Young mother and author Roisin Pelan on fighting her second battle with cancer
Currently in the midst of a second battle against cancer, young mother and new author Roisin Pelan is determined to overcome a daunting prognosis. She tells Helen Carson that she's remaining strong for her fiance Michael (33) and daughter Ivy (4) - and how a surprise visit from a celebrity gardener was a welcome boost.
When Roisin Pelan was 34 weeks pregnant with her first child she got a heartbreaking breast cancer diagnosis. The mum-to-be and her fiance, who had been preoccupied with decorating a nursery in preparation for the new baby's arrival, say everything stood still when they heard the devastating news.
And the 36-year-old medical secretary and her fiance Michael's feelings of joy turned to horror.
But while Roisin was in remission for almost three years, in January this year she discovered the cancer was back.
Now in the process of self-publishing her first children's book, Shiny Happy Horace, which is about not judging others by their appearance, she has vowed to fight the disease and dreams of living to see her grandchildren.
Roisin, whose parents are from Belfast, lives in Lancashire with Michael (33), who is an aeronautical engineer, and their four-year-old daughter Ivy.
Her dad Tony (63) left Andersonstown in the Seventies for England where he met his wife Margaret (65) and became a teacher.
Now retired, they had five other children as well as Roisin - Terry (45), Lindsey (44), Tony (39), Michael (34) and Sean (33).
Roisin recalls that fateful day when, amid the excitement of a new baby on the way, she received the devastating diagnosis.
"It was horrific," she says. "We'd been so excited about meeting our first little babe - painting the nursery, buying all the necessities - and then everything changed so quickly.
"Instead of thinking about things like breast pumps and maternity leave, all I could think about was who would look after my baby if I died."
Roisin says that finding out she had cancer was made all the more complex due to her pregnancy, especially as she needed to have surgery to treat the breast cancer.
She adds: "It was so tough. My hormones were going bonkers and I couldn't rationalise anything. I was induced at 36 weeks and then six days later I had a single mastectomy."
With more treatment ahead, Roisin says: "I had six rounds of chemotherapy and it was hell. So tough."
Despite it all, she shaved her hair off and raised £5,000 for the charity Cancer Research.
And while she was responding well to treatment, with the doctor giving her the all-clear after almost three years, she discovered another lump.
She recalls: "I was due to celebrate my third year in remission on January 12 this year, but I had found a lump in one of my lymph nodes a week earlier and I just knew it was back."
A scan and biopsy later confirmed her worst fears - the cancer had returned and had also spread to her neck.
She says: "Instead of celebrating my remission, I was back in the chemotherapy chair on my celebration date - January 12."
Roisin was devastated, adding: "After we found out, I couldn't eat or sleep for a week. I couldn't look at Ivy without my heart breaking in two.
"My initial thoughts just turned to panic, terror, heartbreak. Michael was suffering, but he was so strong for me. I woke up one night and he was next to me quietly crying, my poor Michael."
For the Pelan family there was more pain to come with Roisin's sister Lindsey Kennedy (44) receiving terrible news - she had the same type of breast cancer.
"A couple of weeks later, my sister was, unbelievably, diagnosed in Australia," she says. "She had planned to come and see me but the trip had to be cancelled. We're now both undergoing treatment at the same time."
And, of course, Roisin's cancer battle has taken its toll on her mum and dad too, especially as their youngest son, Sean, now 33, had Hodgkins Lymphoma at 19. She says: "My parents... the pain they have been through is just more than any parent should ever have to.
"My mum wept desperately and dad cried and shouted upwards to the sky when I had to tell them the hospital had told me it was incurable. It was incredibly difficult."
Even with such a prognosis, Roisin says people have proved her greatest cheerleaders.
"Family and friends have pulled together like I could only have dreamt of," she adds. "Everyone has been incredible. Helping with positive cancer stories and alternative medicines, looking after Ivy and cooking dinner."
Roisin has adopted the keto diet after reading about its reported success as an effective treatment for cancer.
She says: "I have started the keto diet - there is so much evidence about it fighting and killing cancer cells. Keto is just no carbs or sugar. Cancer cells thrive off sugar so just cut it out."
Since Roisin's diagnosis she has been overwhelmed by the support she has received - a staggering 67,000 people wished her well after Cancer Research shared her story on its website.
And just weeks after her diagnosis she began to write a blog called Fighting Pants Are On, sharing all her experiences of dealing with cancer. While she now concentrates mostly on her Facebook page, Roisin says the blog helped her channel her feelings at a tough time.
"It was hard keeping in touch with all my wonderful well-wishers," she recalls. "The response was amazing. So many people, many who I didn't know, genuinely wished us well."
With advice, offers of help and so many positive stories flooding in, Roisin and Michael decided to do a charity walk, taking on a 24-mile hike of Hadrian's Wall along with 50 other women, raising £16,000 for Cancer Research UK.
Documenting her experiences, sharing pictures of her treatments alongside family gatherings on the blog proved a valuable outlet for Roisin as she attempted to deal with the worst of situations while staying upbeat.
"If my positivity is dwindling or I'm having a dip, I say to Michael 'I think I need to blog' and then I voice all my feelings and emotions," she says. "The amount of people spurring us on fixes me every time. That's what it's all about for me now."
The hardest part for Roisin, though, is having to somehow explain to her little girl what is happening to mummy.
"My little Ivy," she says. "It breaks my heart that she's gone from singing in the car and dancing in the kitchen with mummy... to dressing up as a nurse and looking after me in bed. She is my little wonder woman.
"Someone at nursery told her that I was going to die and that was so sad for her.
"I told her that everyone dies sometime, but that I was going to be here for a very long time. She asked could she come and live on my cloud with me."
But Roisin is determined to buck the odds and be around as long as possible for Ivy.
"I have now read so many incredible stories of the people with the same stage of cancer as me - grade 3C - and, along with a lot of alternative treatments and a protocol from the care oncology clinic in London, I've decided I'm going nowhere."
And Roisin's inspirational attitude to life attracted the attention of ITV producers who arranged for much-loved presenter Alan Titchmarsh to surprise the family for the garden makeover show Love Your Garden.
She admits to being quite starstruck during filming, adding: "Alan is a dreamboat. I absolutely loved him. Such a warm and genuinely lovely man. And he even read and reviewed my new book for me afterwards. I was really nervous about the reveal (on the TV show), but I needn't have been. It was a dream come true for all of us. We have camped out a lot (in the new garden) and Ivy loves being outdoors. We're so lucky."
She admits that because she is still getting treatment gardening duties usually fall to her other half.
"Growing up it was always my job to help dad do the garden so it has that lovely nostalgic feeling," she says.
"But I'm halfway through radiotherapy at the moment and there's more chemo to come, so it's Michael's job to do the gardening but I help when I can. It's just wonderful to sit outside and we just get in the tent if it rains. It's quite therapeutic."
In March this year, Roisin and Michael's families rallied round again paying for her to have a consultation with a Harley Street specialist and paying for costly drugs which may help her "kick cancer's butt" but are not yet available on the health service.
She said: "We paid £460 for our appointment and three-months' worth of medication and we'll have to pay £260 quarterly. Our brilliant families have helped and will continue to pay for my appointments and meds... they're amazing."
Meanwhile, she finds sanctuary in the specially cultivated outdoor space, adding: "The garden looks beautiful so it has a lovely calming effect. Seeing and being with Ivy outdoors makes my heart soar. It makes me want to keep fighting for a cure so that I can grow old in this garden and, who knows, maybe even see my grandchildren."
Read Roisin's blog at fighting pantsareon.wordpress.com and pre-order her book Shiny Happy Horace at roisinpelan.wixsite.com/roisinpelan-author