There’s always a silver lining
It's not every day you meet someone who is thankful for cancer.
But then again, it’s not every day you meet people like Noleen Adair. The 31-year-old — who could well have been talking about herself when she named her breast cancer charity Pretty n Pink — is fighting cancer for the fourth time, as the Community Telegraph visits her in the charity’s plush new office in Adelaide Street, just off Belfast city centre.
And, you would simply never believe it to look at her.
It’s a sprightly, stylish and healthy-looking woman who meets me outside the lift before leading the way to her office — the paint still fresh on the walls and various pink (of course) items spilling out of boxes.
We take a seat and she makes the amazing, aforementioned admission: “You know if someone said to me that a genie could come and give me a wish to change my past in some way, I’d say ‘no’.”
Noleen’s claim is said with so much conviction that there’s hardly an explanation required. But regardless, she points to her charity, which she started after being diagnosed with cancer for the second time, which is the only registered breast cancer charity in Northern Ireland.
The money raised by Pretty n Pink is used to directly help women with breast cancer and their families, working closely with the social work team in the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre at the City Hospital and further afield.
Their funds have been used for everything from travel costs, so a patient didn't have to depend on family providing transport, to private cleaning firms for those suffering from cancer to reduce the stress on them at home.
It’s the people Noleen has met through the charity that she wouldn’t change for the world though. One, she tells me, is a young woman who has turned to making her own jewellry to help her get through her diagnosis and is now running her own stall at various Belfast fashion shows. Another is a lady working as a nurse with cancer patients who never mentions that she too has taken a bullet from cancer’s indiscriminate aim.
Another is an enterprising friend who has developed a new range of head scarves for patients.
She could go on.
“We are all young girls and are support for each other,” says Noleen of her friends.
“I feel so privileged to have met these people. It’s terrible that cancer has touched us all, but I would never change it. Not in a million years.”
Noleen is understandably proud of the extraordinary journey that she has came on — one which started when the illness struck her at the tender age of 22 when she was working her way up as a manager in the retail sector.
“I had a lump on my breast, which I chose to ignore for a period of time, perhaps up to a year. I was convinced I was too young (to have cancer).
“Then one day I took it upon myself to see the nurse. She referred me straight away to my doctor who referred me to Belfast City Hospital. Within weeks I was told I had breast cancer and that I would have chemotherapy and surgery,” she explains.
Despite leaving it so long to see her doctor, Noleen beat the cancer and returned to full health.
However, three years later she took pains in her back which she assumed was a lung problem.
“I went to hospital on a number of occasions and was sent away with chest infections and what not. The last thing people thought was that it was going to be cancer again. But it returned to my bones, my T-10 bone on my back. I had to go through it all again,” she says.
As Noleen faced her second battle with the life-threatening illness, she was still only 25. Looking back, she doesn’t know how she coped.
“When I got through the first diagnosis of breast cancer, I think I went back to being normal — to being me again. But, when you are diagnosed a second time, a defence mechanism kicks in. I was just determined to get through it once more.
“I would consider myself to be a very nervous person and not very confident, would you believe.” she jokes.
“But, all of a sudden you are diagnosed again and you have to ask yourself ‘right what do I have to do here’?
“People will say I was very unlucky but even when diagnosed for the second time, I saw the positives. Yes, it had came back but it wasn’t the end of the world. There were treatments available, things that doctors could do. The best thing I could do was to fight it again.
“People wouldn't normally associate breast cancer with young women, but it does happen. Even though I’d been through it once and should have been super cautious, I wasn’t.
“For me it was just a case of ‘ah it’s just a pain’. My sister and I had been to see Westlife concert at the Odyssey and I had climbed over the seats as she had got up on stage with them.
“Straight away I convinced myself that I had pulled a muscle in my back doing that. When I look back I wonder why I didn’t go to see someone within a week of having these pains.”
The charity was launched through her desire to support others. “I thought ‘right I’ve gone through all of this and I’m not going to keep it to myself’. I thought if I tell my story, it will make people aware that you can get breast cancer at a young age and I could share wee tips based on what I went through.
“It’s difficult to eat when you are going through chemotherapy, for example. But I had learned after going through it a second time that you could take fluids, lots of soups, or drink smoothies.
I wanted to share these wee tips
with people — it’s free to tell after all.
“I had also lost my hair and the first time I had to pay money towards my wig. Then there was the cost of travel. I had watched families come and go to Belfast City Hospital from places like Omagh and Derry — and these are costs that you just don’t anticipate.”
All of these things inspired Noleen to set up Pretty n Pink, which boomed in its first year, raising a total of £15,000, through activities such as abseils, marathons and skydives.
Noleen, of course, threw herself into it (or out of it — literally).
“Well if I was asking 20 or 30 people to jump out of a plane at 13,000 feet, I had to do it too. It was an amazing experience.”
Back on the ground too, Noleen was enjoying her newly-found role as a fundraiser. “It was about turning a negative into a positive. I was enjoying myself, it took my mind off cancer. It actually made me feel better.
“I had to attend all these fundraising events, whereas, when you are sick you are sometimes inclined to stay at home and bury your head under the illness but, when you are getting out and about, you are meeting people and hearing their stories. The more people talked, the more things seemed okay. You walked away from every situation feeling so much better. It was so therapeutic.”
But, when Noleen had a rare quiet moment to herself, one thought relentlessly haunted her; the thought that one day her cancer would return and stop her from carrying out her charity work, which she had grown to love.
Tragically, her fears were realised in May 2008 when a routine scan showed cancer in her liver.
A now well-rehearsed Noleen prepared herself for the fight yet again, but a further blow awaited her. One year later, a “few complications” resulted in the cancer spreading to her lungs — three tumours were subsequently found on her left lung.
Today sitting in her city office, she says her illness remains but is “under control” and claims she is “lucky” as the tumours were caught at a reasonably early stage.
I remark that she looks healthy despite her long-running battle with cancer.
“That’s the hardest part,” she replies.
“In the eyes of everyone else, I look well. But, I’ve lost my hair three times and been through the worst of the stages that people with cancer go through; losing my hair, my eye lashes, my eyebrows.”
But, it’s not just the cancer fight she is winning that gives Noleen reason to smile. Despite her battle, she and husband Gavin have become foster carers; and as we talk, he foster daughter Caroline (19), is enrolling for the second year of her fashion management degree at Belfast Met.
Again, Caroline says she has cancer to thank for her relationship with Caroline.
“I realised I wasn’t going to be able to have kids of my own as I was continually on treatment, so my husband and I decided on fostering.”
The future for Noleen — like any cancer patient — remains uncertain. But, for the first time in a long time, she is looking beyond the illness which has invaded her life.
“Well I remember back in December getting an invite to a gala ball which was taking place in October, and I wasn’t so sure. But, that gala ball is now only a matter of weeks away and I’m still here.
“Now, I’m planning my business plan for 2011 — something I never thought I would do.”
Noleen smiles and you can’t help but admire the woman you sense that cancer, for all its dangers, just can’t beat.