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'Taking part in Race for Life is our way of celebrating mum's life... I know she'll be with us in spirit'

Elaine Donaldson watched her mother suffer the devastating effects of lung cancer before it claimed her life. Now, as statistics reveal an alarming increase in cases of the disease here, the Belfast teacher (40) tells Stephanie Bell why she's urging people to pay more attention the warning signs

Mum’s memory: Elaine Donaldson with daughters Laura (13) and Louise (12) and dog Cody
Mum’s memory: Elaine Donaldson with daughters Laura (13) and Louise (12) and dog Cody
Elaine with a picture of her mother, Eleanor
Elaine Donaldson

A Belfast schoolteacher is urging people not to ignore the symptoms of lung cancer as she prepares to run a race in memory of her mum, who died from the disease.

Elaine Donaldson (40) will be raising funds to help find a cure when she takes part in Cancer Research UK's annual Race for Life at Stormont in May.

Elaine's mum, Eleanor Donaldson, was 69 when she died on March 23, 2016, eight months after being diagnosed with incurable lung cancer.

In July 2015, after three chest infections, one after the other, Eleanor had X-rays and scans that showed she had small cell lung cancer, which is linked to smoking.

Even though her diagnosis was terminal and she was given nine months to live, she decided to fight the disease and had chemotherapy and radiotherapy which shrank her tumour.

Tragically, however, the cancer spread to her lymph nodes and brain, and Eleanor didn't get the chance to fight it.

Last year, a report into lung cancer in Northern Ireland revealed the number of cases had increased by more than a third over a 10-year period since 2006.

The increase in cases in women was more than four times higher (55%) than the increase in men (12%).

The report, produced by Queen's University and the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, confirmed that lung cancer was the most common cause of cancer deaths in women, taking over from breast cancer.

Lung cancer symptoms include a persistent cough, a sudden change in a cough that has existed for a long time, unexplained weight loss, breathlessness and chest pain.

Elaine's mum's symptoms presented as chest infections.

Since her loss, Elaine has found it a struggle to carry on, but she found some solace in taking part in last year's Race for Life.

Race for Life is a hugely moving experience, with people coming together to remember loved ones lost to cancer, celebrate the lives of those dear to them who have survived and support those going through treatment.

Many women will be taking part with their mothers, while others will be participating to honour their memory, just like Elaine.

This is the second year Elaine has signed up to the 5k Race for Life event, and she is encouraging local women to follow her lead.

"I took part last year," says Elaine, "and although I have four sisters and a brother, I told no one - completing the course on my own. In fact, I cried the whole way round it.

"Mum's loss is still devastating. We were very close and I miss her so much.

"This year I will be joined by my two daughters, and taking part in Race for Life is our way of celebrating my mum's life and honouring her memory.

"I know that she'll be with us in spirit, and I hope she would be proud to see us raising awareness and money to help other people affected by this devastating disease."

Elaine, who teaches IT at Belfast Metropolitan College, has a partner, Paul Totten (39), a mechanic, and two daughters, Laura (13) and Louise (12).

She recalls the tough months after her mum's diagnosis: "Mum's diagnosis was such a shock and was compounded by the fact that she was given approximately nine months to live. Mum was very active and always on her feet and very fit. She was just too young to die.

"When they told her she had lung cancer and it wasn't curable, my dad just shut down. He just went into himself. Mum's attitude was, 'What can I do about it?'

"She was told that chemotherapy and radiotherapy might give her an extra few months of life and, because she had six children and 17 grandchildren, she said that she would do whatever it took.

"She started chemo in the August, and it was fine - she had no real side-effects.

"Belfast City Hospital has a room where patients losing their hair can get their head shaved, and she went to have it done.

"For me, that was one of the biggest shocks, seeing her with no hair.

"She then began radiotherapy, but it made her extremely ill. She was vomiting and lost her appetite. It absolutely drained her."

There was wonderful news after her gruelling treatment when Eleanor was told the tumour had shrunk by 70%.

For one day at least, the family celebrated, but it was to be a very short reprieve.

In January 2016, Eleanor woke one morning and couldn't get out of bed. She attended a review appointment in February 2016, when she was given the devastating news that the cancer had spread.

"Mum was told that while the tumour had shrunk, the cancer had spread to her brain and lymph nodes," recalls Elaine.

"The NHS staff were wonderful and offered her any treatment she was willing to take, but mum said she would never have radiotherapy again."

Eleanor's wish was to die at home, so the family had a hospital bed and wheelchair installed, taking turns to stay overnight with her.

Community nurses attended to administer drugs and offer support.

"Mum and I were very close," says Elaine, "and I saw or phoned her every day. She helped me raise my children. She was wonderful. The most difficult conversation I ever had with her was when she asked me to plan her funeral with her. She said I was strong and would be able to help her.

"She always said if she could get over Christmas 2015, she would be happy. Thankfully, she was able to achieve this.

"However, five days before she died, she said she was ready to go, to be with my brother, Frank, who died in a traffic accident in 2010.

"When she was diagnosed, I didn't want the cancer to take my mummy, but in the end, when I watched her suffering, I was praying for her to go."

The month Eleanor died, March 2016, was full of very special dates.

Her 49th wedding anniversary was on March 4, Mother's Day was March 6, her birthday was on March 8 and, sadly, she lost her battle with the disease on March 23.

Elaine says: "I remember in the lead-up to all these special dates, mum told me we were not to buy her any presents because it would be a waste of money.

"But I bought her £50 worth of scratch cards and she had a ball scratching them."

Eleanor was a heavy smoker and accepted that the habit had brought on her cancer.

However, every member of her family - her parents, her sister, two brothers and a sister-in-law - have all died as a result of different cancers.

As well as her grief, Elaine says she has been living in fear of the disease since losing her mum.

She adds: "Cancer absolutely terrifies me. Every person in my mum's family has died from it and it has left me terrified of getting it.

"I just hope by taking part in Race for Life that we can help raise awareness for others."

Cancer Research UK's Race for Life, in partnership with Tesco, is an inspiring women-only series of 5k, 10k and Pretty Muddy events which raise millions of pounds every year to help beat cancer sooner by funding crucial research.

Frances Kippax-Geary, Cancer Research UK's Northern Ireland event manager, says: "We are very grateful to Elaine for her support.

"By following her lead and signing up to Race for Life, women can make a real difference in the fight against cancer.

"The money raised will help Cancer Research UK scientists and doctors find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease, in turn helping save more lives.

"Taking part in Race for Life is a special and unique experience full of emotion, courage, tears and laughter.

"By joining like-minded ladies committed to the cause, local women can unite against a disease that affects us all in some way.

"Whether they plan to pound the pavements or amble to the finish line, every step participants take will help to support crucial research."

One in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage in their lives, but the good news is more people are surviving the disease now than ever before.

Cancer survival in the UK has doubled since the early 1970s and Cancer Research UK's work has been at the heart of that progress.

"Every hour, someone in Northern Ireland is diagnosed with cancer," Frances says. "That's why we're calling on all ladies to sign up right now and join women from every walk of life at the start line this summer.

"Money raised through Race for Life is helping to drive research to help beat over 200 different types of cancer - that's why every step, every person and every penny raised counts."

Race for Life will be held at the Stormont Estate on Sunday, May 27. To enter, visit or tel: 0300 123 0770

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