Christmas and New Year is a poignant time in the calendar for the many Northern Ireland families who’ve lost someone dear to cancer — a time when relatives get together to remember, swap stories and recall happier days.
An important part of the work carried out by local charity Cancer Focus Northern Ireland is to offer lifeline support to families — particularly children, when a mum, dad, or a grown-up they love has cancer — and hopefully make Christmas, New Year and those other special occasions a little less difficult.
Cancer Focus Northern Ireland family service co-ordinator Rachel Smith says: “The children we help are our Little Stars. When an adult in a family is diagnosed with cancer, it affects everyone. And, for children and young people, this can be distressing, isolating and frightening.
“It can bring unwanted and dramatic changes to their lives and can affect their experience of school, relationships and their ongoing development.
“The question of how and what to tell children — of whatever age — can be daunting.
“We’re here to help deal with this difficult dilemma and some of the issues people face.”
And she adds: “We help families cope with one of the most traumatic times they will ever go through.
“Our group activities mean that children can meet others in the same situation, so they know they are not alone, and they give parents and carers time out.
“We also do practical things; for example, younger children can learn about cancer through art, craft and play, which helps them open up about their fears and ask questions they can’t ask at home.
“Our family support workers can help make the time left with a loved one the most special time in the world. We help them create memory boxes to pass on memories of treasured times and encourage the whole family to build new ones — even during this intensely painful time. We hope that we can make that cancer journey just a little easier for the whole family, no matter where you live in Northern Ireland.”
Every year, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland holds its Little Stars Appeal over Christmas and the New Year to raise much-needed funds to help expand its family support service, so that more local families can benefit.
We talk to two families about their experiences following the death of a loved one, and how they benefited from the charity’s support.
Belfast dad David Vaugh (32) and sons Eoin (9) and Conall (6) tragically lost mum Jane a few days before Christmas 2013. David says:
Jane was a busy mum looking after our two sons when she was first diagnosed with a sarcoma in her heart.
She'd been experiencing breathlessness and flu-like symptoms, which doctors initially diagnosed as swine flu.
She collapsed one morning in November 2009 and decided to go to A&E, where doctors saw that her resting heart rate was over 140 beats per minute. At that point they started a series of tests which led to open heart surgery less than one week later.
The next three years were a rollercoaster of ups and downs for us all, resulting in more surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy for Jane.
Jane was an exceptional person, who kept going even when the going got tough. She never let her illness get in the way of what she wanted to do, she always looked lovely and had a smile on her face, no matter what news she received.
She remained strong for the boys, organising days out, weekends away, cinema trips - there was always something happening in between the hospital visits and treatment cycles. Her priority was keeping going for her boys and this permeated everything she did. Even while facing difficult challenges during her treatment, Jane's main aim was to care for the boys and keep things as normal as possible for them.
She was such a resilient person and an inspiration to us all.
Conall had only turned one and Eoin was four when Jane was diagnosed, so the boys have been through a lot for their age.
Jane decided to go along to the Cancer Focus Northern Ireland family support group with Eoin.
With the help of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, she also collated precious memories in books that we could look back at when she was gone. These are so important and are treasured by us all.
No one can prepare you for the day a loved one dies, but myself and the boys have attended the charity's family nights since January 2014 - Jane wanted us to - and this has helped support us all in many different ways through these early days.
Also, with the help of family, I've been able to keep the same routines going that Jane set up and I believe that these are even more important now. Jane was such a strong girl, with a positive outlook and a lot of people maybe didn't realise the severity of the illness she battled with daily.
She was so determined to keep going and lead a normal life.
Jane would have turned 30 in April 2014, so to mark this and celebrate her life we organised a black tie casino event called A Night to Remember. It was so successful. Everyone had a brilliant time and £12,000 was raised towards the important services provided by Cancer Focus Northern Ireland.
What made it so special was that Jane would have loved the night, as all her friends and family were there. With her positive attitude to life, Jane encouraged us all to keep going and that's what keeps us all moving forward every day - just like she did through the illness that she faced.
Her priority was the boys and it's my aim to continue her great work and ensure they have a very happy childhood.
I'm determined to continue to create lots of memories and make Jane proud of us all.
We talk about Jane all the time and the boys recount stories about their mummy.
It's important to us that we keep her memory alive, as she was such an inspiration and a special person to us all.
We miss her every day, but realise that we are lucky to have had her in our lives."
Sinead Diamond (17), her sister Niamh (15) and brothers Fionnbharr (12) and Oisin (10), from south Derry, between Bellaghy and Castledawson, lost their dad Danny to cancer six years ago. The family used the Cancer Focus Northern Ireland family support service for several years during this difficult time. Sinead says:
Daddy was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in June 2007. I'll never forget the day that mammy and daddy told me - I was 11 at the time, my sister Niamh was nine, Fionnbharr was six and Oisin three.
We were told that surgery would significantly affect his speech, his ability to swallow and would cause facial scarring. I thought his cancer was the worst kind imaginable. I didn't know a lot about cancer and didn't know why it was happening to my daddy. I was so frightened, confused and angry.
In April 2008, I met Rachel Smith (Cancer Focus Northern Ireland's family service co-ordinator). We'd just found out that daddy wasn't going to beat cancer.
Rachel was able to help me and my sister and brothers deal with our fears about death and cancer. I could ask her the hard questions that I felt I couldn't ask my family, who were hurting as much as I was. Rachel taught us how to live in spite of daddy's illness.
We were able to meet other kids at Cancer Focus Northern Ireland family nights, which really helped us understand that we weren't alone.
I used to think that, because daddy's cancer was on his face, no one could hurt as much as us. But I came to realise our hurt didn't come from where daddy's cancer was. It came from losing someone we loved so much.
Rachel helped daddy write down his thoughts and make a memory box for each of us. I'm now 17 and I still go through everything in the box whenever I need to.
I enjoy reading the things daddy has written especially for me. He tells me to "Enjoy life and live" - and I will. He tells me to "Hug your mammy, because I'm not there to do it anymore", and I do, lots. It makes me feel close to daddy and reassures me that he loves me, even though he isn't here anymore.
I'm glad my sister and brothers have their special memory boxes too. I don't want them to forget daddy. I have more memories of him than they do. The thing I remember most about him was his deep love and affection for us, and his practicality. It's consoling to know that daddy loved us so much, that even when he was so sick he put mammy and us first. He made sure that we could live without sadness and hope without regret. Thank, you daddy."
To find out more about Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s family support service, call 028 9066 3281, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.cancerfocusni.org.
If you’d like to make a donation to the Cancer Focus Little Stars Appeal, call 028 9066 3281, text STAR33 £5 to 70070, or donate online at www.cancerfocusni.org
Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s family support service includes: