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Cancer Focus NI's Family Support Service - helping families to make memories... and say their goodbyes


From being there to talk to helping those who are dying to compile memory books, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s Family Support Service provides vital and sensitive help to many. Now, as it receives a welcome £600,000 National Lottery grant, three families speak to Marie Foy about the huge difference it made to their lives in the most harrowing of times.

Cancer Focus Northern Ireland is delighted to have received a bumper grant of almost £600,000 in National Lottery funding for its lifeline Family Support Service. Family Support is the charity’s most used service and helps children when a mum, dad or grandparent has cancer.

The extra funding means Cancer Focus NI will be able to expand and reach even more families who need its support and advice. 

Cancer Focus NI is one of the latest projects to receive a grant from the Big Lottery Fund’s Empowering Young People programme. 

For more information call, 028 9066 3281, email or visit  Anyone with concerns about cancer can call the Cancer Focus NI NurseLine on 0800 783 3339

‘I’m grateful Maire had someone to discuss things with ... I was fearful she hadn’t prepared for death’

Dr Cameron Imrie (56), a paediatrician at Altnagelvin Hospital, lives in Londonderry with his two children, Calum (21) and Nuala (18). His late wife, Maire (53), passed away in January last year. He says Cancer Focus NI helped tremendously:

Maire first took ill in 2004, when she was diagnosed with chronic leukaemia. At the time she was working as a physio, but she had to give it up because she was so ill and exhausted. The children were very young then. Nuala was only four and Calum was eight.

At the time the prognosis wasn’t very good for Maire, but the children didn’t understand how sick she was.

I was trying to do school runs as well as hold down a busy job, which sometimes meant I was on call and had to leave everything and run to see a patient while looking after Maire too.

Looking back, it was a very stressful time.

We coped, though, because Maire was so positive and so determined to beat her illness. She helped everyone else remain upbeat and hopeful.

Slowly Maire recovered and after several years she was told she was in remission.

However, fate hadn’t finished with her and in 2012 we received the worst news — that Maire had bowel cancer.

Typical of her, she didn’t question ‘Why me?’ or dwell on how ill she was. She wanted to focus on getting better and on beating the disease.

The children were her world over the next few years and regardless of how sick or tired she was they were her priority and she wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.

She was a true inspiration and many people have said to us since how well she coped with her illness.

She wanted to make sure everyone was okay and looked after.

About 18 months before Maire died, Rachel Smith, the Family Service Co-ordinator from Cancer Focus NI, came into our lives and what she did for us was invaluable.

Our home was busy with visiting nurses, all of whom were wonderful, but Rachel offered something different — she had such a lasting impact on Maire and our family. Rachel came to our home to speak with us.

To some extent, we had all been dealing with things separately; Rachel brought us together.

She helped us open up, so we could all talk about our feelings and concerns together or on a one to one basis with Rachel herself.

Maire had a special bond with Rachel who provided tremendous support helping her prepare for her ‘possible’ death. She provided a conduit for Maire to discuss her biggest and intimate concerns, especially as she felt she couldn’t discuss them with us.

The Family Support Service is just so important.

It is quality driven and people like Rachel are quite simply invaluable; we couldn’t have got this support anywhere else.

One of the most beneficial things is the irreplaceable Memory Book. Maire decided to create her own book which is full of precious memories and life stories.

With Rachel’s help, we collected photographs and Maire spent time writing messages in it. Now, the Memory Book provides us with therapy; it’s a great help but is very hard to read.

I’m so grateful that Maire had someone to discuss things with. I was fearful that she hadn’t prepared for death as she preferred not to discuss it with me.

But I realised that she had prepared with the support of Rachel and a couple of close friends and that she was only protecting myself and our two children. That was a huge relief for me.

Cancer Focus NI has been such a great help to us. It’s at the toughest times that the Family Support Service helps the most.”

‘Emma just would not entertain the thought of talking about how she felt’

Downpatrick dad David Telford (54) had to support his daughters, Emma (21) and Evie (15), when they sadly lost beloved mum Lorna (49) to cancer in September 2014. David says: 

Lorna displayed such bravery and composure when she told the children she had cancer. We were eventually to learn that she had lung cancer and that it had spread.

Our world imploded. Cancer had arrived in our lives and we were devastated. Lorna explained to Emma and Evie, who were 14 and eight years old at the time, that she had ‘bad cells’ in her body.

Evie was oblivious to the fact her mum would not survive and while her innocence at the time and sense of humour was a blessing for the family, she realised in the final few months of her mum’s life that Christmas would not be the same that year. She was right. Lorna passed away — her brave, long battle had come to an end.

Lorna courageously battled cancer for over four more years.

When she met Rachel Smith, from Cancer Focus NI, it was suggested that Rachel should not only work with Lorna but also with Emma and Evie as well.

As a teenager living with a mother who had cancer, Emma was not the most open, nor did she ever entertain the thought of speaking about how she felt. To her, not talking about it made everything ‘okay’. Thankfully she was to change her mind.”

Emma says:

As long as I didn’t talk about cancer, it wasn’t real and everything would be fine. As a result of my unwillingness to talk about my feelings, I’d often have brief moments of utter despair.

All of a sudden there would be an explosion and I was no longer in control of my emotions. I’m someone who wants to be in control all the time so the concept of feeling sad or crying was not only alien, but felt like it wasn’t allowed.

I was reluctant to talk to Rachel, but I was persuaded and I’m glad I did. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I had to talk about death because it was in my face and there was no escape.

Over the course of almost a year I embraced crying and learned that it’s okay not to be yourself or to have a bad day.

When mum was in the hospice it was the most challenging seven weeks of my life and when it became evidently clear she was dying, her wish was for me to be with her, something I never thought I could do.

I always panicked at the thought of living without mum, being alone and not being able to say goodbye.

What Rachel taught me is that you can talk and it truly helps.”

‘Children should never be left to deal with it alone’

Sinead Farry (46), from Belfast, has four children, John (14), James (11), Una (8) and Henry (5). Her family would have struggled to get through the past four years after losing her husband Gareth to cancer without Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s Family Support Service. She says:

My husband Gareth died in August 2013, 13 months after being diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. He was only 40.

Gareth had had a lump on his neck for many years but when it started to get bigger he went to the doctor. He was diagnosed with cancer, which rocked our world. We had just been blessed with our fourth child, Henry, and we tried to keep things at home as normal as we could for him and our other three children. 

Gareth had surgery in September 2012 to remove the tumour but the following February he started getting bad headaches. Then the cancer spread to his lungs, liver and brain. We went into shock as the news was incredibly hard to deal with — the floor fell from under us. Four months later, Gareth sadly died. 

Cancer Focus NI’s Family Support Service has supported my family through the worst of times. My children and I have found it invaluable.

Rachel Smith, the charity’s family support co-ordinator, came to our home to speak with the children to help them understand why their daddy had cancer in a way they could understand. She helped take the fear away and spent time with each one so they knew they were not alone.

I found that one of the most beneficial parts of the service for my children was CLIMB (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery). 

My son John, who is now 14, benefitted greatly from the six-week programme that helps children understand cancer through art, craft and play. The various activities helped John talk informally about his fears and to ask questions about his dad’s illness. And he was able to meet other children in similar situations — all the children saw that there were other kids going through the same thing.

When my world was falling apart, Rachel gave me the strength to say ‘I can do this with the kids’. The three younger children still go to the family support — they give a feeling of steadiness and a belief that everything is going to be okay.

It’s such a wonderful service and I’m so pleased it has got this funding — other children in this terrible situation should never be left to deal with cancer alone.”

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