'She was a kind, beautiful person who had so much more life to live, a piece of my heart left with her'
Hillsborough mum Judith Gillanders' cancer was too aggressive to be treated successfully but her family are fundraising in her memory to support research and find more effective ways to tackle the disease. Marie Foy talks to her mum
Judith Gillanders was the centre of her family's world, and it was an unbelievable and devastating blow when she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer when she was just 36.
In a few short months, the young Hillsborough mum rapidly faded from a beautiful, healthy woman as the cancer took hold and she died leaving her husband Ross and children George (7) and Ciara (5).
No less crushed were her loving parents Elizabeth and Roy Boreland and her brother, also called Ross.
To celebrate her life and mark her memory, the family is holding a one and a half mile sponsored Stroll in the Park at Hillsborough Forest Park on Saturday to raise funds for Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, for local cancer research.
The family held a similar event last year, raising an amazing £10,000 for the charity, which supports cancer patients and their families across Northern Ireland as well as funding research. Two years after Judith's death, the sadness still visibly wells in Elizabeth's eyes when she talks about her only daughter and how she was snatched from them at such a young age.
"We can't put into words how much we love and miss her. She was a beautiful, kind, intelligent, funny person who had so much more life to live and so much more to give the world. She was a wonderful woman all round and an excellent mother. A piece of my heart left with her," she says. "Judith spent time in the US and England after she married Ross in 2006. But wherever she lived, one of her great loves was to get involved with and support local charities."
While living in Long Island in the US, Judith cut her hair and donated it to Love Locks, an organisation that makes wigs for cancer patients who lose their hair during chemotherapy.
Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, she also volunteered as a translator for a charity that provided free healthcare for Latino migrant workers and supported disadvantaged youngsters.
"Ross' job took the family to America and England and then back to Ireland in 2014. Judith and the children were staying with us while they prepared to move to Dublin and it was lovely having her home," Elizabeth says.
"She had been feeling unwell for some time, but put it down to tiredness, moving house and being a busy mum - Ciara was three and George was five at the time. She always looked after her health, ate properly and went on parkruns, so we didn't think it could be anything serious."
Before Christmas, Judith had abdominal pain, but a gall bladder scan showed nothing amiss. In mid-February 2014, she found a lump on her abdomen and saw a doctor.
She was referred for further investigations, but within a few days the pain had become so bad that she went straight to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. A scan revealed a large tumour - a rare abdominal cancer called mesenteric liposarcoma.
"It was a massive shock. We weren't expecting anything like that," Elizabeth admits.
Within a few days, Judith had surgery to remove the tumour. She was allowed home at the end of February and for a while improved well.
"She started to organise the family's move to Dublin and found new schools for the children, and I was there to help her," says her mum.
Though Judith's post-surgical tests results were clear, her oncologist said that the tumour had been a bad one, grade four, and they hadn't been able to clear a good margin of tissue around the area.
"Chemo doesn't work very well on this type of tumour, so it was decided to leave it and wait and see. We knew this was an aggressive cancer, but you hope for the best," Elizabeth adds.
"We'd had hope before that. Judith saw various doctors and they agreed that surgery was the best way to tackle the tumours, but they couldn't remove all of them because they had spread so far.
"To take them all away would have left so little of her digestive system, she would never have been able to eat again. It really was a death sentence. The consultant said there wasn't much they could do."
Elizabeth continues: "There was talk of chemotherapy, but that never happened - she'd had two major surgeries inside two months and never got her strength back enough to have the treatment.
"She was very brave. She was the sort of person who was always well organised. She found an apartment in Dublin for the family and even had the children's names down for a secondary school.
"Nearer the time of her death, she posted on her Facebook that she was terminally ill, but asked her friends not to contact the family as we were all in shock - she said we would contact them when the time was right."
The tumours continued on their relentless path and as Judith wasn't well enough to come home, she was transferred to a hospice where the family could easily visit her.
She'd had her second surgery on April 29 and died on May 28. Easing the way for her family as much as she could, Judith left instructions for her funeral - one of the songs she chose was Lord of the Dance. Her final resting place is at Hillsborough Parish Church, where she was married eight years earlier.
"We talked about having a fundraiser in her memory and she wanted any money raised to go to research," Elizabeth reveals.
"Sadly, my sister also lost her daughter to leukaemia when she was just 19, so researching cancer has a double significance for us.
"We chose Cancer Focus NI because they fund research that unravels how cancer works and will hopefully help find better treatments for patients. It's important to us to support this work, so that other families won't have to go through the same trauma in the future.
"When a loved one is ill, you can feel so helpless at the time, but it helps now to feel you are doing something that will potentially save the lives of others."
For more information about the Stroll in the Park fundraiser, contact Lianne Wilson on tel: 9068 0741 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to make an online donation, go to www.everydayhero.com and search for Judith-memorial-fundraiser. For more information about Cancer Focus NI, visit www.cancerfocusni.org