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How we fell in love while fundraising for cancer research... and ended up battling the illness ourselves

 

When Rosie and Harry Lockhart from Magheralin signed up to support an Action Cancer mountain trek in South Africa, finding love was the last thing on their minds.

However, Harry, a seasoned mountain climber, and Rosie, a novice, bonded while training for the trek in the Mournes in 2002.

Cupid conspired to bring the couple together in the romantic setting of a cottage in the Co Down mountains on New Year's Day. Finding themselves alone with only a roaring fire and each other for company, they fell in love and have been inseparable ever since.

Following that most romantic of beginnings to their relationship, the couple could never have guessed just how big a personal mountain each of them would have to climb in the years ahead.

Shortly after they married in 2005, Harry was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006.

With two young children to look after - two-year-old Eleanor and Max (1) - a distraught Rosie was working full-time while also supporting Harry.

Fortunately, after a tough eight-month battle, Harry made a full recovery but the challenges for the couple were not over.

Just five years later, and two weeks after Harry was given the all clear, they were devastated when Rosie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

Her diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was terrifying for the family as doctors explained Rosie had only one shot at beating it.

She had to spend five months in hospital undergoing gruelling treatment while a worried Harry had to juggle work, two small children and supporting his wife.

Today they share their inspirational story to help highlight the important work of the charity Action Cancer which brought them together and supported them when they needed it most.

Between them they have raised around £50,000 for the charity and Harry has completed eight mountain treks including Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, after his recovery from cancer.

Rosie (49), who had to medically retire from her job in the civil service, recalls signing up for that first trek back in 2002 and how love blossomed between her and Harry (60), who is a senior general manager with Equitix Management Services.

She says: "I was in my early 30s, and at the age when you think life is passing you by, when I saw the poster advertising the trek.

"I just thought 'I have to do this' and I signed up. Action Cancer arranged training days in the Mournes which I went along to. I had always been fairly fit but never did anything like this before. Harry was one of those people who walked the Mournes every week.

"As a group we all got friendly and hired a cottage in Bryansford for New Year and they asked if I would like to come.

"I was working on New Year's Eve but told them I would join them when I finished my shift on New Year's Day.

"When I arrived that morning straight from work, everyone was draped over the couches or in bed hungover and, because I had been working, I went straight to bed too.

"When everyone surfaced they each had plans for that day and Harry and I were left on our own. We had a lovely moment sitting talking over a Chinese takeaway and a bottle of wine on New Year's Day."

Harry remembers how, once they got talking on New Year's Day, he didn't want the weekend to end: "I had come through a marriage break-up and wasn't looking for a relationship.

"Rosie and I started chatting and then we cooked food and had a couple of drinks, and we went for a walk on the beach. I knew we were leaving the next day and I didn't want it to end.

"I just knew there was something there and we had that spark - we arranged to meet up again and started spending as much time as we could together."

The couple went on to do their eight-day trek in the Cederberg mountains in South Africa. They enjoyed it so much they signed up for another one in Peru the following year.

There was great joy when Rosie discovered she was pregnant with her first child before they left. She went ahead and completed the trek while expecting Eleanor.

From the outset, Harry, who had been married before and has a son, Kyle (26), had made it clear to Rosie he didn't want to get married again.

But, clearly smitten and with their first child on the way, he surprised Rosie with a romantic proposal.

She recalls: "Harry told me he would never get married again and I had to make a choice - I decided I wanted him in my life and if that's the way it was to be, then so be it.

"Eleanor was just a few weeks old in April 2004 when the three of us went for a picnic in Gosford Forest Park and Harry proposed. I was definitely not expecting it."

Harry says: "For me, because I'd had been married before, I thought I didn't want to get involved again, but the feeling to get involved with Rosie was strong and I think you just know when it is right.

"When I proposed, you could have knocked Rosie down with a feather. She was over the moon."

The couple married on February 19, 2005, in a small romantic ceremony with just family and close friends at Belle Isle Castle in Lisbellaw. Ten months later Rosie gave birth to their second child, Max.

Life seemed ideal until the following year when Harry went to his doctor about issues with his bladder and, eventually, after a number of tests, was told the heartbreaking news that he had bladder cancer.

It was a terrifying time for both of them. Rosie recalls: "It was just awful. The words the doctor used when giving him the results about life expectancy and his chances left me so scared and thinking 'there is no option here, Harry has to be alive, he has two young children'. Harry told me not to worry, everything would be okay and he was so reassuring I believed it."

Harry had to go through three rounds of chemotherapy and surgery to have a stoma inserted and was off work for a year.

He suffered complications during surgery and spent three days in intensive care and a month in hospital recovering.

Family and friends rallied around and everyone pulled together to support Rosie and help with the children, who were aged just two and three at the time.

In 2013, by which time Harry had been declared free of cancer, the family thought their problems were in the past.

But just two weeks later the couple were plunged into another nightmare when Rosie was diagnosed with an acute form of the illness known as Burkitt lymphoma.

This is a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in which cancer starts in immune cells - and it is recognised as the fastest growing human tumour.

Having seen Harry come through chemotherapy, Rosie was preparing herself for a similar course of treatment.

However, there was more shattering news when she received a phone call to come into the haematology unit at Belfast City Hospital.

She says: "We were actually planning where on the Lisburn Road we could go for lunch after it, so it was a real shock when they said they were admitting me.

"They said I had a very aggressive form of cancer which needed to be treated immediately. There were a lot of tears and I was actually worrying about picking up the children from school.

"They kept talking about high-risk cancer and when we asked what that meant they said there was a chance it could go into my central nervous system and my brain.

"They told me that if the treatment didn't work first time that there was a high chance I would have a considerably shortened life.

"It was like a one-stop shop - if it didn't work there was no alternative."

Rosie spent five months in hospital, during which her hair fell out and she suffered a number of other horrendous side effects from the treatment.

Meanwhile, Harry had to continue working and the couple tried to keep Eleanor and Max's life as normal as possible.

Rosie says: "They went to school as normal and Harry's work was very accommodating and he was able to take them to school and go to work, and then after work would come to see me and then pick the children up from the childminder. Their daily life didn't change much, other than the fact that I wasn't there."

Harry recalls how very different it was watching Rosie battle with cancer from his own journey just five years earlier.

"I suppose for me when you are not the person with it, it is nearly harder," he says.

"I felt completely helpless and didn't know what to do. It wasn't easy and Rosie was very ill.

"When it was confirmed it was Burkitt lymphoma they didn't know the protocol because they had never seen it before and Rosie had to have seven lumbar punctures to protect her brain."

Rosie had an agonising wait after her treatment to find out if it had been successful. Today she is just thankful that she hasn't relapsed.

She adds: "There was a lot of fear but I just feel blessed that I haven't relapsed. It does change your life. Harry doesn't buy cheap wine anymore; he says life is too short.

"It changed me and refocused me on the children and family and how precious life is. I had to leave work and now that I'm not working full-time it has enabled me to be at home for them and be part of their daily lives.

"It also leaves you with a sense of giving back and doing things with gratitude. I do feel that there by the grace of God go I, and I am grateful for simple things like being able to go to church on Sunday and meet friends for coffee - and I do it all with gratitude."

Harry agrees and adds: "We haven't done anything drastically different. For us it is the small things like walking on the beach in Donegal as a family or having a meal together - that's what we treasure now. It is the simple things and just having time out as a family that matter to us now."

Fundraising trek

Places are still available on the next Action Cancer trek to Angkor Wat in Cambodia this November. The nine-day trip, which includes five days trekking the stunning Angkor Wat route, will take in some of south east Asia's most spectacular sights before ending at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat. Full support is provided to participants to reach their fundraising target. Get in touch for an information pack on tel: 9080 3349 or email: trek@actioncancer.org

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