Friends who met as they fought cancer... now they'll run side by side to help find a cure
They were strangers until they met while undergoing chemotherapy. Now two cancer patients, united through their fight for survival, are calling on women across Northern Ireland to join them in the battle to find a cure for the deadly disease.
The countdown has begun to Northern Ireland's largest all-female cancer charity running event and Liz Gardner and Andrea Halls – who are both living under the shadow of a cancer diagnosis – want as many women as possible to join them for the fundraiser.
Terminally ill Mrs Gardner (53) and Ms Halls (48) met and became firm friends during their treatment. They are now joining forces to take part in the annual Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Race For Life at Stormont on June 2.
Liz, who will take part in the 5km event while undergoing chemotherapy, said : "I am only alive today because of research."
Ms Halls said: "I am proof that research works. All the money that is raised is making a difference to people's lives."
Northern Ireland is now a leading light in the global fight against cancer, thanks to research being carried out by CRUK scientists – and it is all made possible by donations from the public.
Claire Wase, the charity's Northern Ireland event manager, said: "Women of all shapes, sizes, ages and levels of fitness take part in Race For Life.
"They come from different backgrounds and walks of life but they are united by their absolute determination to take on cancer and beat it.
"Race For Life is an amazing way to celebrate life but also remember those who have been lost to the disease.
"Participants may be decked out in pink or fancy dress but what's inescapable is the power and strength that comes from thousands of women joining together to confront cancer."
Claire continued: "We know many women want to take part but are worried about completing the 5km course but Race For Life is non-competitive.
"It's not about being fit or fast. Taking part is about uniting against a disease that affects all of us. You can walk the 5km route, run it or jog it if you prefer."
Last year, around 6,000 women took part in Race For Life at Stormont and raised a fantastic £287,000. This year, organisers want at least 5,000 participants.
Jean Walsh, a Cancer Research UK spokeswoman, said: "We receive no Government funding for our groundbreaking research, so money raised through Race For Life is crucial to the pioneering work of doctors, nurses and scientists fighting cancer on all fronts."
Anyone wishing to register for Race For Life should log on to www.raceforlife.org or telephone: 087 1641 1111.
Liz's story: 'I was advised to fly home so I could die'
Liz Gardner was just 38 years old when doctors told her she had breast cancer. Despite the devastating diagnosis in 1999, the mother-of-one from Bangor said she regarded herself as lucky. "It was an average sized tumour, I had my treatment and I felt really well," she explained.
"I felt like I had done my bit with cancer."
By 2008, Mrs Gardner had moved to Illinois with her husband Dave, but within weeks their new lives were shattered when they discovered the cancer had returned.
This time doctors said treatment was not an option.
She explained: "I will always remember being in the hospital room with my brother and sister and her husband, as they had flown over to see me, and the doctor came in and told me I was very sick.
"He said I was actually dying and we all just looked at each other. I couldn't believe it because I felt fine but he told me I had three or four months to live.
"He said I was too ill for treatment and advised me to fly home as soon as possible so I could die at home. Dave and I talked about what I wanted. We decided there was no point in me sitting in the house all day while he was at work when all my family were in Northern Ireland. We had bills to pay so he had to work so I decided to come home and he would follow me when he got a job over here. It was so hard leaving him as I thought the next time I'd see him would be on my deathbed."
As soon as she returned to Northern Ireland, however, Mrs Gardner visited the family GP who referred her to a cancer specialist. "He told me he wasn't going to throw the book at me, he was going to throw the bookcase as well," she said. "I have had courses of chemotherapy and they are basically extending my life. I was given the news I was dying on St Patrick's Day in 2008 and I am still here and I have been able to experience so much I never thought I would.
"It's been hard because Dave hasn't been able to find work over here yet but he can't just quit. We have a mortgage and we would lose our home and then what would we do? At the same time, I have seen my daughter get married and I have a grandson who is three-and-a-half. I started a new drug and after it stops working there is one other treatment they can try. I believe if I can stay alive long enough they'll find a cure."
Andrea's story: 'I was devastated, I cried my eyes out'
Andrea Halls is living proof that research is saving lives. The charity worker from Bangor was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 2005 and is still alive today.
She explained: "I found a hard, peanut-sized lump under my arm and didn't think too much about it because of my age, I was 39 at the time, and also because of where it was.
"I thought it was just a swollen gland but I went to the doctor and it came back that it was cancer. I was absolutely devastated, I just cried my eyes out, but I think it is what everyone does because it helped me get it out of my system and then I was ready to get on with the treatment.
"I had to have a lumpectomy but then it came back that it was stage three so I had a full mastectomy of the left breast and then I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
"They did tests and found I had the BRAC1 gene, apparently from my dad's side, so to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back I also had my ovaries removed."
Ms Halls, a mother-of-one, was recovering well and thought she had beaten the disease when she was dealt a devastating blow.
"Because I have the BRAC1 gene I got a scan every year and in 2010 I found out the cancer had come back and was in my right breast," she explained.
"Up to that point I had no idea anything was wrong with me. Chemotherapy was hard the first time around but it was awful the second time around. I felt so ill. I met Liz during my treatment and she was such an inspiration, when I felt like I couldn't take any more she would keep me going.
"I am doing really well now and I now know how important research is. When my mum had radiotherapy for breast cancer she had to wear a metal jacket and she was burnt all over and put on a special cream whereas with my radiation I just have a couple of wee dots.
"Because of research they knew the dangers of the BRAC1 gene. Members of my family have been tested and they have been able to take steps to stop themselves from getting cancer.
"You never know when the cancer might come back, or even if it will come back, but everything is going well and it's so important that research is carried out to save lives.
"I also want to raise awareness. If you don't feel right or if you find something suspicious, then go to your doctor and insist on getting tests."