Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Una Crudden: I'm not afraid to die, it's harder for the ones that you leave behind

Formidable strength: ovarian cancer campaigner Una Crudden is enjoying a few days at home after a stay in the Northern Ireland Hospice
Formidable strength: ovarian cancer campaigner Una Crudden is enjoying a few days at home after a stay in the Northern Ireland Hospice
Positive reflection: Una still takes pride in her appearance
Proud winner: Una with her Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award
Una with Health Minister Edwin Poots (left) and the Alliance Party's Chris Lyttle in front of Stormont

Our Woman of the Year tells Una Brankin why she'll fight to the very end to save other women's lives and of the special times she's cherishing with family.

There's a relaxed, holiday atmosphere in the sunlit Northern Ireland Hospice gardens, with a guitarist strumming casually in one corner and soft laughter rising from a cluster of shaded tables on the other side.

Our Woman of The Year is sitting with her husband Felix and daughter Grainne, enjoying the break from her room.

Una (60) is slimmer than she was in March when she won the Belfast Telegraph award in recognition of her heroic efforts to raise awareness of ovarian cancer, but still looks very well.

The mother-of-five from Poleglass was diagnosed with the disease five years ago, after being misdiagnosed – like thousands of others – with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

"I felt bitter about the misdiagnosis at first," she says. "They didn't take my ovaries out when I asked them to after my hysterectomy, when I was 42. There were cancer cells in my womb ... And here I am 14 years later, with ovarian cancer, but I think spreading awareness of it was what God wanted me to do."

After 48 hours of sickness, Una has had two good days in a row. She has made an effort with her make-up, lipstick and eyeshadow included. A cross hangs around her neck and she has fluffy lilac slippers on her slightly swollen feet, but what strikes me the most are her unusually beautiful blue-grey eyes, the shade of the darker variety of seashore pebbles. She has high cheekbones and good skin, which she puts down to Boots Serum – "I swear by it" – and Grainne's Avon moisturisers.

"Mum has always had great skin," says Grainne, smiling. "Even when she was really sick at times she didn't need make-up."

Una explains that she has always looked after her complexion: "And I never smoked," she says. "I've always been a fairly healthy eater and my cancer is not genetic, so that makes me think it was meant to be."

The pleasant gardens at the hospice's temporary home at Whiteabbey were the setting for Nathan Crudden's birthday party last week. At 19, he's the youngest of Una's five children. As Una wasn't well enough to go home at the time – happily, she has since returned to her house in west Belfast – the party was brought to her.

She's still chuffed about it.

"I had to put a nice dress on for my baby's 19th," she emphasises. "The whole family came and we had pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The staff joined us too; we had a great time.

"I asked God not to take me until Nathan was 18," he adds, "and I got an extra year."

The loose bandage covering the anti-nausea drivers in Una's right arm are the only real clue to her illness. She isn't on morphine or any painkillers at the minute, and walks unaided, despite the cancer that has spread from the 13-and-a-half inch tumour that was found in her ovaries and pelvis when she was 55.

Throughout her life Una had always dreaded a cancer diagnosis and she freely admits that she went into hysterics when medical staff first broke the news.

Still, following the initial shock, she got angry and decided to make her story public.

After contacting the media, she made her first speech at Stormont and thrust ovarian cancer out from behind the shadows.

"I got my courage and passion from anger – I had to stand up and protest," she says, a flash of determination in those pretty eyes.

"There was no point in sitting around depressed.

"The kids were flabbergasted at me doing all this speaking in public when I used to run away from anything like that.

"I used to hide behind the organ when I'd to sing in the chapel!

"And I would never have got up and read in the chapel, oh no, or walk into a bar to meet Felix.

"But I think you are given the gifts you need at the time you need them.

"I'm a very spiritual person and I believe the power of the Holy Spirit has given me the strength, and that's that."

Northern Ireland's ovarian cancer statistics are among the worst in the EU. A staggering 47% of the population think a cervical smear will also find out if there is anything wrong with the ovaries.

Along with pancreatic cancer, ovarian known as the 'silent killer', as it's often too late to treat by the time it's diagnosed.

Crucially, as the symptoms resemble those of IBS and diverticulitis, ovarian cancer on average takes six to nine months to be properly diagnosed.

"If the GPs would test for the most fatal illness first, we'd be getting somewhere," Una says, with a hint of frustration. "I wanted to raise the profile of the disease to get doctors and women to recognise the early signs, which will save lives.

"It's just a simple blood test for the ovaries. I know a pharmacist and an ex-nurse who are dying from ovarian cancer because of the lack of awareness. If it was caught in the early stages there would be a 90% survival rate.

"The thing to look out for is persistent bloating that won't go away – not the usual which happens before your period. If you see the doctor about it and he sends you away with medication for IBS or whatever and it doesn't go away, then you go back for a blood test. Once the pain starts, it's too late.

"The ovaries are the size of a walnut so the cancer quickly attaches to the main organs and is hard to remove. I wanted to raise the profile of the disease to get doctors and women to recognise the early signs, which will save lives."

There is no doubt she has succeeded, and raised around £40,000 for the NI Hospice in the process.

It's been a truly formidable effort, and one which was recognised earlier this year when Una was named our overall Woman of the Year at a gala dinner in Belfast. Highlights have included the City Hall being bathed in teal light, the colour of the ovarian cancer awareness campaign. What's been touching and inspirational too is how Una has won hearts right across the divide. When she announced on Twitter – where she is a constant, warm and, yes, formidable presence – that she had been moved to the Hospice, supportive tweets cascaded in from supporters from across the community, sending their love and encouragement.

Two of her fellow patients are currently in Manchester trying out a new drug which starves tumours of blood.

But it was too late for another four women locally, who were diagnosed at the same time as Una, including one in her mid-30s. Una sang at her funeral. She's still singing, although these days it's mostly along to her iPod in the early hours of the morning.

As we spoke, an occupational therapist was at the family house to assess it for home-care to give Una the option, if necessary, of end-of-life care at home. But this courageous lady isn't contemplating that yet.

"I'm not ready – I have a lot more to do," she says, nodding. "I'm not here to die – I'm here to be cared for. It's a second home to me now, a home from home.

"It's like a big family unit or a hotel, only not as formal. Everybody's on first-name terms. The staff have time to talk to you and they'll give you anything you want, and the doctors explain everything in layperson's terms, about medication and the prospect of dying. I find it harder to talk about that with my family.

"The volunteers are brilliant; they bring me trays of sweets, and teddies with tail-coats the other day. It's not all doom and gloom and people dying."

As her illness has progressed, Una has had several spiritual experiences. She found a mysterious white feather in a make-up compact she hadn't opened for months, and another "out of the blue" at the caravan at Whitefoot.

"There was no explanation for either but I believe they are signs," she says. "The closer you get to death, the more spiritual you get. I'm not afraid of death. It's easier for me; it's harder on the ones you leave behind.

"I don't mind dying here or at home but not in the hospital," she adds, shaking her head.

"Home is where the family is. And this story is bigger than me now – my friend (and fellow campaigner) Anne Adair and others will keep it going. It won't die with me."

 

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