in Central Park was incredible."
The charity's events officer, Arlene Creighton, says: "You don't need to be a super-fit athlete to take part in the New York Marathon; all you need is the determination and the desire to make a difference.
"New York is one of the six world marathon majors. It takes you from Staten Island through the five boroughs of New York to the finish in Central Park.
"It is an experience that really stays with our runners for a lifetime.
"So whether this is your very first marathon or one of many, you will enjoy the carnival atmosphere with two million people cheering you along the way in one of the world's greatest cities."
For more information or to sign up, call events officer Arlene Creighton, tel: 028 9080 3379, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Action Cancer is Northern Ireland's leading local cancer charity. Its mission is to save lives and support people, and it does this through a range of cancer detection, prevention and support services.