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True friends: Buddies Nina and Ali on their special bond

In a truly heartwarming story, breast cancer survivor Nina reveals how Ali helped her when she felt that she couldn't go on. Is there a woman who supported you at your lowest ebb? Say thank you by taking 10 minutes this weekend to nominate her for a Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award.

By Helen Carson

When single mum Nina Cristinacce was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, her close friend Ali Campbell, who had lost her own mother to cancer, proved a tower of strength in her battle against the disease.

The two women, who formed a bond after Ali offered Nina a lift in her car one wet, miserable day, came to rely upon each other when times were tough, with Ali even managing to talk Nina into continuing with chemotherapy when she felt like giving up due to the debilitating side effects of the treatment.

Their heart-warming story is an example of how a strong friendship can inspire even in the most desperate of situations. When the chips were down, Ali persuaded Nina to carry on.

Now we want to hear your stories about inspirational women from Northern Ireland who have motivated you. Is there a female in your life who has supported you through a difficult time, inspired you by an act of selflessness or courage or achieved something amazing; someone you think deserves to be nominated for the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards 2015? If so, why not take 10 minutes this weekend to put their name forward in the Inspirational Woman of the Year category.

It's time to show how much you appreciate and admire that special woman with a nomination for an award.

Here, Nina and Ali tell how their almost accidental friendship blossomed into a truly life-affirming relationship.

'I wanted to give up, but Ali made me fight on ... I often  wonder what would have become of me without her?'

Nina Cristinacce (42) lives in Bangor with her partner Shane Sunday (41), owner of Alternative Ink Tattoo Parlour, Holywood, where Nina also works. They have five children between them, Jago and Emma, both 14 (not twins), Ryan (12), Alex (10), and six-year-old Cash. She says:

I became friends with Ali when she saw me walking along the road on a really rainy day with my three children, and stopped to offer me a lift. Our daughters Emma and Niamh, then aged three, were friends at nursery school already, but after that day we just clicked and have had an enduring friendship ever since.

I didn't have a car then so I walked everywhere. It was a mile to the nursery and I had the two boys in the pram and Emma was walking.

Ali was on her way back from the nursery where she had just dropped off Niamh, but was taking her other daughter to school.

We have a lot in common as both of us are not originally from Northern Ireland and we have the same sense of humour - we just get on really well.

We have had holidays together in the Republic of Ireland and France as I was single at the time - so it was just the two of us and the children.

Our friendship was already strong and we socialised together all the time, but when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 that's when everything between us intensified.

A lot of things had happened prior to my diagnosis - Ali's mum had cancer, my dad had cancer in 2008 and my mum passed away because of cancer, too.

I didn't have any other family here at the time other than the children, and my dad wasn't well enough to travel over from England to support me. Ali became my family.

She came with me the day I was diagnosed. I was in a state of shock when I was told I had breast cancer - Ali did the crying for me. She picked me up and put me back together again. She took my children to school and organised people to wash and clean at my house when I was ill.

At one of my last chemotherapy sessions, she stopped me running away and giving up on the treatment. I'd had enough, I was so fed up of being sick and I was trying to get up out of the chair to get a drink. I just said 'I can't do this, I don't want this anymore. I don't want to feel ill anymore.'

Ali calls a spade a spade and she was quite to the point. She told me I had come this far and could not stop fighting, that I had to get better. She made me stay and kept me fighting, even when I told her I couldn't go on.

Since then it has crossed my mind what would have happened if she hadn't been there? I don't know what I would have done without her? I don't know if I would've stopped fighting because I had my children?

She understood that I couldn't talk to my children about having cancer. As far as they were concerned, mummy was going to get better. Ali was my sounding board and took the brunt of my feelings because I didn't have anyone else to talk to.

Ali's qualities are her generosity, kindness, compassion and loyalty. I don't have a sister, I have a brother, but to me Ali is my sister, she is family and her children are family to me - that is how close we are. If there is anything wrong, she is the person I pick up the telephone to talk to.

When my dad was ill and lying unconscious in a hospital ward I stayed with him night and day for a week - Ali stayed with me - that is the kind of person she is. We can say anything to each other. We could go for days or weeks without talking to each other and it doesn't make any difference to our friendship, she is still the first person I will go to if I need an answer to something or to make me laugh.

Since recovering from breast cancer I've become a community helper with Macmillan Cancer Support, thanks to the encouragement from Ali."

'I was never going to let cancer take her life...  and Nina would have done exactly the same for me'

Ali Campbell (44), works part-time at Crawfordsburn Primary School. She lives in Bangor with her three children, Danielle (21), Niamh (14) and Tamzin (8). She says:

I have lived in Northern Ireland for 20 years, but I was born in Kenya and have lived in Nigeria and Greece.

I think Nina and I just clicked as friends because neither of us were originally from here and we are both mums. My dad lives here, but neither of us knew many other people.

I remember giving Nina a lift that day as I saw her trudging along with two of her children in the pram, the other walking. It was so windy and wet, it was absolutely chucking it down.

Nina is such a friendly person, very open. She is always smiling with the sort of personality that people are really attracted to. She lights up a room when she comes in and is a fantastic mother - she does a great job and I greatly admire that.

The day she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was so upset as my mother had died after suffering cancer, and I knew exactly what Nina was going to have to go through.

I knew she would have to have chemotherapy and it would make her sick and how hard it would be to tell her children who were still very young.

I also knew from the very beginning there was no way I was going to let cancer take her life. I was going to make sure she made it through.

The day she wanted to walk away from her chemotherapy, I told that she had to keep fighting for her children and that I would be there for her, and I wasn't going to let her stop. I said she must do it for herself and her children, and there was no way I would let her stop the treatment.

When I went round to her house, I would see her little bald head sticking out from under the duvet and her pale face, so I would tell her children that 'Mummy needed to rest'.

I just tried to do everything I could to make it better for Nina because she was the one going through hell. I needed to make it easier for her.

The experience brought the two of us even closer in terms of our friendship. We were always close, but after that we were like sisters - it just worked.

When she was ill, I was very determined that she was going to get better because I, rather selfishly, needed her too. There was no way I was going to let anything happen to her because I needed her for me.

We went out places at the weekend and when she finished her chemotherapy we had a break at the Galgorm Hotel, just the two of us - it was to mark the beginning of her new life. All family get-togethers involve Nina and myself, including our children's birthday parties.

When Nina had breast cancer it reminded me how this can happen to anyone. It makes you realise that you have to live your life to the full and if your friends are ill you have to be there, you have to help them.

I was there when her dad was in hospital because she needed someone to be there. It was something that needed to be done, that is the way I look at it. She would do the same for me."

Just six days left to nominate!

Tell us about an inspirational woman who has made a difference to your life or the lives of others. You can enter online at www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/WOTY, email womanoftheyear@belfasttelegraph.co.uk or post to Woman of the Year, Belfast Telegraph, 122-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1DN. Deadline for entries is noon on Thursday, February 26. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on Thursday, March 19 at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, Belfast.

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