'This is just my way of giving something back and helping all women realise we must check ourselves, and early detection really does saves lives'
A breast cancer diagnosis last year left Co Antrim mum Laura Parkinson in shock. Here she tells Karen Ireland how today's launch of a T-shirt, designed by Laura along with Dungannon sisters Anita and Donna Ross from My Sister's Closet, will help raise much-needed charity funds.
When busy photographer Laura Parkinson attended what she thought was going to be an uneventful hospital appointment 18 months ago, little did she realise further tests would reveal devastating news.
Laura (35), who lives in Aghalee with husband Simon (35), a finance manager, and their six-year-old son Dan, will never forget the life-changing moment she was told she had breast cancer.
After the initial shock, though, Laura says she has found an inner strength which has helped her through the past 18 months. This tough time has also been the motivation for Laura to design and launch a new T-shirt today which will raise money for breast cancer charities, including Pretty n Pink and Breast Cancer Ireland.
A mum with boundless love and enthusiasm for life, Laura says: "I just take life a chunk at a time and deal with what is in front of me."
But life dealt Laura a cruel blow in August 2015 when she found a lump in her left breast whilst on holiday.
"It niggled at me on the holiday as I knew something was there, so three days after we got back I was in the GP's surgery. The reason I didn't want to put it off was that I tend to face things head on. That decision could have saved my life," she adds matter-of-factly.
Laura was referred to have a biopsy done on the lump to be on the safe side. She was told there and then that the tests had come back negative and there were no cancer cells present.
"The following week I had to go back to the hospital to see if they were going to remove the non-cancerous lump. I had a lovely day out with my mum, going for lunch, doing some shopping and I had plans to meet up with a bride about her wedding photography. We had just squeezed the hospital appointment in to see what they (the medics) were going to do," she says.
While Laura had barely given the appointment a second thought, her world was turned upside down as she got the news that extra tests, as a result of the biopsy, had revealed cancerous cells. She was told she had breast cancer.
"In a matter of moments everything changed. Mum and I were chit-chatting away and having a lovey girly day together when we got this horrific news," she says.
Sadly, Laura's mum Kathleen had heard the words before, as she too had been diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago.
"Mum was a real strength to me that day and got me through that first appointment," says Laura. "After that the shock and initial fear wore off. I went into resource-mode and just wanted to know what needed to be done and what the time frame was we were looking at.
"I work part-time in the Titanic centre and I took the following day off to get my thoughts together, but then I went straight back to work. That was the best thing for me as it kept me focused and busy and I wasn't sitting about feeling sorry for myself.
"A month later I went into hospital and had the lump removed. Simon and I also decided to have some embryos frozen as we knew the treatment I might need could affect my fertility.
"Because of mum's history with breast cancer I had to have the blood test done to see if I had the BRCA gene. The 'Angelina gene' as it has become known.
"It takes two months for those results to come back as it is such a specific test," Laura recalls.
Sadly, these results brought further bad news and Laura's result was a triple negative - she was carrying the BRCA gene 1.
"This news came as a huge shock and my sister Jill and mum had to be tested too.
"Jill met me in the hospital and said: 'Well, it looks like we are both going to become Dolly Parton together'. We both have big boobs and will be getting reconstructive surgery afterwards for our E cups. She is the most positive person I know and even telling me the worst news that she too carried the gene, she told me with a joke."
In addition to her cancer treatment Laura now knew both she and her sister were facing double mastectomy operations and possible ovary removal to avoid reoccurrences of the cancer.
"Mum still hasn't had her results back yet. Although we think her breast cancer was hormonal and not caused by genetics, so we are all hoping she will be a negative."
At the end of October Laura embarked on a course of chemotherapy in three-week cycles.
"The first week of treatment is pretty rough, I'm not going to lie. I was very sick and lethargic and just had to go to bed. But by the third week I was ready to put my wig on and do the school run again," she says.
As her hair started to fall out during treatment Laura made the brave decision to have it shaved off in one go.
"It was coming out more every day and driving me mad so I just decided to go for it. I sat Dan down and told him mummy wasn't well and was having to take medicine which was making me sick and causing my hair to fall out.
"He was so excited the day I arrived home with my wig. He told me to take it off so he could see my bald head. He has been calling me 'pea head' ever since. His laughter and fun has kept me going and got me through some difficult days.
"His love and the love and support of my family and friends pulled me through. It wasn't easy some of those times lying in the hospital feeling really sick, but Simon was a star.
"I think we fed off each other and kept each other strong. He was my rock, though, and I wouldn't have been as upbeat without him.
"He kept saying as long as I was al right he was all right. Family slotted in where needed and everyone had jobs and just mucked in and got on with it.
"There were days with my wig and lashes and eyebrows on that I felt fantastic and no one would have known I was sick. I dreaded going home to take them off as it was a reminder of what was really going on in my life."
After the chemo was over Laura had a break before she started having radiotherapy.
"I finished chemo on Valentine's Day and the nurse brought Simon and I a chocolate heart. Finishing the chemo was the best present ever," she says.
In typical Laura fashion, she tackled the radiotherapy with upbeat positivity.
"I wasn't working any more so I saw my job now as to get better for everyone. I went to my radiotherapy every morning and then, if I wasn't too tired, I tried to do something fun the rest of the day like go shopping, have coffee or lunch with my friends and family.
"I finished the radiotherapy in April and since then I have just been taking things one step at a time. I am scheduled for my double mastectomy in September and then I will face the next part of my journey."
Until then Laura has plenty to keep her busy including a new venture which she dreamed up during one of her dark days in the cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital.
"The cancer centre was like a home from home for me. We were all used to it as my dad had cancer and was treated there, sadly, before he passed away three years ago," she says.
"All the nurses and reception staff remembered us and were so welcoming when I had to go there for treatment.
"One day I was feeling sorry for myself and I thought: 'When this is all over I am going to give something back to charity and help in some way'. I thought about it a bit more and thought it would be fun to do something which involved fashion, which all girls love and is a real pick-me-up.
"I got in touch with the girls who own The Boudoir in Dungannon and run the successful My Sister's Closet blog and clothing line and asked them if they could help. They are real industry fashionistas so I knew if anybody could help it was them."
Dungannon sisters Anita and Donna Ross run the My Sister's Closet blog offering online style advice to women, even tailoring requests to helping women find the right outfit for everything from a first date to a special occasion or job interview.
And the sisters were more than happy to get involved and help bring Laura's idea to fruition. She adds: "The text came back seconds later that they'd love to help and let's brain storm."
The threesome got together a week later and the idea for the white T-shirt with sequinned hearts over the left breast pocket was born.
"Everyone loves a white T-shirt and this was a way to glam things up a little and share the love with the hearts," says Laura.
Laura is justifiably proud and pleased at the end result of the pretty and eye-catching heart T-shirts, which go on sale this week. All proceeds will go to Pretty n Pink and Breast Cancer Ireland.
"I wanted to give something back to Pretty n Pink as they help breast cancer patients with financial pressures. This could be anything from helping with bills, to lifts to the hospital, buying PJs or taking a young family away for a much-needed break. They are fantastic.
"This is my way of giving something back and hopefully help other girls on their journey and helping everyone to realise we must check ourselves as early detection really does save lives.
Anita and Donna from MSC said: "We are absolutely delighted to work on such a fantastic campaign with our friend Laura. Our grandmother had breast cancer so we appreciate the impact it can have on a family.
"With having our own clothing line we wanted to do something with Laura which incorporated a fashionable way to give back to the women on the breast cancer journey. We are very excited about launching our MSC for Breast Cancer T-shirt to raise much needed funds for Pretty n Pink and Breast Cancer Ireland."
As Laura contemplates her future she admits those tiny embryos are seldom far from her thoughts.
"That's a journey for another day," she says. "Right now it is just one day at a time. I am on a BRCA drug trial and I can't get pregnant while on that, then my body will need a full rest. We will see what's in store. For now I feel very blessed and I try to appreciate every day with my family."
The MSC (My Sister's Closet) for breast cancer T-shirts cost £27 and are available from mscthelabel.com