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What it's like when Bowie, Wogan and Rickman die from cancer if you're living with the disease or have just lost a friend to it

By Stephanie Bell

The deaths of Terry Wogan, David Bowie and Alan Rickman prompted a huge outpouring of sympathy but Bangor mum Melanie Kennedy, whose cancer is incurable, and UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson, whose close pal died on Sunday from the illness say its vital the publicity also boosts funds for research.

The shocking deaths during January of celebrities Sir Terry Wogan, David Bowie and Alan Rickman from cancer have prompted a young mum with an incurable form of the disease to highlight the need for more research into secondary cancers.

Melanie Kennedy (38), from Bangor, posted a passionate response to Terry Wogan's death on Facebook in a bid to highlight the relentless loss of young life from secondary cancers.

While saddened by the news of BBC presenter Wogan's passing, Melanie, who was given five years to live in January 2014, says she knows of 16 women her age who also died last month from advanced cancer.

Her call for more awareness and support for research into secondary cancers was also backed last night by grieving MLA Jo-Anne Dobson, whose best friend Louise Peacock passed away as a result of secondary breast cancer on Sunday, aged just 48.

The Ulster Unionist MLA said she was devastated by the loss of her "very brave and strong" best friend and vowed to keep her memory alive by continuing to work on behalf of cancer charities.

Mum-of-two Melanie bravely spoke out too in support of the many people like herself who have no hope of a cure.

She says: "In all cases where celebrities have sadly passed away they will have had a primary cancer and then a secondary cancer, which is the cancer that kills.

"There is a lot of focus on the prevention of primary cancers and a lack of understanding that the same amount of people develop secondary cancer.

"When a celebrity dies of cancer it is always spoken about in terms of their brave battle and I do find that sort of rhetoric annoying because as one of the 30% of people who develops secondary cancer, does that mean I didn't fight hard enough? Through the various support groups which I have got involved with online, I know of 16 ladies who have passed away in the month of January with advanced breast cancer, and yet they are not in the headlines.

"The high profile which celebrities get has given me this opportunity to let people know that this is happening every single day to young people who would love the chance to live until they are 69 or 70, like David Bowie and Alan Rickman."

Since her own initial diagnosis in January 2013, Melanie has become passionate about campaigning for more research and awareness of secondary cancer.

She developed primary breast cancer just six months after giving birth to her youngest child, AJ, who is now three years old. She also has a 15-year-old son, Josh.

She had to undergo a mastectomy, followed by six rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and then in October 2013 she was given Herceptin treatment.

A month later a routine MRI scan picked up cancer in her liver. In January 2014, she was told her breast cancer had spread to her liver and lungs and was now incurable. She was given five years to live.

She says: "Apparently pregnancy is a trigger and it happens to a lot of younger people because of the changes in the breast tissue during pregnancy.

"It is still breast cancer, but it basically means it has gone into my blood stream and I now have cancer cells floating around my body.

"When you are told it is incurable it is like walking around with a bowling ball in your stomach, and you don't know where to go or what to do.

"I did a lot of research and found support groups, mostly online, for people with advanced breast cancer.

"One girl, Julie Phillips, set up a charity called Second Hope for advanced breast cancer prevention and awareness, which I now support and have got a lot of strength from. At the moment, only 5% of money raised for research goes into researching advanced cancer which kills, and this needs to change."

A former accountant, who also ran a convenience store and filling station, Melanie gave up work after her diagnosis to try and cut stress from her life. She also started running and takes part in races to raise funds for a number of cancer charities.

Her disease is currently being controlled with medication and she is in remission.

She is optimistic that with different developments in treatments that people with incurable cancer can continue to live a good quality of life, which is something she is also passionate about highlighting.

She says: "The landscape has changed and it is not an immediate death sentence any more and you can hope for a good quality of life with treatments, so it's not all doom and gloom.

"I have a lot of friends who have outlived their prognosis and they made me realise that you can live with it and make the best of it and not let it control your life.

"I have lost my hair twice, but I don't let it stop me from living a normal family life.

"I have good friends and family who support me on days when I don't feel so good. People are living with cancer and there is hope.

"Even though mine is incurable, I'm still here living a normal life and I am a functioning member of society and I think we should be making cancer a long term chronic condition, but that can only happen if enough research is done."

Jo-Anne Dobson, who last night was trying to come to terms with the loss of her best friend from cancer, supported Melanie's call for more research and awareness.

Her friend Louise Peacock, from Waringstown, Co Down, died on Sunday after a 10 year battle with breast cancer. Louise passed away in the Northern Ireland Hospice in Newry on her husband Gavin's birthday. She leaves behind two young children Josh (17) and Amy (15).

Jo-Anne says: "I know it sounds cliched, but Louise really was the real deal. She moved from Letterkenny to Waringstown seven years ago when my son Mark was in hospital having his kidney transplant, and she was such a great support to me that I always said she was sent to look after me.

"It wasn't just my life she touched, but so many others.

"Celebrities are so well-known and loved that their deaths always draw big headlines, but Melanie is right when she says that this is happening every day in our community and to people who should never be forgotten."

Jo-Anne said that Melanie was taken into the hospice last Wednesday, on the day that her Private Members' Bill on organ donation went before the Assembly's health committee.

In what she described as one of the worst weeks of her life, she said she found the strength to face the debate - which went against her - because of her friend.

"It was a hell of a week with the bill and Louise being admitted to the hospice that same morning that it was to go before the health committee.

"I honestly didn't know how I was going to even go to Stormont, but I thought of Louise and her strength and what she has come through and that gave me the strength to go, but it was very, very tough.

"Louise had such a fighting spirit and was such a stunning girl and she didn't let her illness hold her back.

"I do believe more research needs to be done and I will be doing whatever I can in memory of Louise.

"We are losing too many young women and it touches every family.

"I lost my granny, May Evans, at the age of 41 to breast cancer.

"I was just two, so I never got to know her and it is still happening today and we need to do more to stop it."

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