When skin cancer was first diagnosed, I was ready to die just to end my grief ...but now I want to fight illness as tribute to my son
A brave mother who helplessly watched her son die from skin cancer has spoken of her determination to beat the same deadly condition.
Ellen Bunting's son Robert was just 27 years old and happily married with two young daughters when he died last February - just 38 weeks after he was diagnosed with advanced skin cancer, known as metastatic malignant melanoma.
Less than a year after Robert's death, Ellen herself was diagnosed with the early stages of skin cancer.
The 50-year-old Belfast woman admitted that her first reaction was relief as she no longer wanted to live with the overwhelming grief of losing her son.
However, she said that the memory of Robert's fighting spirit helped her find strength to carry on. Ellen said she now owes it to her son to tell his story to try and save others from the deadly type of cancer.
In Robert's memory, the Bunting family have set up The U-Turn Project, which is aimed at transforming the lives of young people and providing education about skin cancer.
"Since Robert died we have been trying to keep busy to get the days in. It's his children I really feel for. Amelia will be six in August and Ella will be three in July. She was only eight months when he was diagnosed so she didn't get the opportunity to know him and he didn't get the opportunity to know her," said Ellen.
"Then there is Robert's wife Jennie. She's only 26 this year and she's a widow."
According to Cancer Research UK, 88% of men and 92% of women diagnosed with malignant melanoma are predicted to survive for five years or more.
Robert's case, however, was unusual as there was no known site of origin and therefore his condition went unnoticed until it was too late.
Robert worked for the family flooring and decorating business CB Contracts, so Ellen would see him every day.
In January 2014 she noticed that he appeared tired, but she put it down to work and looking after two young children.
"He had lost a bit of weight. He just wasn't himself. As the month progressed through January, I noticed he was limping. Robert was never ill in his life," Ellen told the Belfast Telegraph. "I pushed and pushed him to go to the doctor to get this thing with his leg checked. He eventually did and was sent for an X- ray. The results came back about 10 days later as a sebaceous cyst in his pelvis."
She added: "Further down the line it transpired this cyst was actually cancer in his bones."
Robert began to complain of sore heads and was vomiting in the mornings. He also discovered a lump under his arm, which the doctor thought was an infection of the lymph glands and prescribed antibiotics.
When the lump failed to subside, his family paid for a private ultrasound at the Ulster Independent Clinic.
"The doctor that did the ultrasound, it was just written all over her face at that point. She said there was something there and that they needed to do a biopsy. We were crying. His daughter Amelia said, 'Can I hold Daddy's hand?' and off she went. That was May 13, 2014," said Ellen.
On May 15, 2014 Robert was asked to visit his GP to discuss the results. "We had an idea it wasn't good. He delivered the diagnosis of cancer. At that stage we didn't know how advanced it was. The doctor suspected melanoma, but we just couldn't understand it. Robert hated the sun. He just avoided it at all costs. That's not to say though that he has never been burnt. At some stage in his life he has had a burning which has caused the melanoma," Ellen explained.
At the time of his diagnosis Robert's cousin, also called Robert, was himself undergoing treatment for skin cancer.
"We thought it was going to be a similar journey to big Robert, his cousin. In that case he had found a mole and it was removed. A follow-up review found it had spread to his other lymph nodes. He had a major operation and he is doing well. He is three years down the line. At the time of our Robert's diagnosis, we thought it is going to be like that."
However, at the time of diagnosis, Robert's cancer had aggressively spread throughout his body, into the lymph nodes, bones and organs.
Determined to fight, Robert started a severe form of treatment in June 2014.
However, due to severe side effects he could only complete half of the treatment plan.
A scan in October 2014 revealed that the cancer had spread to his spleen, his liver and there were now also spots on the brain.
"Melanoma is so severe. It travels and multiplies and grows so fast that you can't take it for granted. But Robert was still determined to keep fighting. He said he would try anything, he wanted to give it his best shot," said Ellen.
However, in January 2015 Robert and his family received the devastating news that there was no further treatment to help him. "We went for a review appointment at the Ulster Independent in January. It was the most horrible thing. The doctor said, 'Robert we are just going to leave it now son. There's nothing more'. My heart was just ripped out. I think from that point he just gave up," said Ellen.
"The decline in such a short space of time was terrible. Robert's cancer manifested itself on the outside in huge tumours.
Just a few weeks later Robert collapsed during a family dinner at his home and he was taken to the cancer unit in the City Hospital.
"He never came out. He went in on the Friday morning and died the following Friday, February 6. That was 38 weeks from the date of his diagnosis. It was the most horrendous time to witness it. Now it is hard without him, but to witness your child suffer like that is just horrific," Ellen said. Less than a year after Robert died, still grieving for her youngest son, Ellen received the shocking news that she herself had skin cancer.
"I had gone to the doctor for a few routine things. I was just getting ready to leave when something, maybe it was Robert, made me ask the doctor to look at a freckle on my arm. After all the research I had done into skin cancer, I knew it didn't look right but I still felt a bit silly showing her it," Ellen said.
She was referred to a consultant and the freckle was removed. On January 4 this year, she attended a review appointment with her doctor.
"The doctor came out and called my name. I knew at that point. I knew the look, I had seen it before. I knew what I was going into. I went into the room and the cancer pack was sitting on the desk," said Ellen.
"At that point, I have to be honest, I did think, 'That's okay, I'm getting out of here, I'm checking out, this grief is going to be finished with, I'm not going to have to deal with this anymore'. I know that was selfish but at that point I wasn't thinking about anyone else.
"But then I thought of how hard Robert fought for his life and I realised that life is precious."
Luckily Ellen's skin cancer was caught early and it had not spread beyond the primary site.
"Through my journey with Robert, I found my cancer early. If you get it early you can do something," she said.
Following his diagnosis Robert, his mother Ellen, father Colin and brother Aaron turned to Willowfield Parish Church in east Belfast for support and guidance. In Robert's memory and to show their gratitude to the church and the community for all their support, the family has founded a project, called The U-Turn Project, which is aimed at transforming the lives of young people.
Part of the project is the development of a state-of-the-art multi-use sports park situated behind Willowfield Church Hall on the Woodstock Road. Next week seven cyclists will take part in a 185-mile cycle around London to raise funds. The project will also aim to raise awareness of skin cancer and offer training opportunities for young people.
"It's about keeping Robert's name alive and keeping the focus on melanoma. I just feel I can't let Robert not be remembered in some way.
"We want other people to have a chance.
"Robert was a fighter. He gave it everything he had. He wouldn't want that hard fight to be in vain. He would want other people to know the dangers of this disease," Ellen said.
She added: "Our family unit will never be the same without Robert, there is an emptiness that will remain with us for ever. But I know in my heart that Robert would want me to share our story and hopefully help someone else to avoid the heartache and pain that we have experienced throughout his journey and will continue to feel for the rest of our lives."