Remarkable young Northern Ireland mum was told she was dying... and kept the news from her children so they'd enjoy one last holiday together
In a deeply moving encounter, Lisa Smyth talks to the husband and sisters of Melanie Daniel, from Co Armagh, who died last month at the age of 36 from breast cancer
A family left devastated after a mum-of-two lost her fight with breast cancer just days after marrying the love of her life have opened their hearts about her courage in dealing with the news she was dying by making the most of every day.
After doctors told Melanie Daniel her condition was terminal, she booked one last holiday abroad with her loved ones - and then set about organising an idyllic wedding to partner Paul.
Indeed, her friends and family were still sharing pictures from the emotionally-charged ceremony on social media when they heard the 36-year-old from Tandragee, Co Armagh, had lost her brave battle with the disease.
Melanie - the second eldest of four sisters - fulfilled her dream of marrying her partner, 45-year-old Paul, in front of her closest family and friends on September 5.
However, in a cruel blow, her condition suddenly deteriorated and she was rushed to Craigavon Area Hospital on September 7 and died at 7.30am the following day - almost a year to the day of her initial diagnosis.
Now, Melanie's heartbroken husband and family are speaking out about their loss in the hope it will raise awareness of the aggressive type of breast cancer that claimed her life at such a young age.
Paul says: "She used to tell me she felt cheated because she checked herself for lumps but felt nothing before she was diagnosed. If something was going to slap her in the face through all of this, it did, but there wasn't a day through it all where she didn't get up and get on with things.
"She never sat down and felt sorry for herself, she was such a strong woman, she was amazing."
And, in a touching insight into Melanie's courage and personality, her sister, Emily Doherty (35), says: "She actually helped us deal with her illness.
"We still don't believe it has happened and that we have lost her.
"We were all still on a high from the wedding, we were uploading photos to social media when we got a phone call telling us to the get to the hospital, that it was a matter of hours.
"Melanie was so forward-thinking, she wasn't the type to dwell on things. She said to me after the wedding that if anything happened to her she was going out on a high.
"She was the happiest she'd ever been in her life, that's what she told me, and it was because of Paul and what they had together.
"She was planning on pushing on to Christmas, she wanted to get to Christmas for the children, and she wanted to plan her funeral.
"It's been very hard to process, although it's going to get harder as time goes on and we aren't able to speak to her."
Melanie, who was mum to Jordan (19) and Thomas (9) and stepmum to Josh (15) and Zoe (11), was diagnosed with cancer on September 5 last year.
Another sister, Natalie Boyd (38), explains: "We're all very aware of the symptoms of breast cancer because we lost an aunt to it.
"We all check ourselves, as did Melanie, but there was never any sign of breast cancer.
"She was training really hard at the time and was the fittest she'd been in her life. She had been to the gym with Paul and thought she had done something to a muscle, so she went along to the doctor.
"She didn't wait, she went straight away and they referred her on. As she had private insurance, she was seen that evening and she phoned us all while she was sitting waiting for her appointment, but she really didn't think it was cancer at that stage.
"She told us not to be worrying, that it was no big deal."
However, after a mammogram, biopsy and MRI scan, doctors told Melanie she had breast cancer.
"It turns out the tumour was growing flat under the muscle, which is why she never felt it," explains Emily.
"It was just so unfair because we were all so proactive about checking our breasts."
Melanie's youngest sister, Ruth Richardson (31) says: "We met as a family the next day and it was very emotional.
"With Melanie, it was business as usual and she was very much about getting her treatment plan and beating the cancer.
"She was worried, but she didn't think it was anything she couldn't handle."
Melanie travelled to London for further tests and it emerged she had triple negative breast cancer - an extremely aggressive form of the disease. In typical fashion, Melanie - an operations manager with Barclays - was determined to protect her family from the reality of her illness and urged them not to read anything about it.
"She wanted us to deal with the facts as she was presenting them and not get carried away with anything we had found on the internet," continued Emily.
"She had looked it up herself and knew the survival rates weren't good but she was going to give it her best go.
"She was never one of those people who would just sit down and accept what they were being told, she did her research about the cancer and the treatments and what was available and very much met her doctors on an even playing field.
"She became an expert and if there was something to know about triple negative breast cancer, she knew it."
Melanie quickly began chemotherapy and underwent a double mastectomy on February 3 this year. This was followed by more chemotherapy and a course of radiotherapy.
Paul says: "You nearly couldn't get her to slow down, she was doing all the school runs and dinners for the kids.Everything had to be business as normal."
Natalie continues: "It was just the way that Melanie was, whenever she had a problem, she would just get stuck in."
It was at the end of her radiotherapy that doctors told Melanie there was no evidence of disease and that she had had a full pathological response to the treatment.
"We felt like she had kicked its backside - they told her to go and enjoy life, although she did say she knew it was going to come back and every day she woke up wondering was today going to be the day," says Emily.
Tragically the cancer returned sooner than anyone expected.
A scan done in July - six months after Melanie finished treatment - revealed the disease had come back and was now in her spine, pelvis, shoulder blade and possibly her liver.
"Triple negative breast cancer tends to recur sooner than other types of breast cancer," explains consultant breast surgeon Stuart McIntosh.
"It accounts for about 15% to 20% of overall breast cancer cases, but it is more aggressive and the prognosis tends to be poorer than in other breast cancers.
"The difficulty we have with triple negative breast cancer is that, unlike with many of the other types of breast cancer, we don't really have targeted treatments.
"For example, with HER2 positive breast cancer, we would treat it with Herceptin, but with triple negative breast cancer we don't really have that option.
"Obviously researchers are working hard to address this and there are a promising number of options being looked at but for now there are limits to the treatments available."
In Melanie's case, doctors told her the only treatment they could now offer was palliative and if she responded well to chemotherapy she could expect to survive for between 18 months and two years.
"She kept saying she didn't feel like she was dying," continued Natalie. "She was back at the gym and getting back to normal and it was hard to believe she was so ill because she looked so well."
Melanie's immediate reaction to her diagnosis was to book a family holiday to Tenerife that very same week.
"In the end up we all went along," says Emily.
"Melanie wanted one last normal week with the kids before she told them the news and they had a brilliant time.
"I think it was easier because the kids were there and we were so determined to give them the best holiday ever, although we had our moments when we were left alone.
"As the week went on and it got closer to going home, it became harder and harder because we knew life was never going to be the same again."
Shortly after returning home, Melanie was rushed to hospital after she lost her vision and movement.
Emily continues: "We were all hoping it was a stroke or a migraine but it turned out the cancer was in her brain.
"Her sight and everything came back that night and she was up and bouncing around.
"But she lost her driving licence after that and needed us to drive her everywhere - she ran us into the ground as there was so much she wanted to do and then Paul proposed.
"She had always wanted to get married at Lusty Beg so we rang and asked for available dates in September.
"Melanie wanted to go for the 25th as it would give guests more time to get organised but when she spoke to her consultant and ran the dates past him he told her to go for the fifth."
Melanie and her sisters organised the event within a matter of weeks.
"It was the most fantastic, amazing day - she was so happy from start to finish, it was so relaxed and there were a lot of laughs," continues Natalie.
"It was also the first time a lot of people had seen her since she had been told it was terminal so there were also tears, but it was more because she was getting everything she wanted.
"If Melanie knew what was coming, she never let on. She was up dancing and partying late that night.
"It's a miracle she had such a good day and it was so special to be a part of it."