When Claire Rocks was diagnosed with cancer she feared that she could never have another child ... three weeks ago the Co Down woman gave birth to her ‘miracle’ son Brogan
As she prepares to take part in Stand Up To Cancer’s fundraising events next month, Claire tells Stephanie Bell how despair turned to joy thanks to having her eggs frozen before chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
As Claire Rocks gazes lovingly at her sleeping newborn son, the joy on her face is impossible to hide.
Three-week-old Brogan truly is the Co Down family’s miracle baby and his arrival marks a bright new beginning after what has been a traumatic two years.
Claire (40) and husband Mark (41), who also have eight-year-old daughter Beibhinn, had been about to start an IVF programme two years ago when their plans to extend the family were abruptly put on hold.
A shell-shocked Claire, who had no inkling of any illness, was diagnosed with breast cancer and faced gruelling surgery and treatment.
Just as she was convinced that her plans for another child would probably never happen, the hospital stepped in to arrange to have her eggs frozen before she started chemotherapy.
And exactly two years after her treatment finished, she welcomed her new son into the world against all odds on August 27.
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She says: “I had no idea that cancer patients could have their eggs frozen.
“I rang the Royal Victoria Hospital to tell them we couldn’t go ahead with the IVF because I had been diagnosed with cancer and they told me not to worry, that they could help. I was really taken aback.
“They explained I could get my eggs frozen after my surgery and before I started chemotherapy. I never knew that was possible.
“They only got two eggs, and only one of them could be frozen, so when we decided to go for it, in my heart I believed that it was not going to work.
“Life with Brogan is so completely different to how it was two years ago, it’s like night and day.
“Brogan is our wee miracle and it has given us all a real wee buzz and we are so happy.
“He is our wee blessing who was sent to us at exactly the right time.”
Claire, who lives in Warrenpoint, came through a tough time with her treatment but coped well.
Ironically, it was only when she was given the all-clear that the trauma caught up with her and she suffered a breakdown.
Yet through it all she was constantly thinking of others.
She has raised tens of thousands of pounds for cancer charities and kept an online blog in a bid to reach out to others battling cancer.
This week she is rallying people to make a stand against the disease by getting sponsored to wear outrageous, funny or unpredictable clothing in support of the annual Cancer Research UK campaign Stand Up To Cancer.
Stand Up To Cancer unites scientists, celebrities and communities across the UK, raising money to take developments from the lab and transform them, quickly, into new tests and treatments.
The campaign is supported by a host of stars including Davina McCall (top right), Alan Carr (right), Maya Jama, Greg Rutherford and Joe Lycett.
By sharing her experience, Claire hopes to motivate people here to get involved in a ‘Fortnight of Fundraising’ from October 11-25.
Her story starts in January 2017 when, after just over a year of hospital appointments and tests to start IVF, she and Mark were due to begin their first course.
She says: “I had all the medication in the fridge and we were ready to start the IVF when I found a lump on my breast. In the back of my head I knew we couldn’t go ahead until I got it checked out, but I was convinced I had a cyst.
“I went to the doctor who also didn’t think it was anything to worry about but because we were ready to start IVF, she helped me to get a private appointment as a referral would have taken two weeks.
“I got one that night at 7pm in the Ulster Independent Clinic. My husband wanted to come with me but I told him I was okay because I really believed it was nothing. I went in at 7pm and came out at 8.10pm with a cancer diagnosis.
“It was a complete shock and I remember the doctor very nicely suggested that we would have to put our IVF plans on hold.
“To be honest, it was the last thing on my mind at that moment as I knew I was going to be fighting for my life.”
Claire was diagnosed with grade three invasive triple negative breast cancer on January 3, 2017.
She had a lumpectomy that same month and then underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy.
At one point during chemotherapy she developed the life-threatening infection sepsis.
Gravely ill, she spent over a week in hospital being treated for the infection. She then had to continue her chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy.
Claire coped well throughout and it wasn’t until her treatment was finished that the trauma caught up with her and the emotional impact hit her hard.
This was compounded when, just a week after she had been given the all-clear, her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She says: “I did have a very rough time after it mentally. I think I coped too well going through it and it caught up with me, and when the treatment was finished I hit a wall and had a complete breakdown.
“I started to get counselling with Action Cancer, which went on for some months.
“You really do have to start and rebuild everything in your life. Nothing is ever the same.
“I had just done a fundraiser and had just finished my treatment in August when my mum was diagnosed a week later.
“Thankfully they got it quick and she had surgery and radiotherapy and she is fine now, but at the time it was just so hard to accept.
“I think I had survivor’s guilt. I just couldn’t understand how this had happened to me and especially as I was so young, but I felt very guilty that I had got through it and others don’t.
“I did a ‘positive living’ course with Action Cancer and it was two days well spent as it felt like I was hitting the reset button on my life.”
After months of counselling and recovering from the physical and mental toll of the disease, Claire returned to work as a statistician with the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.
As life started to get back a nugget of normality, her thoughts inevitably returned to IVF and the much-yearned-for second baby which she and Mark had hoped would complete their family.
She says: “I had a review with the oncologist last year and I asked them when I would be able to use my egg.
“Because the type of cancer I had was not hormone-driven, they told me that a year after chemotherapy would be fine.
“I had turned 40 in January and because I only had one egg I really had myself convinced it wasn’t going to work.
“Because we had been through all the tests before, it was a very quick process to have the egg unfrozen and implanted.
“When I did the pregnancy test I couldn’t believe it. We were both so shocked and delighted.
“I haven’t had the chance to finish my blog but I think it is more important now to do it than ever. I think it is important for people to know that they have options and that even with a cancer diagnosis they can have their eggs frozen.
“We started this journey over two years ago and I believe everything happens for a reason. It might have taken me a couple of years but I have finally got where I wanted to be.
“Brogan has already brought us so much joy and life is so very different now to how it was a couple of years ago.
“Beibhinn just adores her wee brother and has kissed him to death. He is our wee blessing.”
As well as hoping to finish her blog — rockuptocancer.weebly.com — Claire is also promoting cancer charities when she can, which is why she is helping to launch this year’s Stand Up To Cancer campaign.
Stand Up To Cancer, which has raised over £62m to fund 52 pioneering clinical trials and research projects since it launched in 2012, will be featured in a series of special programmes throughout October on Channel 4.
Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK’s spokesperson for Northern Ireland, said: “We are very grateful to Claire for her support.
“There’s been amazing progress in the past few decades and more people are now surviving cancer than ever before. But with one person in Northern Ireland diagnosed every hour with cancer, there’s still so much more to do.
“Cancer is unforgiving, unpredictable and relentless. But by standing up to it and raising money for research, we can beat it at its own game.
“Supporting Stand Up To Cancer enables scientists to explore brave new ways to fight the disease and develop radical treatments, meaning more lives are saved. There’s power in numbers and if we all work together we can defeat anything, even cancer.”
How to get involved and help Stand Up To Cancer
Every hour, someone in NI is diagnosed with cancer. Take part in Stand Up To Cancer’s ‘Fortnight of Fundraising’ (Oct 11-25) and help beat the disease:
THE UNPREDICTABLE DRESS UP — Pick a date when everyone at work or home agrees to wear something completely unpredictable. Make sure people are ready to dress to impress and pay or be sponsored to take part.
A BOARD GAME BONANZA — Invite friends round for an epic board game gathering. Or hold a sponsored gaming tournament.
CRAFTS AND LAUGHS — Host a get-together for an afternoon of crafts/skill-sharing for a small donation. Sell your creations to friends or online to raise extra cash.
A FITNESS FORTNIGHT — Take part in a two-week fitness challenge. Get family, friends and colleagues to sponsor you to work out daily for a fortnight. Planks, push-ups, burpees, anything goes. Exercise is good for you, and in this case even better for others.
To get involved in the fundraising, visit su2c.org.uk