Beautiful Armagh bride Sabrina Ryan died aged 32 - now her legacy is helping others
Sabrina Ryan, from Co Armagh, died at just 32 from a rare form of lung cancer that she had battled for five years. Her twin sister Donna tells Stephanie Bell how her heartbroken family are launching a foundation in her memory to help others living with the disease
Looking stunning on her wedding day it seems impossible that radiant new bride Sabrina Ryan was in fact fighting for her life. Diagnosed 18 months earlier at the age of 27 with an incurable and rare form of lung cancer, Sabrina who was a young, fit, non-smoking career girl amazed everyone by her positive attitude and determination to carry on making life as full as possible.
She set up a blog 'So She Knows' giving practical, fashion and beauty advice to others coping with cancer. It became a worldwide sensation, with more than 10,000 followers and led to her becoming a spokeswoman for the Irish Cancer Society.
After her wedding in August 2011, Sabrina, who was from Killeen, near Armagh, went on to face a number of gruelling treatments before sadly losing her battle with cancer in April 2015, aged just 32.
This weekend her identical twin sister Donna Ronan and family - brothers Shane, David and Cahill, parents John and Mary McNamee and husband Paul Ryan - will launch a new foundation in her memory to continue the good work she started with her blog.
The Sabrina Ryan Foundation aims to help reduce the emotional and lifestyle impact on cancer sufferers by paying for weekend retreats, reflexology, aromatherapy massages, wig purchasing and eyebroidery - many of the things which Sabrina wrote about in her blog and which helped her cope during her illness.
The foundation will be launched on Saturday with an inaugural black tie gala ball to be held in the Carrickdale Hotel in Co Louth.
Her sister Donna says it is a fitting way to get the foundation rolling as her sister loved the glitz of a big night out.
"She loved dressing up and going to fancy events, she loved the glitz and glamour so we thought it was appropriate to launch the charity in style," she says. "Sabrina was a ray of sunshine, she was so funny and so, so positive. She had unbelievable strength.
"She had quite a few seizures in her last year after the cancer spread to her brain, sometimes one or two a day and they would leave her very fatigued.
"I remember one day after she had a seizure I could see how much it had taken out of her and I helped her to bed. I thought she was resting but I popped up to check on her and she was sitting up in bed with her laptop doing her blog.
"She was using the last bit of strength she had to answer emails from blog followers and that just blew me away. She was struggling and yet she was trying to make someone else's life easier. She was so strong and so brave."
A couple of years before her diagnosis Sabrina, who worked as a fashion buyer, moved to Dublin with her twin sister Donna, who worked as a nurse in A&E in the city's Mater Hospital.
Donna said they were "living the dream" when their world fell apart with Sabrina's shock diagnosis just after Christmas in 2009.
Donna recalls: "She had a pain in her shoulder coming up to Christmas and had recurring chest infections, but we thought nothing of it as it was the time of year when everyone gets sick.
"When she still didn't feel well after Christmas I suggested she come up to A&E when I was on duty one night.
"She came up and we were both laughing and didn't think anything of it. She went for an X-ray and they suspected she had pneumonia, which shocked us, and she was admitted."
Within just 24 hours the girls were facing the worst news imaginable when Sabrina was told she had a rare form of lung cancer which usually strikes non-smokers.
While there was no cure, there was some hope in that doctors felt confident that chemotherapy could keep it under control.
Sabrina's distraught boyfriend Paul proposed to her in hospital and later whisked her off to Portugal for another romantic proposal on a beach.
Donna says: "As a family we didn't want a prognosis, we just focused on the news that the treatment could help keep it at bay.
"You associate lung cancer with older people who have been smoking 50 cigarettes a day for years, not with a young 27-year-old, fit woman who goes to the gym and doesn't smoke. It was such a shock for all of us.
"Sabrina was so positive and determined to try everything; she even took part in drug trials and managed to continue to work right up to two weeks before her wedding.
"She was in remission when she got married and she had a gorgeous fairytale black tie wedding and just looked like Sabrina - she still had her beautiful long blonde hair and she looked absolutely stunning."
Tragically within just two weeks of her wedding a routine scan revealed that the cancer had spread to Sabrina's brain.
She had to undergo radiotherapy which had horrendous side-effects. She lost her hair, eyelashes and eyebrows and had blisters on her scalp.
She also faced chemotherapy and after a year of treatment was left so weak she was forced to give up work and had to spend a lot of her time in bed.
Her sister got engaged in 2013 and was delighted that Sabrina was able to be her maid of honour when she got married in September of the following year.
Sabrina had started her blog and as she found ways to cope with her illness, she shared them with her thousands of followers.
Donna says: "When she lost her eyebrows she used to take pictures of herself with no eyebrows and then pictures showing how to draw eyebrows on and post them up on her blog.
"I remember mum taking her to get her eyebrows tattooed and she came out of the salon crying and mum was worried, but she was crying because she was so delighted. It was things like this she shared on her blog to help bring a bit of normality back into the lives of others.
"We saw first-hand as a family how a treat changed Sabrina's mental attitude and helped her to cope. Wee things like pedicures and manicures when she had finished chemo helped to lift her spirits and she always said it gave her back a wee bit of herself.
"That's what we hope to provide through the foundation."
As identical twins Donna and Sabrina shared a special bond. The sisters spoke constantly on the phone and saw each other every day.
Donna describes Sabrina as her soulmate and best friend and says that setting up the foundation in her sister's memory has helped her to cope with the devastation of her loss.
"A few days before she passed away I found out I was pregnant and I did the test in her room and she was so delighted for me," she says.
"My son Daniel has given me something to live for, he is my ray of sunshine now and I think without him I couldn't have gone on.
"There are some days I don't want to get out of bed and other days I just want to sit and cry. Setting up the foundation has helped with the grieving process.
"I hope I am making her proud. I want to keep her memory alive and build her legacy. I'm always talking about her and I want to talk about her and pretend she is still with me.
"I didn't want her blog to just go away. The foundation allows us to continue the work she started and I feel as if I have got a wee bit of Sabrina back.
"The aim of the foundation is to make someone smile and feel good about themselves while going through one of the hardest things any person should have to go through."
The Sabrina Ryan Foundation was granted charity status in September and a committee has been set up to process any requests for support from cancer patients or their families.
Donna paid tribute to her local community in Killeen who she said had rallied round to stage a number of fund raisers to help get the charity off the ground.
"We have been blown away by how good people are and by how much our local community has rallied round," she says.
"When people heard we planned to launch the foundation, they started to hold fundraising events all over the place. We really can't thank people enough."
For more information or to benefit from the Foundation or support it with a donation go to www.facebook.com/thesabrinaryan foundation