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When Larne woman Valerie was told she'd breast cancer, she went to pieces... while her colleagues went to work, raising cash to help find a cure

Valerie Meek, from Larne, was devastated to be diagnosed with the disease at just 42. But then she fought back, with a little help from her friends. Stephanie Bell reports.

There could have been no greater show of support from her colleagues for Valerie Meek when she returned to work after a year of aggressive treatment for breast cancer

The 50-strong team at Eircom in Belfast gave Valerie the best welcome back gift ever by adopting a charity close to her heart.

Not only are staff raising funds for the Friends of Cancer Centre – which made a huge difference to Valerie during radiotherapy treatment – but many are also volunteering their time and expertise to help the charity.

"It's lovely and very heartwarming to think that when deciding which charity to support this year that my colleagues took my illness into account," says Valerie.

"We are six months into our year and already we have exceeded our fundraising target of £5,000 by raising over £6,000."

Valerie (42), who lives in Larne with her partner Mark, joined Eircom as New Business Development manager four years ago.

Just two years into her new role, her world was turned upside down when she found a pea-size lump under her arm. Within just 24 hours she was faced with the frightening news that she had cancer.

She recalls: "I was very lucky that through work I have private medical insurance which is why I got a diagnosis so quickly.

"I was just sitting at my kitchen table and went to scratch under my arm and felt this lump which was like a hard pea.

"I rang my GP the next morning and he saw me later that day and got me referred that night to the Ulster Clinic.

"At first everything seemed really positive and apparently, if it is a round lump, that's a good sign, so initially I wasn't overly concerned.

"But after the mammogram they did an ultra sound and it was then they suspected that it wasn't as positive as they had at first thought."

Valerie was given two biopsies and was stunned to hear she had cancer. "My nerves just left me and I went to pieces. When you hear that word you are gobsmacked and it's a bit surreal as well.

"Yet, while it might sound strange, I also found that after that initial shock I soon learned to accept it and deal with it. I was in the fortunate position of getting an early diagnosis because the cancer did turn out to be Grade 3."

There was a further shock for Valerie when it was explained that she had what is known as triple negative breast cancer. It's a rare form of the disease which affects just 10% of breast cancer patients and was only discovered by researchers five years ago. The fact that it is not hormone-related like most breast cancer means that there is no targeted treatment such as Tamoxifin. Valerie recently lost an aunt to the same cancer.

As so little is still known about it, the fact that two people in the same family have this rare condition has also baffled her doctors.

"I didn't even know there were different types of breast cancer," she says.

"They don't know yet what the trigger factors are for triple negative and it was thought that maybe having multiple pregnancies or being overweight could contribute to it.

"But I have no children and I am by no means overweight so my case really didn't fit with the theories.

"I've had genetic tests which were clear and after losing my aunt a month ago to the same cancer I was told that it is unheard of for two females in the same family to have this type of cancer.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about the fact that there is no targeted treatment for it. But then I also know that I do have to try not to worry about every lump and bump or pain.

"I just have to try and put it into perspective."

Valerie had surgery to remove the lump in her breast and then underwent six months of gruelling chemotherapy, during which her weight dropped by a stone and a half and she lost her hair.

"I think the fear of losing my hair was worse than when it actually happened," she says now. "I had been told I would lose it on day 21 and before that I got it cut short. Previously, I'd always worn it in a shoulder length bob.

"You can actually see your hair dying, it becomes really coarse and lifeless. And it did start to fall out on day 19, which is when I got it shaved.

"I had two wigs which I wore once and never put on me again. I felt very self-conscious wearing them. When you see someone with a wig you tend to look twice, it's human nature, but it made me feel uncomfortable."

After chemotherapy, Valerie then faced radiotherapy which is where she first came across the Friends of Cancer Centre at the City Hospital in Belfast.

Not only did she see the massive impact the charity is having on cancer patients in Northern Ireland, but due to her own rare form of the disease Valerie also feels passionate about the fact that the Friends also support research. Earlier this year, the charity teamed up with the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) at Queen's University, Belfast, to provide a £900,000 funding injection for research into clinical trials – medical research trials involving patients – over the next three years.

The charity also backs cancer research by funding a number of other projects, including the Northern Ireland Cancer Trials Centre and the Northern Ireland Biobank.

Over the next three years, Friends of the Cancer Centre has committed over £2m to local cancer research alone.

The charity also works to support cancer patients, their families and carers through patient comfort and care, clinical care and providing equipment. Valerie says: "So little is known about the cancer I had and it brings it home to you the value of research.

"I have seen at first-hand the good work the charity does on the ground where they try to make going through treatment as pleasant as possible for people."

After a year of battling the disease, Valerie was able to go back to work. Colleagues have also been giving a day a week to the charity devoted to any activity the charity feels is of most benefit to them.

Through the Eircom team, Friends have been receiving valuable support on website development, internal communications, help with a gala ball fundraiser and accounts training – support which has saved the charity money that can now be used in front-line services. Valerie now attends hospital for regular six-month checkups and is trying her best to get life back to normal.

Her traumatic battle with cancer has given her a new outlook on life.

She adds: "It does change you and you do look at things differently. I don't tend to get wound up about little things anymore. Every day is precious and I couldn't urge women enough to be very vigilant.

"Nobody expects it to happen to them."

  • If you would like to support Friends of the Cancer Centre, visit www.friendsofthecancercentre.com or telephone 028 9069 9393

How others should help fund raise

Colleen Shaw, chief executive of Friends of the Cancer Centre, puts into perspective just what it has meant to the charity for Valerie and her colleagues at Eircom to lend their support. She says:

"The team at Eircom has been wonderful and we've been completely overwhelmed by how they have really got behind the charity.

"It's very clear that, due to Valerie's experience and her time receiving treatment at the Cancer Centre, the charity means an awful lot to them and they want to do their bit to say thank you for the great care and support she received.

"We've only been their nominated charity for a few months, but already the team has raised a phenomenal sum of money for us with their own events.

"As important as their fundraising and financial support is, they have also been able to offer us their time, which for a small organisation like ours is priceless.

"The team has been kind enough to let us tap into their knowledge and expertise in IT by offering us great advice and guidance.

"Each month, a member of the Eircom team also volunteers their time by coming to our office to assist with a variety of tasks, including putting together fundraising packs, packing envelopes and labelling collection buckets.

"While glamorous they are not, these tasks are vital and an extra pair of hands makes a huge difference to our small team.

"This is what makes the partnership so unique and valuable in our eyes.

"Being chosen as the charity of the year by a company like Eircom is really important to us, as it is to all local charities. Support from the local business community is vital and without it, we might not be able to support as many people as we do through the projects that we fund.

"I would encourage all businesses and organisations across Northern Ireland to follow in Eircom's footsteps by getting behind a local charity that supports local people. Their support could be life-changing and life-saving."

The charity backed by the stars

  • For most cancer patients and their loved ones, going to the purpose-built Northern Ireland Cancer Centre in Belfast's Lisburn Road is an essential part of their treatment
  • The centre provides treatment for people as in-patients and out-patients from all over the province and close relationships with fellow sufferers, staff and volunteers are formed on a daily basis
  • To anyone who needs the radiotherapy, chemotherapy and brachytherapy treatments, their experience is difficult and painful but something that has to be endured in the hope of recovery.
  • Friends of the Cancer Centre is a charity based in the centre at Belfast City Hospital and relies entirely on donations and the generosity of people across Northern Ireland. Among its many well-known supporters are rugby player Chris Henry and Cool FM's Connor Phillips.
  • It uses the funds that are raised by its supporters to fund projects which have a real and lasting impact on the lives of cancer patients as well as their families
  • The work of Friends of the Cancer Centre focuses on four key areas: Patient comfort and care, Clinical care, Research and equipment

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