The friends reunited to fight cancer together - all for one and one for all
Not only are old school mates Lynn Haveron, Elaine McCleery and Alison Gilmore supporting each other, they've also joined forces to raise funds in aid of Cancer Research UK
They call themselves The Three Musketeers - and together three former school friends have become a formidable force in helping each other to cope as they each come to terms with a shattering cancer diagnosis. The women, who are the same age and grew up together in the same Newtownabbey estate and attended the same school, had lost contact for more than 30 years.
But, in a bizarre coincidence, they have just been reunited as they were each told they had cancer.
Lynn Haveron (51) was diagnosed with bowel cancer on November 26, while Elaine McCleery (50) received the devastating news that she has breast cancer on December 15. Alison Gilmore (49) was also told she has breast cancer on November 1.
Elaine was surprised to bump into Alison at the breast cancer clinic before Christmas. She already knew about Lynn's diagnosis and the women vowed to keep in touch with each other through Facebook.
However, to the surprise of all three, a deep friendship has been rekindled and the trio have supported each other through their ordeal with daily phonecalls.
Describing their friendship as a "lifeline", each of the women say they have been able to express their fears and shed tears with each other in a way they don't feel they can with anyone else.
And while it's "all for one and one for all", the women have also joined forces to launch a joint fundraiser for Cancer Research UK, while also hoping to raise awareness of the need for others to take care of their health.
Together, they signed up to take part in the annual Cancer Research UK Dryathlon, which encourages people across the country to get sponsorship to stay off alcohol for the month of January.
So far, they have raised £2,500 and with just two days left, they are urging people to dig deep to support them and Cancer UK.
"We set up a Just Giving page online and thought we might raise around £500, but within a few days we had £1,300 and it's still going strong," says Lynn.
"We also feel that, with the recent news that cancer is at an all-time high, we want to encourage people who are worried about their health to make it their mission to sort it out this year."
The women's support of each other and their positive attitudes while going through the trauma of treatment is truly inspirational.
Lynn, who runs her own cleaning business and has three grown-up children, Suzanne (31), Lee (28) and Leslie (25), had been attending the doctor with symptoms for more than a year before her shock diagnosis.
"My tumour had been there for over a year before it was diagnosed. I am very active and the day before I was told it was bowel cancer, I had been to the gym and was swimming and running about thinking I was happy and healthy," she says.
"Nothing could have prepared me for that diagnosis and my message is that you don't have to be laying bed-ridden to have cancer. I had signs, but ignored them.
"I had lost three-and-a-half stone on a shake diet and, when I went back to solid food, I just assumed my body wasn't tolerating it and I didn't do anything about it.
"I had thought I had irritable bowel syndrome and it wasn't until blood appeared last August that they arranged for me to have a camera test and I was told they were concerned about what they saw."
A biopsy was carried out and a further test was needed for a second biopsy before the diagnosis could be confirmed.
Cancer still hadn't even crossed Lynn's mind and she was completely stunned when told she had a tumour.
She adds: "There was also a slight spread in the disease and, even though I was told it was treatable, you still have fear and I do have my dark days, but the girls have kept me positive."
Lynn started a five-week course of both chemotherapy and radiotherapy on December 30, after which time it is hoped that the chemotherapy will have shrunk the tumour enough to allow surgery to remove it. She endured a very tough first week of severe side-effects from the chemotherapy and says that it was only through the support of her friends that she has been able to find a positive focus.
Lynn says: "When I started chemo, I was in a really bad place for a few days and felt like giving up. Then I got up a week later feeling completely different about my whole life and decided, 'Right, cancer's got my body, but it hasn't got my mind or my spirit' - that's when I saw the sponsored Drythlon for Cancer Research UK and asked Elaine and Alison if they would do it with me.
"I think it's incredible that we three girls have become friends after all these years. I know I couldn't do it without them and I wouldn't be quite as positive if it hadn't been for their support.
"I can cry to them and they can cry to me. I feel like we are going through it together and, because of that, I am not going to let it beat me."
This week, the women were celebrating wonderful news when Elaine was given the all-clear after surgery in December succeeded in removing all of the cancerous growth in her breast.
It was a major lift amid all the pain and heartache of the past few weeks and, for Elaine, the answer to her prayers.
"I got the call on Monday to say that they had caught all of the cancer during surgery. It hasn't spread and to hear that news is an awful weight lifted off me," Elaine says.
"Being told you have cancer is just terrible and the girls were among the first people I shared the news with. Hopefully, it will give them a boost."
Elaine, a care assistant, is married to Gibson (54), who works as an electrician's labourer, and they have four children and two grandchildren.
She has endured much heartache over the years because of cancer. Her mum and dad both died of lung cancer within seven months of each other in 2012-2013.
Her sister developed breast cancer in her thirties and was successfully treated, but it meant that both she and Elaine were regarded as high risk and were given annual mammograms.
Ironically, when the risk rises for most women at the age of 50, Elaine was told that she was going onto a new programme, where she would be scanned every three years.
She says: "I turned 50 last March and even though that meant I was even more at risk because of my age, I was shocked to be told I wouldn't be getting annual mammograms anymore, due to funding issues.
"Because I had lost my mum and dad the year before, I pleaded with the doctor to please just give me one more scan to put my mind at rest. Thankfully, they did and it picked up cancer in my left breast.
"I dread to think where I would have been in three years' time if I had not got that scan."
Elaine was given the news she feared on December 5. Two weeks later, she had surgery to remove her breast.
Results this week have shown it was a success and she will now start a course of Tamoxifen.
Living in Newtownabbey, she knew Lynn and Alison, whom she grew up close to, to say hello to and is thrilled that they have now become firm friends.
She says: "It's been a tough few weeks, but having the girls there has been a real lifeline for me. I met Alison in the breast cancer clinic and hadn't talked to her for years.
"I asked her what she was doing there and she told me she had been diagnosed three weeks before.
"I knew about Lynn and told Alison and we all agreed to keep in touch.
"The comfort we have got from each other has been tremendous. We phone each other every day and have just been there for each other.
"We call ourselves The Three Musketeers and, a couple of weeks ago, a friend told me there was a horse running in a race, called The Three Musketeers.
"I thought we had to put a bet on it and we did and it won - it just made me feel like it was an omen and that we are all going to beat this.
"I hope people go on the internet and support our fundraiser for cancer research, as every day you seem to hear more bad news about cancer and the charity is doing such good work to help."
Alison, who will be 50 on February 16, is currently undergoing chemotherapy to shrink the tumour in her breast.
She had been diagnosed with tennis elbow after going to the doctor with a pain in her arm. However, within a month, her arm had swollen and her breast appeared to have changed shape.
Her doctor immediately referred her to the breast clinic at Belfast City Hospital, where tests revealed she had a grade two tumour and that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
The carer, who also lives in Newtownabbey and has two children, Lee (21) and Jazmin (11), says: "To think you have a sore arm and then to be told you have cancer is just horrendous. It was November 1 when they told me and I was in complete shock. I didn't expect it at all.
"Because they wanted to start me on chemo before surgery, I had to undergo an MRI scan, a CT scan and a full bone scan to check if the cancer had spread and I had one of those a week during the month of November, which was really tough.
"I was told at the end of November that it hadn't spread beyond my lymph nodes and breast and I started my first chemo on December 23.
"I've been doing great on chemo, it hasn't affected me at all and I feel very lucky about that."
Alison will have a further scan next week to see if the chemo has shrunk the tumour and, if it has, she will start another course of treatment prior to having her breast removed in April. If the tumour hasn't shrunk, she will go through surgery straightaway.
Like her two new best friends, she is very positive about what lies ahead and adds: "I've no problem with having a mastectomy. In fact, I can't wait to get it over and done with.
"The way I look at it is that, when you know you have something there like cancer, you just want to get rid of it and that's how I feel."
She, too, says the childhood friends have helped her to cope in the weeks since her diagnosis.
She is also grateful that all three have found friendship at what has been one of the toughest times of their lives.
"It's just been really great to have the girls there. We all lived close together as children and I knew the two girls to see over the years and now to share that bond is wonderful," she says.
"I know I could call them at any time of the night or day and they will be there for me and understand how I am feeling.
"The three of us have become so close and it's incredible that we have got that through being diagnosed with cancer at the same time.
"It's great to be able to fundraise and try and raise a bit of awareness - it has helped keep us all focused on the positive."
- To support Lynn, Elaine and Alison and help raise more funds for Cancer Research UK, go to www.justgiving.com/lynn-haveron-dryathlete2015/
How screening can save lives ...
- Each year more than two million women have breast cancer screening in the UK. The NHS Breast Screening Programme invites all women aged between 50 and 70 for screening every three years. You need to be registered with a GP to receive the invitations
- If you are younger than 50, your risk of breast cancer is generally very low. Mammograms are more difficult to read in younger women, because their breast tissue is more dense, so the patterns on the mammogram don't show up as well.
- Breast screening takes two X-rays of each breast. You have one mammogram from above and one from the side. You should get your results within two weeks. Most women have a normal reading
- If the X-ray is not clear enough, or shows any abnormal areas, the clinic staff will call you back for more tests. You may need to have the X-rays re-taken
- Only around one in five women called back will turn out to have cancer. So out of every five women called back, four will be fine. Overall, the breast screening programme finds cancer in about eight out of every 1,000 women screened
- Breast cancers found by screening are generally at an early stage. Very early breast cancers are usually easier to treat, may need less treatment and are more likely to be cured. Current evidence suggests that screening reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer by about 1,300 a year in the UK
- Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest possible stage have a 90% chance of surviving for at least five years after diagnosis
- Women at higher-than-average risk of breast cancer, due to a family history, or an inherited faulty gene, can have screening from a younger age. If you think you might be at increased risk, speak to your GP
- For further information on breast cancer screening, speak to your own doctor, or nurse, log on to www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/breast-cancer/about/screening/who-is-screened-for-breast-cancer, or contact Cancer Research UK nurses on Freephone 0808 800 4040