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'We miss our Noleen every day, but she'd be thrilled we have reached her £1m target'

The sister of the late cancer campaigner Noleen Adair, who founded the Pretty 'n' Pink breast cancer charity, tells Stephanie Bell about passing a very special milestone in the Belfast woman's work.

Published 26/10/2016

Leanne Rooney who is carrying on her sister’s cancer charity work
Leanne Rooney who is carrying on her sister’s cancer charity work
Leanne Rooney with her late sister Noleen Adair
Leanne with her late sister Noleen and their mum Rose and brother Brian
Strong support: Noleen Adair and her husband Gavin
Noleen Adair with her mother Rose Rooney
Fond memories: Leanne and her brother Brian Rooney and mum Rose with a treasured family picture of Noleen
Noleen’s father carries his daughter’s coffin

If Noleen Adair had survived to see the charity she set up reach its 10th anniversary this week she would have been very proud and thrilled by the huge effort made by so many people to mark the special milestone.

Her friends, family and the Board of Trustees of her Pretty 'n' Pink breast cancer charity went all out to turn Northern Ireland pink for the week in a bid to raise £10,000.

No one knows more how much it would have meant to its founder than her sister Leanne Rooney, a trustee who has been a driving force of the charity since Noleen lost her long battle with cancer in June 2014.

It was Leanne (35) who was with Noleen when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, aged just 22, and who was also by her side when she had her surgeries and treatments.

Best friends as well as sisters, Leanne shared Noleen's many triumphs as well as supporting her through the setbacks during what was a long and determined battle with cancer.

As offices and homes were turned pink for the week to mark the charity's 10th anniversary, Leanne says her sister would have been overjoyed to see her good work continuing.

She says: "It is such a big milestone and Noleen would have been delighted to have got to that stage.

"She would love all that is happening throughout the week and we had a 10th Anniversary Ball on October 1 which would have delighted her, too. We have a pink coffee morning happening virtually every day. People have turned their offices pink and others are wearing pink into work, it's fantastic.

"I myself can't believe the support we have had and I am so proud of everybody and so grateful for the entire fundraising."

Noleen became a much admired and well-known figure in Northern Ireland after setting up Pretty 'n' Pink to raise awareness and funds to help other women with the disease.

She first battled cancer at 22, only for it to return when she was 25. Despite her illness she spent the next seven years raising £700,000 for her charity. It was her dream to raise £1m - and in a special tribute to her, the charity's trustees went on to achieve that target on her behalf.

Leanne recalls: "When Noleen died she had managed to raise around £700,000 and she always said she wanted to raise £1m - that was her big goal but unfortunately she didn't survive to see it happen.

"To be honest we were all a bit lost at first and we didn't know how to carry on without her, although we knew we had to and we wanted to do it in her memory.

"She was the driving force of the charity and she put her heart and soul into it, and for a while after she died everything was up in the air.

"We just realised we had to put our heads down and continue it for Noleen and we are really back on track now.

"We set oursevles the ambitious target of raising £1m before the 10th anniversary and by October 1 we had raised £1,139,500, so we exceeded our target.

"I was laughing and crying at the same time when we hit the target. On one hand it was great because we had done it and I was so happy, but on the other hand I was crying because it was so sad that Noleen wasn't around to see it and she would have been so thrilled that we did it."

Despite battling ill health, Noleen devoted a lot of her time to fundraising for the charity.

She found the strength to sky dive, complete challenging treks, and work with Friends of the Cancer Centre that donates money to help women and families who are not in a position to buy wigs, homeopathic treatments, childcare, transportation to hospital or have a memorable family day out.

It was to help with these practical issues that Noleen founded Pretty 'n' Pink.

She discovered herself how difficult life can be when you are no longer able to work because of a cancer diagnosis and wanted to help alleviate some of the financial stress facing other women.

The charity helps hundreds of women each year with financial support through small grants dispersed from the Pretty 'n' Pink Support Fund.

Pretty 'n' Pink's services include help with travel costs to and from hospital appointments, help to purchase post-surgery clothing, help with home heating and utility bills, and respite breaks and social outings for the Pretty 'n' Pink community.

The charity is also focused on raising awareness of breast care through distribution of its breast awareness self-check shower cards, which are available online and in hard copy.

Noleen shared her story on the Pretty 'n' Pink website, inspiring thousands of other cancer patients and their families.

When news of her death broke on Twitter, messages of sympathy flooded in for her husband Gavin, brother Brian, sister Leanne and parents Rose and Brian with people describing her as "amazing", "remarkable" and "truly wonderful".

She died peacefully, aged 35, surrounded by her family, but even after 13 years battling cancer her death still came as a huge shock to her loved ones.

Leanne says: "We saw her bounce back so many times that even when she became very ill in May 2014 we still were holding out hope, so it was such a shock when she did pass away.

"She put up such a fight and she was so brave, it became part of everyday life for us. Even when she did get a bit of bad news she always had a positive twist to make it seem better.

"I was with her the day she was diagnosed and the day she had her first surgery and also when her hair fell out. I became a bit of a mummy figure because she tried to protect mum from the worst of it.

"We were not only close sisters, we were best friends as well and you've no idea how hard it is, and still is. I still go to phone her and there are things I think 'I must tell Noleen that' and things that have happened that she wasn't here for.

"My brother Brian has had a baby girl who he called Rosa Noleen, which is lovely. We were all at her christening recently and Noleen should have been there. I miss her every day but it is times like that which are very hard to deal with."

Just months after losing Noleen the family faced another shock when her mum Rose was diagnosed with breast cancer last February.

Leanne says the illness hit her mum hard because it made her realise exactly what Noleen had to endure.

She says: "That was another kick in the teeth and it was particularly hard on mum because it made her realise exactly what Noleen had been through.

"I was taking mummy to the same places that I had been to with Noleen. She has had surgery and is over it now, but she lost her child and then came through cancer and it has been very hard for her and my dad."

Carrying on the good work of the charity in Noleen's memory has given Leanne and her family and friends something positive to focus on.

Pink Week has been such a great success with people across Northern Ireland helping to mark the 10th anniversary that Leanne and everyone involved have been greatly encouraged.

She says: "Noleen put so much hard work into the charity and she enjoyed it and the number of people who have been helped by it is extraordinary.

"It is great to have that legacy and that wee part of her still going. At the same time it is sad and quite hard to do it without her.

"As well as raising funds to help other people we also want to raise awareness and let people know we are here to help them. People can get in touch with us directly.

"We do appreciate, and are so grateful for, every penny we receive and we love the opportunities it gives us to meet new people and through our support groups many of the girls have formed great friendships. "

Funds raised during Pink Week will be used to provide financial support to breast cancer patients and their families throughout Northern Ireland. For further information go to www.PrettynPink.org

Belfast Telegraph

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