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After losing mum at 33 studio Souk owner Linzi having double mastectomy to stay alive

Studio Souk owner and mum of two daughters, Linzi Rooney, from Belfast, lost her mum to breast cancer aged 33. Here, she tells Davina Gordon why she has elected to have a mastectomy at 31

On the eve of her surgery, effervescent flame-haired entrepreneur and mother-of-two, Linzi Rooney (31), has talked frankly about why she is having a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction.

She says: "People are divided about the procedure, they wonder why I am putting myself through it. But when I put my mind to something, I'm very blinkered."

Linzi, a former photographer and silversmith, and now successful business woman, lives with partner Mark (38) and their two children, Macie (5) and Adeline (nine months), in Belfast. She is CEO of Studio Souk, an arts and crafts shop and creative working space for artists. The bustling hub on Ann Street was borne of a dream Linzi had back in 2013 - to have her own workspace to go to, rather than spend hours alone in her home studio. Fast forward to present day and the gifted crafter now nurtures the creative visions and goals of 90 artists.

When not in the office - even though she admits that Studio Souk is part of her DNA - she nurtures the needs of her two young girls. She describes motherhood as "amazing, rewarding and exhausting," and, of course, the reason she is going through with the life-changing procedure.

Around 1,200 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Northern Ireland each year. While there are many variables as to why women develop the disease, statistics show that bilateral mastectomy reduces the risk of breast cancer up to 90% in women with a high risk of developing it. Linzi was just 15 when her mum, Mandy, died of the devastating disease at the age of 33. While Linzi doesn't know for sure whether she carries a mutated version of the BRCA1 gene, which exposes women to an 85% risk of breast cancer, she says resolutely "my mum is dead and I've no sisters and I'm about to turn 32. It doesn't matter whether I do or not. I'm high risk. That's it."

The procedure, which will take a few hours and leave her bed-bound for up to five days, has always been on her mind.

"My mum was diagnosed when I was eight and died when I was 15. The period when she was sick forms a large portion of my memories. I remember doing my homework in hospital."

Linzi admits the journey to her surgery was a long one, but she was doggedly determined. She began the process with her GP, influenced by old school friends, and of course, becoming a mother. When she had her second little girl, Adeline, she worried that she was putting the process off. "After her, I thought, this is it. I'm a ticking time bomb, I have to think about my kids. It's also the psychological benefits. I refuse to let it choose my fate. As you get older you become more aware of the role genetics play."

Her innate strength of character saw her see the long process through. "My dad is a really cautious person but I was very proactive. I don't want my kids to go through what my family and I went through. I'd be living in fear."

Mandy was stoic throughout her seven-year battle with cancer. "Mum had a lump removed, then her breasts, then in between periods of remission, it moved to her liver, back and caused a brain tumour."

Despite her obvious suffering, Linzi describes her free-spirited and good-humoured mum as "amazing, really strong and always there".

"Unlike me, she never let her job define her. She was a care assistant, a civil servant and stacked shelves in Asda. She was such a social butterfly, always going out with her friends, playfully goading them to get things for her because she was sick, going to tombola and theatre and embarrassing me," Linzi smiles. "She was like Princess Diana, even in the way she wore her hair."

However, when she looks back at old photos, she's shocked at her mum's appearance. "I see how ill she looked, which you don't notice when you're a teenager and it's your mum."

After her untimely death, Linzi says their dad, Alan, wanted to get back to normal straight away. She admits they "didn't deal with it" and adds, "it might have been better if we'd grieved."

"I became the woman of the house as well as being a typical rebellious teenager. I was looking out for my little brother David, now 30, and getting on with day-to-day life. But, she counters "there is no right way to grieve. That's how I would deal with it now, although, there is a lot more help available and death is less of a taboo subject.

"We're a very close-knit family but the dynamic really changed. Mum was the disciplinarian." And there are other aspects of her mum's death that now come into her mind. "I remember studying for my French GCSE oral and thinking, 'I can't say my family is four anymore, it's three'."

One of the ways Linzi has kept her mum's memory alive is with her bespoke jewellery business Elephant Juice, so called because Mandy used to doodle pictures of cute elephant bums on notepads: "She was mischievous as a child, miming the words 'elephant juice' to classmates making them think she was saying 'I love you'."

Linzi says she also suffered from postnatal depression after the birth of her first child Macie. "Having a baby was a major shift in life. I was party Linzi, I didn't feel ready to be a mum." Now, though, she sees the emotional reaction to becoming a parent as a catalyst to finally dealing with her mum's death.

And, she says the trauma of losing a parent as a teenager has made her a stronger person. "Being a girl, I'm protective and I do miss having a mum. People are overly sensitive when they talk about their mums in front of me. But, I don't even know if we would get on now. But it's made me determined and proactive about health, about future-proofing. It makes me appreciate things."

Rather than being nervous, Linzi says she's looking forward to the procedure, but "not the six-week recovery".

"I won't be able to pick up the girls or push Macie on a swing. There'll be lots of resting which I'm not very good at."

Like all surgery it isn't without its complications. She lists them off the top of her tongue quite matter of factly, "there's a risk of infection and displacement. There's the psychological aspect too, losing your womanhood and desensitisation which can affect sex - but you undergo counselling to deal with it all."

Linzi is opting for her breast tissue to be completely removed and then to have implants fitted. Following that, there will be tests done to assess whether she'll need any more surgery. On a positive note, she feels that the often negative stigma attached to mastectomy is slipping. Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate are high profile BRCA1 gene carriers who opted for a double mastectomy. Their stories helped bring breast cancer awareness into the social conscience.

"It's come on so much. Angelina has done it in an international way, I'm getting the message out in a local way," she adds.

Nothing is 100% of course, but Linzi affirms, "you reduce the risk as much as you can."

Macie is blissfully unaware of the mammoth event her mum is undergoing, but Linzi laughs, "as long as there are sweets in the hospital, she'll be happy."

On the subject of her bubbly daughter, Linzi brightens when she chats animatedly about how she loves colouring in and glueing things. "She is very feisty but very affectionate. She adores cuddles and snuggles, just like her mum."

She also beams when chatting about partner Mark, a clothes shop owner and occasional DJ, adding: "He is very supportive and just wants me to be happy."

Family is Linzi's top priority although she is at pains to point out the importance of a work/life balance.

"I was working on a payroll and answering emails four weeks after Adeline was born.

"But family is everything. I couldn't imagine life without my girls. My work is important to me, but I'm careful to integrate kids into my working life. It's about letting them see the hard work that goes into building a business. I'm not happy just being a mummy. In fact, I know I will be a better mummy if I am fulfilled in my own life. If you're not, you just take it out on the people you love. Being a mum is the most difficult job in the world so you need to love who you are."

She adds: "Life is too short to spend eight hours a day doing something you don't enjoy. Learn and grow everyday, if you screw things up, you fix it."

Speaking of making mistakes, Linzi, who also works with the Department of Justice, helping young offenders rehabilitate, named Adeline after an offender called 'Joe' who inspired her. "She's called Adeline Joe, I thought it was fitting, as it's a positive message about getting second chances at life."

When it comes to her social life, Linzi likes to unwind with a glass of wine on occasion. "I enjoy a drink with dinner and having friends over, it's much more enjoyable that going out to a bar. And, I like knowing I can climb the stairs to fall into bed by midnight," she laughs. "Being hungover is a waste of a day. I don't mind a blow out every once in a while, but I really can't stomach it and I don't want to miss out on time with my girls."

As she ponders the free time she'll have as she recuperates, she shrugs and says: "I just have to accept it and switch off." One thing on her list is to read the new book about Princess Diana by Sally Bedell Smith. Linzi admits she loves a good conspiracy theory and has been an avid watcher of TV show Spying on the Royals.

As for her brainchild Studio Souk, the future looks rosy. "I want to keep working hard and grow Studio Souk into a bigger and better arts organisation and eventually make our own products. When I look at other business that have been around for more than 40 years and I think to myself, I'm doing alright. I can stop panicking."

And while most of us would baulk at the decision Linzi has had to face, she remains incredibly positive. When I ask her how she can be so upbeat, she adds simply "you have to be."

  • Visit actioncancer.org for details and support. Visit studiosouk.com for more details about Linzi's business

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