'Cancer almost robbed me of the chance to have kids, but now look at my beautiful girl'
Stephanie Bell meets Carrickfergus mum Jade Chambers, who is sitting pretty with a very special tribute to her courage at beating her illness
It's a special place for Jade Chambers which she has associated with happiness since she was a little girl and where she has celebrated most of the major milestones in her life.
Now a tiny corner of her beloved Ulster Folk Museum, in Co Down, will be forever Jade's thanks to a unique charity initiative launched by Cancer Research UK and Channel 4.
In a twist on the usual plaque dedications which are normally placed in memory of a loved one, Jade has been given her own bench at the museum with the engraving: "Jade Chambers loved sitting here ... and still does thanks to everyone who Stands Up To Cancer."
Jade's bench – given to her by Cancer Research UK – is one of a series being placed around the UK as part of Stand Up To Cancer, which aims to raise money to fund vital research to get better treatments to cancer patients faster.
The location has special significance for the 26-year-old civil servant and mum of one from Carrickfergus. It is where she spent the best days of her childhood, where her husband Paul (28) also a civil servant, proposed to her, where she got married, the place she chose to celebrate her pregnancy with daughter Lily, now aged two, by getting 'bump' pictures taken and also where she visits every year on her birthday.
Having been told in 2003 that she had an aggressive and advanced form of Hodgkin's Lymphoma which she had little hope of surviving, and which would likely leave her with no chance of ever having a family, Jade has even more reason to cherish happy days spent in her favourite spot.
Thanks to the Stand Up To Cancer campaign she now hopes that more people like her will be able to go on and enjoy life and create precious moments with their loved ones.
"When I was going through cancer there was no hope and no stories of people surviving which would have given me hope," she says. "It all seemed so much focused on the negative.
"It's unbelievable and such an honour to be given the bench and to be able to put my story out there.
"I was in the really late stages and told I might not survive and would not have children but here I am, happily married with a beautiful little girl and proof that it can be beaten."
Like so many others, Jade's cancer diagnosis came completely out of the blue. She was just 15 and studying for her GCSEs at Ulidia Integrated College in Carrick without a care in the world when suddenly her weight started to fall dramatically and she began to feel ill.
It was a few weeks before she went to her GP and within just days of that visit she underwent hospital tests and was told immediately that she had an aggressive grade four tumour the size of a fist located between her heart and lungs.
"I was a teenager and cancer wasn't even on my radar, it didn't even enter my mind," she says. "I had been losing weight and drinking loads and loads of water. Then I got a bad cough which I just got medicine for and hoped would go away.
"I then started to feel really weak and we realised I wasn't getting any better; my weight was down to six and a half stone which for me, being tall, was very low.
"My parents took me to our GP who did tests but nothing came back and because she couldn't explain it, she referred me to the City Hospital where I had X-rays and more blood and urine tests.
"As I was getting these tests done, I did think this is kind of serious but cancer never once occurred to me."
The shock of her diagnosis was so great that Jade doesn't remember a thing of the moment that the consultant informed her and her parents. While Jade believes her parents never told her the full extent of the prognosis she was aware from the start that there was little hope of survival.
A very aggressive form of chemo had to be started immediately and the first 12-hour session given through a vein in her wrist was such agony that Jade has never forgotten it.
"It was the most excruciating pain I have ever felt in my life – and I have had a baby," she says. "It was very high strength chemicals and it burned as it went into me; the pain was just unbearable and it went on for the whole 12 hours."
She then underwent a tracheotomy to have tubes inserted in her neck and shoulders to receive her chemo, which continued every fortnight for a year. It was just after this procedure when, still in terrible pain, an annual family fun day organised by her dad's employers was to be staged in the Ulster Folk Museum, near Holywood.
For as long as she can remember Jade had attended the event organised by Shorts for their employees' families. Despite how ill she was, Jade insisted she couldn't miss it.
It holds very happy childhood memories for her and is the reason why the museum has such a special place in her heart.
"I remember thinking this could be my last ever trip to the Folk Museum and the fun day," she says. "The procedure to have the tubes inserted in my neck and shoulder was so major that my dad was concerned and didn't want me to go.
"I was so determined and so stubborn that I insisted on going. I remember walking about with my head on my shoulder because I was in so much pain but I had a great time."
Life as Jade knew it changed completely in the next year as she battled the deadly disease. Her high-dose chemo continued every fortnight for 12 months when she sat for eight hours in the City Hospital with other cancer patients receiving their treatment. "Sitting in that room for eight hours, none of us had any hope; we were just staring at each other and it was very hard," she says.
"I would spend the next four days throwing up and I couldn't look at sunlight because it would burn my face and skin because the chemicals going into me were so strong.
"In fact I had to take a whole host of other medicines to counteract the damage to my body by the chemo.
"I am an only child and it was such a tough time for my parents. My dad had to work night shifts so that he could be with me during the day and my mum worked during the day so that she could be with me at night. I only realise now that I am a mum myself how terrible it must have been for my parents to go through that with me.
"I was home schooled and did sit four GCSEs but I had to do my fifth year again the next year when all of my friends moved to Lower Sixth, which was hard. Not being able to go out with my friends or go to school was very tough at 15, but I'm lucky it worked and I beat it."
Jade was joyous at being given the all clear against the odds. However, there was another blow when she was told that the chemo had left her unable to have children.
Just a couple of years later she met her husband Paul who, on October 16, 2008, chose her favourite place, the Ulster Folk Museum, to propose to her.
The couple then planned their wedding at the museum for May 7, 2010, in the tea rooms which proved a beautiful and special day.
They returned to what has now become a special place for both of them two years later to celebrate the incredible news that they were expecting a child.
"The wedding was just beautiful and we had after-hour access to the whole town and we had our pictures taken at the farm," says Jade.
"I know it sounds a bit cheesy but we went back and did our pregnancy 'bump' pictures in the same places we had our wedding pictures taken.
"I had to tell Paul when we were getting serious that the chances were we could never have a family. That was a hard conversation to have.
"Finding out I was pregnant was like a miracle, though, and we couldn't believe it. I was beside myself as it had been pretty much set in stone that I wouldn't be a mum because my body had been damaged so much by the chemicals.
"I was frightened throughout my pregnancy that my body wasn't able to give Lily what she needed but it was fine, there were no complications.
"Lily is just wonderful. She is just perfect, a right little chatterbox and the cutest little thing.
"Not only did my parents face losing their only daughter but I survived and now they have a little granddaughter who is the apple of their eye."
And although Jade is looking forward to spending time sitting at her bench, right now she's urging everyone to join her and Stand Up To Cancer.
"I'm delighted that this fantastic bench has been dedicated to me," she says.
"It's such a great way of showing that people can survive this devastating disease.
"I hope everyone who sees it will be inspired to help create more tomorrows for people like me and my family by getting involved in the campaign and raising money for lifesaving research."
Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK's spokesperson for Northern Ireland, says: "We are used to seeing benches dedicated to people who have passed away, so we hope this unusual inscription will encourage people to think and reflect on the incredible progress that's been made in the last 40 years.
"More people are surviving cancer than ever before."
Standing up to a deadly disease...
- Every hour someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer
- In the 1970s, only one in four people here would survive cancer. Today two in four survive and in the next 20 years, Cancer Research UK aims to accelerate progress to see three in four people survive the disease
- Stand Up To Cancer took place for the first time in the UK in 2012 and raised over £8m for ground-breaking research.
- This year, there are many ways to get involved and help save lives. Supporters can register for a free Stand Up To Cancer fundraising kit bursting with great ideas on how to raise money
- A wide range of stylish clothing and accessories for men, women and children is also available online now at www.standuptocancer.org.uk. Selected accessories are also available in Cancer Research UK shops
- For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, tel: 0300 123 1022, visit the website www.cancerresearchuk.org or follow the charity on Twitter and Facebook