Maura only found out she carried the deadly BRCA2 gene after her mum traced her birth mother
When Maura Gilmore's mother decided to trace the woman who had given her up for adoption, she had no idea it would help save her daughter's life. The Kircubbin mum-of-two tells her remarkable story to Stephanie Bell.
Two young brothers from Kircubbin whose mum has survived cancer are saying a supersized thank you for every action, big or small, that's helping Cancer Research UK fight the disease.
The boys posed with a giant thank you card alongside their mum Maura Gilmore (40), who has been successfully treated for breast cancer.
Together, Shay (5) and Cadain (4) are sending a very personal message to everyone in Northern Ireland who has supported Cancer Research UK in any way.
They are highlighting the importance of every action, from the smallest gestures to the greatest fundraising challenges, in helping the charity fund life-saving work.
Their heart-felt message comes as Cancer Research UK launches its inspiring summer awareness and fundraising campaign.
Designed to show how every supporter's contribution combines to create a collective force in the battle against the disease, the campaign features TV, radio and billboard ads across the UK.
Maura is thankful for every moment with her two sons, after she was diagnosed with cancer in January 2013.
Her cancer journey began when her mother, who was adopted, decided to trace her birth family - a decision which was to save Maura's life.
During the reunion in 2008, the then 33-year-old discovered her grandmother was fighting cancer and carried the deadly BRCA2 gene. It raises the risk of developing breast tumours by up to 90%. Subsequent tests confirmed that Maura and her mum also carried the gene.
"I was a bit shocked when I found out I had the gene," says Maura. "But I thought I would be fine.
"The doctor explained the risks and I was offered preventative surgery, including having my ovaries and breasts removed.
"No one close to me had ever had cancer, so I wasn't really worried. I didn't think it would happen to me. I had just got married and wanted children, so I thought I would go ahead with that and think about the surgery at a later stage, when I was older."
Maura's mum, Phyllis Gilmore who is in her 60s, was adopted as a baby. She found her birth mum within just two years of starting the search.
It was an emotional reunion and tragically her mum, who had married and had more children, died just a few months later.
Maura says: "It was very emotional for mum and we all met our grandmother.
"Mum saw her a few times before she died.
"We have a whole new family now, mum has brothers and sisters and we have new uncles and aunts.
"It was a few months after granny passed away that we were told she carried the gene and we had to get tested. I, my mum, my younger sister and my brother are all carriers.
"After I got cancer, my sister decided to have the preventative surgery.
"I don't think you believe it will happen to you until it does, and when she saw the devastation and the trauma of it she decided she wanted the surgery."
Maura, too, believed it wouldn't happen to her and had decided against preventative surgery, choosing to put it off until she turned 40.
Any concerns she had slipped away as she became a mum to Shay (5) and Cadain (4).
Then, in 2012, her marriage broke down and with so many other things going on in her life, she didn't really dwell on the subject of cancer.
Despite this, Maura continued to attend hospital appointments to ensure she remained cancer-free. She had an MRI scan in December 2012 and thought nothing more about it.
"I was looking forward to a fresh start and thought 2013 was going to be my year, after everything I had been through," she says.
"They called me back for a mammogram and further tests before delivering the shattering news that I had breast cancer. I just cried and cried. I couldn't think straight and didn't know what on earth I was going to do with two young boys - I just couldn't deal with cancer. It was January 2013, so I had just two weeks that year when I thought everything was going to work out," Maura adds.
One month later, on Valentine's Day, Maura underwent radical surgery.
"I was given the choice to have a lumpectomy or one or both breasts removed. I had two boys and couldn't afford for the cancer to come back the next year, so I decided to have both breasts removed and reconstructed.
"I just wanted the operation over and done with. You imagine this thing growing inside you and you just want them to rip it out."
Things were difficult for Maura after the surgery, as due to the pain, she wasn't even able to hug the boys, so they moved in with her mum and dad.
"Chemo was awful," recalls Maura. "They give you a list of possible side-effects and I think I got them all. I had ulcers and cuts on my tongue, was sick, and couldn't swallow, so I was unable to eat anything.
"Then when my hair started to fall out I got really depressed," she adds. However, the boys were not fazed by her new appearance, except when she put her wig on - that made them cry, so she didn't bother wearing it.
"To be honest, it was the kids who got me through it," she explains.
Maura had further surgery to remove her ovaries and began a course of medication to reduce even further the risk of the cancer returning.
She knows how lucky she is that her mum found her birth mum, because without that, she would not have been getting scanned, which is how her cancer was picked up. This also meant they had got it in time and it had not spread.
Since having cancer, Maura has completely turned her life around, beginning a new career as a personal trainer and focusing on her diet to ensure she is in top condition.
She says: "After everything I decided to overhaul my diet, so I gave up sugar and I started to go to the gym as well.
"I am now a personal trainer, so my whole life has changed. I want to look after myself for my boys and I want them to be as healthy as possible, too, to give them the best chance.
"One day they will have to be tested for the gene, but I try not to think about it, or I would drive myself mad.
"I went through something really awful but have tried to make something positive out of something really negative.
"The experience of being diagnosed and treated for cancer has helped me appreciate how crucial research is. And in turn, I'm so grateful to everyone who has helped fund Cancer Research UK's doctors, nurses and scientists, so they can carry out this vital work.
"That's why my boys and I are backing Cancer Research UK's campaign.
"We want the chance to say thank you and encourage everyone in the province to join the fight against cancer."
Research has led to an improved understanding of the biology and causes of cancer.
This in turn has led to discovering better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease - all helping to save lives.
Some of the landmark advances in treatment include tamoxifen for breast cancer and cisplatin for testicular cancer are developments which involved Cancer Research UK researchers playing a key role.
Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK spokesperson in Northern Ireland, says: "We'd like to thank Shay, Cadain and Maura for their support in highlighting everyone's role in helping us to beat cancer sooner.
"Every action, no matter how small, makes a big difference in the fight against the disease. From school children doing a sponsored silence and office colleagues hosting a bake sale, to those dropping their spare change into a collection tin or cheering on their loved ones as they cross the finish line - every little action helps us to help more people, like Maura survive.
"And now, for the first time ever, we have reached a turning point in the fight against cancer. Today, two out of every four people with cancer will survive for 10 years or more.
"Cancer Research UK receives no government funding for its ground-breaking research. It's thanks to our supporters here and across the UK, that we have been able to make such good progress.
"But there is still more work to be done. Every step we take towards beating cancer relies on every hour of research, every pound donated and every person who gets involved. That's why we're rallying people to join the fight to help ensure that no-one's life is cut short by this devastating disease."
Maura and the boys are encouraging local people to visit the Cancer Research UK shop on High Street, Newtownards, where the giant thank you card will be displayed.
Shay, Cadain and their mum have written a personal message inside the card, and visitors to the shop are invited to add their own words of thanks to help inspire others and rally local people to the cause.
Maura's personal message reads: "Thank you CRUK. Without you, I would not be here."
Supporters can also tweet their thank you messages using the hashtag #ThankYouThursday at @CR_UK.
For more information on how to join the fight and help beat cancer sooner, visit www.cruk.org
Research the key to combat illness
- Every hour, someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer
- Cancer Research UK's life-saving work relies on the public's support. Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, the charity was able to spend over £2.5million on some of the UK's leading scientific and clinical research - helping more men, women and children survive
- Research is improving survival all the time - thanks to the fantastic help and support of the public
- Cancer survival in the UK has doubled in the last 40 years
Cure the long-term goal for charity
- Cancer Research UK is the world's leading cancer charity dedicated to saving millions of lives through research
- Cancer Research UK's ambition is to accelerate progress so that three in four people will survive cancer within the next 20 years
- Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured