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Co Armagh man's fitting tribute to wife who lost battle with bone cancer

 

Co Armagh father-of-two Barry Williamson, who lost his beloved wife Alison to bone cancer two years ago, tells Stephanie Bell why a new scholarship in her name which now has its first recipient is the best Christmas present ever.

Alison Williamson loved Christmas and at this time of the year she would have started preparing for the big day, creating lots of excitement at home for her husband and two young children.

Sadly, this Christmas her husband Barry (34), their daughter Mya (13) and son Rhys (9) will be facing the festive period without their beloved Alison, who they lost last year at the age of 31.

Even though they will be surrounded by a loving family on Christmas Day when they go to Barry's mum's house, for all three there will forever be the pain of that empty chair at the table.

This year the family has taken some comfort from sharing Alison's story in a major local charity campaign which aims to highlight that three in four people survive bone cancer, even though heartbreakingly she was one who didn't.

The poignant year-long charity campaign by Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI (L&L NI) called #EmptyChairs is drawing to a close with a tribute to the local mum who tragically lost her battle with a rare form of blood cancer in May 2016.

The #EmptyChairs series has run since January when the charity shared the stories of three survivors, followed by one person who didn't, then three again, and one who didn't.

They have just shared the final three survivors, and now Alison is the last chair being featured throughout December.

It is a fitting tribute as the charity was one which was close to Alison's heart, and since her loss Barry has devoted himself to raising funds for L&L NI in his wife's memory.

He says: "Alison loved Christmas and the campaign is very fitting.

"She made the house really festive and would have been in the middle of planning it right now.

"It is very difficult for us. The kids will miss their mum and there is an empty chair at our table but we have an absolutely fantastic family and good friends who will help us through."

Alison, who worked as a classroom assistant in Tandragee Primary School in her home town, was a devoted wife and mum.

A much-loved member of the community, she was well-known for her enthusiasm, energy, and mischievous sense of humour. She had a zest for life and was fiercely positive, no matter what challenge life threw at her.

Just recently, though, Barry, who was ably supported by churches, sports clubs and Orange Lodges in his community, raised a massive £70,000 to fund the very first Alison Williamson Studentship. And the first recipient of the three-year PhD scholarship, Harmony Black from Belfast, will now begin research into finding a cure for bone cancer.

And he has vowed to continue his fundraising efforts in a bid to provide ongoing lifesaving research in Alison's memory.

Barry describes her as having been "always on the go", so when she started feeling unwell in 2015 they both realised that something was wrong.

She saw her weight drop rapidly, closely followed by her energy levels. In August 2015, after numerous tests, she was diagnosed with Hepatosplenic T-cell Lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer.

After her diagnosis, Alison endured 50 days of chemotherapy, as well as a stem cell transplant. She moved from Craigavon Hospital, to Dublin, and finally Belfast City Hospital.

At one stage she was taking 53 tablets a day, but she never complained. It wasn't in her nature. Alison was prepared to undergo any treatments available which would give her the chance to spend more time with her family.

On May 14, 2016, in the Intensive Care Unit of Belfast City Hospital and nine months after her initial diagnosis, Alison lost her brave battle with the disease.

She is sorely missed by those close to her, who hold the memory of her love, her smile and shining personality in their hearts. She showed amazing courage throughout her illness and was an inspiration to many people, including Barry, who now fundraises tirelessly in her memory.

He says: "We knew something was wrong because she was tired all the time and would have had to lie down after work, and this was a girl who was full of life and always on the go.

"She had a lot of tests which didn't show anything and then had to have her spleen removed in hospital in Dublin because it was enlarged.

"They did blood tests and called us back for the results. When they gave us the diagnosis, I really wasn't prepared for it. It was a big shock and Alison's immediate reaction was that she was going to beat it, that's the type of person she was. I was the one who broke down.

"Her body went through a lot but she took it all on and just kept fighting and fighting.

"She had to take 53 tablets and four litres of water a day. It was a horrendous journey of sickness, pain and suffering for her, but Alison was prepared to do anything and she never gave up fighting right until the very end.

"It got to the stage when her body just couldn't take any more as she had been through so much having her spleen out and chemo after chemo.

"This girl fought and fought, she was amazing. Even when she was diagnosed she organised a charity morning in school for L&L NI.

"It has been extremely tough but we have a great family and good friends around us and I just had to step up for the children.

"Alison was a very devoted mother, she lived for her children, and she was an absolutely super mum. We had a very good friend in our local pastor here in Tandragee, Canon Shane Foster at St Mark's Church, Ballymore, who really helped me and the children in the early days and is still there for us now.

"We are kept busy and the kids know what I've done for charity. Mya is now at Banbridge Academy and both she and Rhys talk about their mum often and we go to the grave nearly every day."

Barry says he was inspired by Alison's courage in those last difficult months to do something to keep her memory alive and decided to fund raise for L&L NI, which is working on research to improve the chances of surviving blood cancer.

It is thanks to advances in research and treatments that three out of four people diagnosed with blood cancer in Northern Ireland survive.

Barry's fundraising began with a Night at the Races evening in Armagh Rugby Club.

Then in October last year he, along with his two brothers, cousin and friends, climbed the four highest mountains in the UK within a 48-hour period to raise awareness and funds.

Most recently, Barry and three friends completed 54 miles across the Scottish Highlands in just 24 hours.

Initially he had hoped to raise £20,000, but his four-peak climb alone brought in an astonishing £53,000.

In total to date Barry has raised over £70,000 for the charity, which is being used to fund a three-year PhD scholarship in memory of Alison.

Last week he met Harmony Black who was awarded The Alison Williamson Studentship in October this year.

Barry has no intentions of stopping and says he will continue to fundraise to celebrate Alison's life and, by doing so, help others suffering from blood cancer. He says: "I have the word 'inspirational' on Alison's headstone and she inspired me through my life. I want to keep her name going and it has also taken my mind off things and helped to keep me going.

"It's not just me but everybody around me who is supporting what I am doing. The local community has been fantastic and has held lots of fundraising events for the charity in memory of Alison.

"Top chef James Devine, who appeared on Masterchef, held a food-tasting night in Dungannon recently and raised £1,500, my neighbour cut her hair and there was a sponsored cycle, skydive, and a balloon release at the school where Alison worked.

"Ballymore Church in Tandragee gave £2,000 and the craft group of the church also gave £1,000.

"The City of Armagh Northern Ireland Supporters' Club donated £2,000 and Portadown Supporters' Club gave £1,250.

"Also a number of private Orange Lodges have held events, from tractor runs to parades.

"So much support has meant the world," adds Barry. "The four-peak challenge really was tough. We spent 11 days training and the first time I went up Donard I thought 'This is crazy'. When I saw what we had raised I was thrilled.

"I talked to the charity to see what would be the best way to spend the money and they mentioned funding the course for a new researcher.

"I met Harmony last week and I am delighted that the scholarship has been set up in Alison's memory and that she will go on to work in research to find a cure.

"I think that is a very fitting tribute to Alison."

upcoming events to help fight the disease ...

Barry's next big fundraiser is a gala ball band auction in Corrig House in Co Tyrone on February 3 next year which has been sponsored by Starplan. He also has plans for another huge challenge, details of which he plans to announce at the ball. Tickets are available through L&L NI, visit leukaemiaandlymphomani.org/ or tel: 028 9097 2928.

Belfast-based Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI is the only charity in Northern Ireland dedicated to blood cancer research.

The charity's main objective is to improve survival rates and quality of life for blood cancer patients by supporting clinicians, scientists and students researching these diseases in Northern Ireland.

Professor Ken Mills, Chair of Experimental Haematology at Queen's University Belfast sums it up: "We are a small, efficient organisation that takes pride in the global impact of our work."

Barry's next big fundraiser is a gala ball band auction in Corrig House in Co Tyrone on February 3 next year which has been sponsored by Starplan. He also has plans for another huge challenge, details of which he plans to announce at the ball. Tickets are available through L&L NI, visit leukaemiaandlymphomani.org/ or tel: 028 9097 2928.

Belfast-based Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI is the only charity in Northern Ireland dedicated to blood cancer research.

The charity's main objective is to improve survival rates and quality of life for blood cancer patients by supporting clinicians, scientists and students researching these diseases in Northern Ireland.

Professor Ken Mills, Chair of Experimental Haematology at Queen's University Belfast sums it up: "We are a small, efficient organisation that takes pride in the global impact of our work."

Barry's next big fundraiser is a gala ball band auction in Corrig House in Co Tyrone on February 3 next year which has been sponsored by Starplan. He also has plans for another huge challenge, details of which he plans to announce at the ball. Tickets are available through L&L NI, visit leukaemiaandlymphomani.org/ or tel: 028 9097 2928.

Belfast-based Leukaemia & Lymphoma NI is the only charity in Northern Ireland dedicated to blood cancer research.

The charity's main objective is to improve survival rates and quality of life for blood cancer patients by supporting clinicians, scientists and students researching these diseases in Northern Ireland.

Professor Ken Mills, Chair of Experimental Haematology at Queen's University Belfast, sums it up: "We are a small, efficient organisation that takes pride in the global impact of our work."

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