As the Ulster Cancer Foundation today gets a new name, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, Lisa Rodgers, from Belfast, tells how the charity helped the family come to terms with their loss.
One of Northern Ireland’s leading and best known cancer charities is changing its name. Cancer Focus Northern Ireland will be the new title for the Ulster Cancer Foundation.
Chief Executive Roisin Foster says: “As the Ulster Cancer Foundation we had a very proud history and more than 40 years’ experience of supporting cancer patients and their families in Northern Ireland.
“Every year we’ve helped more than 3,000 people living with cancer — men and women, young and old, with all types of cancer and at all stages of illness.
“We’ve funded five major research projects, reached 60,000 people with our cancer prevention services including 29,000 school children, campaigned for patients’ rights and every year we invest more than £3.5m in our local community.
“Changing our name will not change the work we do or the services we provide free of charge — these things will never change — and as Cancer Focus we remain absolutely committed to helping and supporting local cancer patients.
“What will change is the number of people we want to reach and support. At present there are 70,000 families in Northern Ireland living with cancer — a huge number of people.
“Our goal is to reach out to as many of them as possible by extending our services and bringing them to more venues across Northern Ireland.
“We are very grateful to the tireless support that we’ve had from the local community over the years and we hope that you will continue to join us on our new journey as Cancer Focus Northern Ireland — your local cancer champion.”
We talk to one family that has been using the services of the charity and the woman who has been their invaluable help in times of crisis.
‘Now we’re creating our new memories’
Lisa Rodgers, who lost her husband Colin to cancer three years ago, lives in Belfast with her children Holly (10) and Katie (8). Lisa says:
Eight years ago my life was perfect. Colin and I had our two gorgeous girls. Holly had just turned two and Katie was only six months old. We’d just had a fantastic holiday in San Pedro and we were busy decorating our ‘forever’ house in Belfast — the one you know you’re going to stay in for life.
But then Colin began feeling serious pain across his ribs. After a blood test in February 2005 he was diagnosed with myeloma. He was only 39.
Why it should happen to Colin we’ll never know. There’s no rhyme or reason to cancer.
Colin’s public face was to never to feel sorry for himself, to put others at ease and help them come to terms with his illness. But privately, every time he looked at his little daughters, knowing he wouldn’t see them grow up, it tore him apart.
Over the next four years there were so many ups and downs. By 2008, the treatments were becoming less effective. On Valentine’s Day the next year, I remember sitting on Colin’s bed when he said: ‘One of these times I go into hospital, it could be the last.’ I answered ‘Yes, but it’s not this time.’ He was right and I was wrong.
Colin died on February 28, 2009. Holly was six and Katie had just turned five.
It’s hard to describe the terrible place that exists on this earth when someone so close to you dies. You can only imagine how devastated we were. For such a long time all we could think of were the things we had lost. We missed the sound of his voice and his laughter.
I missed holding his hand and the girls missed being carried on his shoulders. The future without him just seemed to stretch out into darkness.
I had to carry on with life, the girls still needed fed, looked after and ferried to school. But on my own during the day I spent a lot of time staring into space or getting angry with everything.
I’m not a talker — and I certainly did not want to confide in anyone. The only person I really wanted to speak to was Colin.
In September 2009, after hearing about the lovely family support group which Rachel Smith runs at Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, I decided to bring the children along.
Holly and Katie really have been little stars throughout but I was worried that they may have some unresolved issues when they were older, so I thought I should take them somewhere where everyone was in the same boat — where everyone understood.
We cautiously attended our first meeting. I expected to drop the girls off, go for a walk, and pick them up later. But the aim of Cancer Focus is to help the bereaved partners open up too. Just by sitting having a coffee with other wives and husbands, with Rachel carefully steering the conversation, over time I began chatting about the difficulties and the stresses I faced, the memories and the future.
Holly and Katie began to look forward to their ‘party nights at the cancer club’ (sorry, that’s what they’re called in our house), where no awkward questions are asked and there’s no danger of anyone putting their foot in it like Santa telling them to give their daddy an extra big kiss before going to bed on Christmas Eve — which happened the first Christmas after Colin died. Before long Rachel started visiting us at home.
In the few years leading up to Colin’s death, my mum, dad and sister had all died too, and of course Colin had been ill for four years.
Our house was full of paperwork and lists huge lists of things that needed to be done following a close relative’s death.
So much had built up and was shuffled from room to room, pushed under beds or even dumped in the roof space.
I was also made redundant shortly after Colin died.
All I did was worry about everything I had to do, but I had no idea where to start.
I was in a rut, but Rachel soon got me into shape. She helped me prioritise what was worrying me and set me tasks that I could do.
Two and a half years after joining the support group, we are in a different place. I have sorted out my parents’ affairs and my children are no longer afraid to go upstairs on their own and stay in their own beds the whole night, and I have two part-time jobs which fit in around school hours.
We still miss Colin unbelievably — we always will. But we laugh more now. We’re creating new memories and we can look forward to the future and smile.
Colin’s gravestone says ‘Lived well, laughed often and loved much’ — we want to be able to say that too.
‘We laugh and cry at our groups’
Rachel Smith (38), family support service co-ordinator with Cancer Focus, has been helping Lisa, Holly and Katie. She has a degree in drama and theatre studies and a post graduate qualification in drama therapy. She says:
I’ve worked in family support with various employers for 19 years, including running a project for children affected by substance abuse, helping children in care and working with girls with profound eating disorders.
My real passion is supporting children and families when an important adult’s illness is affecting a young person.
I love my job with Cancer Focus — I help children and families when a mum or dad has cancer or where a family has lost a loved one to cancer. We’re really grateful that staff and customers at Northern Bank have raised more than £200,000 to fund our Family Support Service, enabling us to help families throughout Northern Ireland.
It means families can meet and support each other, or be supported on a one to one basis in their own homes. I help them deal with their issues of cancer and loss through creativity and conversation.
I love that I can help people communicate about such a difficult subject and take the fear out of it.
For children, you can untangle the mess in their heads. I like to hear them laugh and be able to express themselves even when things are really tough at home. At our groups we laugh and cry in equal measure.
I like being able to support people who are struggling after the loss of a loved one and helping them to lead a full life again. I enjoy doing the best I possibly can, creating a positive environment for the children and seeing them grow and blossom and become amazing young people. It’s fantastic, too, when you see someone getting better after treatment.
It’s so rewarding knowing you’re making a difference to someone who’s on a really tricky journey and to be able to give people time when they are hurting emotionally and need someone there.
Outside work, I give respite foster care to children, and I’m passionate about the environment and outdoor swimming. In September I’m doing a sponsored 10k swim along the Hudson River in New York to raise much needed funds for Cancer Focus.”
For more information on Cancer Focus and the Family Support Service click on www.cancerfocusni.org or tel 028 9066 3281.