'I'm like a cat with nine lives ... only I don't know how many I have left'
Noleen Adair has been battling cancer for 12 years but refuses to bow down to the disease. Instead, her focus is helping other women through her Pretty 'n' Pink charity. By Stephanie Bell
With a sparkle in her eye, a warm nature that instantly puts others at ease and a smile that is ever present you would never guess that Noleen Adair has spent most of her adult life battling cancer.
As we talk she is going through chemotherapy yet again and has just spent a tough Christmas in hospital battling a serious infection.
Somehow, though, in her unique way Noleen manages to almost gloss over the harsh reality of her life and shifts the focus onto more positive things, such as her amazing Pretty 'n' Pink charity.
Yet hers has been a horrendous journey which has gone on for more than a decade and which has been gruelling at times and very frightening. But Noleen doesn't have the time or inclination for self-pity as her focus is fixed on helping bring some relief to other women with breast cancer.
In 2006 she set up Pretty 'n' Pink, Northern Ireland's only registered breast cancer charity and so far has raised over £500,000. Run by a very small team of people, including a breast cancer survivor and volunteers from across the province, every penny raised goes directly back to breast cancer patients and their families.
It wasn't hard to single Noleen out as a runner-up in the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards in last year's Inspirational Woman category.
This woman inspires all who know her through her selflessness and courage. Now aged 34, Noleen was just 22 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer and since then has battled liver metastases and, in 2009, lung metastases. The cancer has now spread throughout her body and she is constantly receiving chemo which is keeping it at bay.
Her easy laugh relieves the tension as I ask about her difficult cancer journey.
"I'm like a cat with nine lives only I don't know how many I have left," she says. "I've been really sick but every time I seem to be at my worst something happens and I bounce back. In October 2013 I didn't think I was going to make it and then the chemo started to work and the next thing I felt like a normal person again doing normal things.
"I don't think there is a day you can waste. You hear so many sad stories and they are a real eye-opener, and I believe you have to make the most of every day."
It's a positive and pragmatic attitude that has carried her through her own tough journey.
Even when faced with the devastation of being told that she could never have children Noleen found a way to cope by becoming a foster parent.
In 2005 she became legal guardian to Caroline, who is now 22 years old and living a full and happy life as an independent young woman.
Noleen has also found the strength to sky dive, complete challenging treks and work with Friends of the Cancer Centre – all while running her own charity which recently opened a shop in Belfast's Park Centre.
Pretty 'n' Pink aims to help breast cancer patients in a practical way.
It began because Noleen saw at first-hand how some patients' struggle financially as a result of their illness.
Initially she decided to raise some money with the help of friends and family as a one-off, but after seeing the difference it made, she couldn't stop and within no time her efforts had snowballed and her charity was launched.
She says: "When I was going through it I had a good support network but for many patients that isn't the case.
"When you are going through treatment it is so scary and having cancer in the first place is traumatic, so having to deal with that and be a mother or worry about money just makes it all the tougher on some people."
Noleen explains: "I wanted to raise funds to pay for nice things that would ease the cancer journey and the stress and help make things a wee bit better, such as a nice family meal out as a couple of hours respite or a half-decent wig."
It was in 1999 when she was working as the manager of three retail stores and enjoying "living life to the full" that Noleen found a lump in her breast.
Because of her youth she was convinced it could not be cancer and so she didn't get it checked out for many months.
She recalls: "I was worried every day I didn't go to the doctors. I think at this stage I was in denial and like many young girls didn't go to my GP because of the embarrassment of taking my clothes off."
She finally did make an appointment at her local surgery and was immediately referred to the breast clinic.
Even though she feared the worst, her first thoughts were for her mum and how she would cope with the news.
She says: "Mum had brought us up on her own and she was due to go on her first ever holiday with a friend. She was so excited that I couldn't tell her because I knew she wouldn't go.
"I had to get my head around it all first but also I wanted my mummy to go on that holiday, as she was going to have to face all this when she got back.
"Some people were against me doing it but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do."
The day she was told that she had cancer – September 20, 2001 – and the days which followed are still clear in her mind.
She remembers: "I went to work and I broke down in tears.
"At this stage I was treating the news like I was told I had an infection that would go away. My consultant was amazing.
"She made me feel like I wasn't on my own and that she was going to see me through this. I was then referred to an oncologist.
"My lump was so big that the oncologist suggested that I have chemotherapy first to reduce the chance of the cancer spreading and also to try and reduce the lump before surgery.
"In the space of one month, I was told I had breast cancer, that I had to have chemotherapy, that I would lose my hair within three weeks, that I had to have a mastectomy and because of all the treatment I may never be able to have children.
"It all happened so quickly that I don't think I ever digested it all properly. I told my mummy and then my daddy. It was the worst thing I have ever had to do. My mummy didn't take the news well at all and I was more worried about her than myself. I finally brought her and my daddy to meet my oncologist and they were told all about the treatment plan."
Losing her lovely curly shoulder length hair was a huge dread and Noleen decided the best way to cope with the shock of it falling out was to get it cut short.
She says: "I found that taking control of each situation helped me to get through it better. As well as getting my hair cut I also got a wig that was the same style and colour as my own hair.
"Coming away from that appointment that day I was so pleased. My wig was lovely and I wasn't afraid of my hair falling out as the replacement was just as good."
After six cycles of chemo, in March 2002 she faced the trauma of a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. At first she appeared to make a remarkable recovery, leaving hospital after just five days.
However, she then developed an infection which proved difficult to treat.
It was feared she would have to have more surgery to remove some of the reconstructed breast.
She says: "I thought of everything that had happened so far and this is when the old me was back.
"I cried so much and was devastated at the fact that I may have to lose my breast again.
"Overnight it was a miracle – the infection was clearing and within a couple of days it was gone. I was overjoyed and couldn't believe it, I got back on my feet and prepared myself for five weeks of radiotherapy – I was ready to win the battle again."
In 2002, her fight won, she enjoyed a well earned holiday with her partner Gavin, now her husband of six years, and on her return home she applied to become a foster parent.
She really enjoyed offering respite care to teenagers and says her weekends were brightened by the arrival of the young people.
But in January 2004 while enjoying a Westlife concert in Belfast with friends she developed a stabbing pain in her back.
A year later after various tests she was devastated to be told the cancer had spread to her bones.
She came through more gruelling treatment and enjoyed a couple more carefree years before routine tests in July 2007 revealed that her cancer had yet again returned.
"I was devastated. Each time it gets harder to deal with," she simply states.
Then it returned for a fourth time spreading throughout her body and Noleen has been receiving treatment ever since.
Her positive attitude and her devotion to her charity gets her through.
Pretty 'n' Pink is due to play a huge part in this year's Belfast Fashionweek with clothes from its Belfast charity shop being modelled at the event.
The charity is also calling on people to join Team Pink for this year's Belfast Marathon.
It is keeping busy organising fundraising events like these which makes every day worthwhile for Noleen.
She adds: "I do believe that everything happens for a reason.
"My life has taken a completely different path than I had planned and I am now helping others, which I thoroughly enjoy.
"The most important thing for me is to thank all of my family and friends for all their love and support and also my husband Gavin who has been by my side through it all.
"Without him I never would have got through all of this."