| 9.2°C Belfast

Lindsey Firth talks publicly for the first time about her thyroid cancer and how daughter Bethany is raising funds for charity

Lindsey Firth, mum of champion Paralympian swimmer Bethany, talks publicly for the first time about her recent health battle - and how her daughter is now backing a Swimathon to raise funds for charity

Close

Lindsey and Bethany Firth

Lindsey and Bethany Firth

Image by Brian Thompson Photogra

Lindsey and Bethany Firth

Although you would never have known by the clutch of medals she picked up last year, champion Paralympian swimmer Bethany Firth was also facing one of the toughest years of her life in 2019 as her beloved mother Lindsey battled cancer.

Now, as she celebrates her mum being given the all-clear just before Christmas, a delighted Bethany is proud to have been asked to front a national campaign on behalf of two local cancer charities.

The multi-gold winning world champion is calling on people across Northern Ireland to sign up for Swimathon 2020, an annual fundraiser which supports Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie.

Bethany's mum Lindsey, who accompanies her to all her competitions, spent most of last year coming through aggressive treatment for thyroid cancer.

Thankfully now on the road to recovery, she is preparing to cheer her daughter on for what will be her third Paralympic Games in Tokyo later this year.

Just last week Bethany (23) added the Belfast Telegraph Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability award to a long roll of recent accolades, which include appearing on the BBC's list of one of the top 100 inspiring and influential women in the world for 2019.

Bethany, who has a learning disability, is a multiple world record holder and a Paralympic champion, who achieved the feat of being ParalympicsGB's most decorated athlete for the Rio 2016 Games.

Last year was also outstanding for the young sportswoman as she claimed two gold and two silver medals at the World Para Swimming Championships in London in September.

Close

Bethany Firth

Bethany Firth

Image by Brian Thompson Photogra

Bethany Firth

But as her mum reveals, Bethany's achievements are all the more remarkable because of the terrible toll Lindsey's illness took on her daughter.

Speaking for the first time about her battle with cancer, mum Lindsey says: "I'm really pleased and proud of Bethany for doing Swimathon. She is telling everyone about it and a few of her friends have signed up to do it with her.

"She persuaded me to do Race for Life last year and when asked why she was doing it she replied: 'Because we have beaten it'.

"It was a tough year for all the family and Bethany took it really hard. Her coach remarked he was glad to see the old Bethany back as she had an atrocious year of being sick and suffering headaches, which all went away when I was given the all-clear."

The Firths, who live in Newtownards, are a very close family - Bethany has a younger sister Evie (16) and two older brothers John (27) and Ben (29). Ben has two girls, Cadhla (6) and Muireann, who is 18 months.

Lindsey (52) works as a nurse practitioner in Comber Health Centre and her husband Peter (56) is a former Baptist minister who now lectures at the Irish Baptist College.

The entire family was plunged into a nightmare when Lindsey was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2017. Her issues with her thyroid began 13 years ago when she was diagnosed with a condition called Hasimoto, which causes the thyroid to be both underactive and overactive.

This condition was eventually successfully treated with medication, but not before Lindsey's health plummeted.

"I went from being a very healthy person to being tired all the time and my sickness rate was horrendous as I got every bug under the sun," she explains.

"I got medication which seemed to control it, but then in October 2017 I started having trouble swallowing.

Close

Bethany Firth

Bethany Firth

Image by Brian Thompson Photogra

"I did have a growth which you could see on my neck because of the Hasimoto and the doctor felt it was best if I get it checked out."

Lindsey was sent for a biopsy in December 2017, but due to the numerous pressures within the health service, it wasn't until nine months later, in September 2018, that she finally was told she had cancer.

The diagnosis took her completely by surprise. "I wasn't expecting to be told it was cancer and it was a terrible shock," she says. "I couldn't take it in at first.

"I left the hospital and realised I needed to phone people and I phoned my hubby, then my parents and some friends. It still didn't seem that it was happening, but as I heard how upset everyone was, the reality of it started to dawn on me."

Lindsey had a tough road ahead. She twice underwent major surgery, first to remove the cancerous right side of the thyroid and then a second operation to remove the left side.

By far the worst part of her ordeal was being forced to spend four days in a lead room after receiving a radioactive capsule.

She tells a poignant story of how Bethany wrote four letters to her mum to be read on each night that she was in the isolation ward. "After taking the capsule you can't be near anyone for four days and anything that came into the room had to be destroyed," she explains. "I had to eat using paper plates and plastic cutlery.

"Even my pyjamas and dressing gown had to be incinerated. It was quite a strange four days. Bethany was in the middle of the National Championships, but she wasn't coping and she left and came down to stand at the door of my room.

"When the children were going away on trips or overnight anywhere I would always have written letters for them to open each night so that they wouldn't be homesick.

Close

Bethany Firth

Bethany Firth

Image by Brian Thompson Photogra

"Bethany gave me four letters to read with little photos of me and her, one for each night I was in isolation.

"When I was leaving the hospital I couldn't face leaving the letters behind, so the doctor kindly placed them in protective covers and they had to sit on the top of the wardrobe for six months at home before I could take them out. They are now in my Bible at the side of my bed.

"And we always have a family games night at the weekend and Bethany was very concerned that I would miss it, so she arranged for me to play Monopoly with the family via WhatsApp. I was the iron and someone threw the dice for me. It is only Bethany who would think of things like that."

Even when she returned home Lindsey could not have contact with any of her family for two weeks as she was still radioactive.

But happily it all proved worthwhile - Lindsey's treatment was a success and she was told the cancer had gone just before Christmas, although her doctor did caution that there is a strong chance it could return and she has to have more tests later this year.

However, her focus now is on getting life back to normal and supporting her daughter as she prepares for this year's Paralympics.

Lindsey adds: "When you've had a diagnosis like that hanging over you and you are told you are clear of cancer, it is an amazing feeling that you are free.

"Bethany is hopefully going to Tokyo and I can now make plans to go with her. When you have a child with a learning disability you do worry about them. Our two boys and our youngest daughter are very academic and we knew they would go to university, but we didn't want Bethany to end up pushing trolleys or doing a mundane job, which is usually the type of work kids like Bethany get put into.

"It was her PE teacher at Longstone School who spotted her swimming potential when she was 12 and just three years later she won her first gold medal. Bethany needs her family around her and if they are not then her disability becomes more obvious. She doesn't always understand things that are being said to her and she will just smile sweetly, so she really needs someone to be there with her."

Bethany is now focusing on getting people to raise money to battle cancer by signing up to take part in Swimathon 2020, which will be held over the weekend of March 27-29 at pools across the province.

With a variety of distances to choose from, Bethany is keen to emphasise you don't need to be a super swimmer to take part. She says: "Swimathon is such a fun and simple way to encourage people to dip their toe in the water and get swimming - all while supporting two incredible charities.

"It really doesn't matter if you're not the fittest or the fastest. I hope swimmers young and old, new and experienced will dive in and help thousands of families' right across Northern Ireland.

"My mum's experience means our family understand all too clearly why events such as Swimathon are so vital to support the work of charities like Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie."

To sign up to Swimathon 2020, or for more information, fundraising ideas and training plans, visit swimathon.org

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph