Bravery of Tesco worker Andrea who lost her sister and faced her own cancer battle yet still mans aisles in festive fancy-dress and with a smile is a story to warm all our hearts this Christmas
Cancer can’t stop Mrs Claus – that’s the vow of supermarket worker and mum-of-two Andrea Quinn.
And woe betide anyone who comes between the shelf stacker and her Christmas aisle.
Andrea has been working in the Banbridge branch of Tesco Extra for more than a decade and has become well-known for her festive outfits in the run-up to Christmas.
This year she’s been gracing the aisles dressed as Mrs Claus and a grotto elf, pressing chocolate pennies into the hands of the store’s youngest customers.
But Andrea is also known to her colleagues for her bravery, having turned up for her shifts as usual even during her battle with breast cancer.
Now she’s in remission from the disease and is determined to let nothing stop her from enjoying her favourite time of year to the full.
“As far as I’m concerned Christmas can’t start soon enough,” laughs Andrea. “I start planning the store’s Christmas aisle as soon as September’s back-to-school rush is over.
“Then as soon as the Halloween stock has been cleared, I can really get going. All my colleagues know that the Christmas aisle is mine.
“I absolutely love it when the chocolate Santas, selection boxes, wrapping paper and mince pies start arriving into our stock area.”
Over the years her dedication to work has helped Andrea through family heartaches, including losing her dad Liam Quinn to bowel cancer in 2017 and then her sister Emma McShane being diagnosed with lung cancer.
“Being busy helped keep my mind off things,” the 52-year-old explains.
But in autumn 2018 she found herself facing a health crisis of her own.
The family history meant Andrea underwent regular check-ups, and in November 2018 something showed up on a mammogram.
At 4pm on November 26, after a day of scans and tests, Andrea was the last person left in the waiting room at Craigavon Area Hospital.
“In the consultant’s office there was a Macmillan nurse on standby; I knew exactly what that meant,” she remembers.
“They told me I had breast cancer and needed a full mastectomy.
“My first thought was to ask whether I could still do Christmas. I explained that I loved being Tesco’s Mrs Claus and wanted to work through December.
“Thankfully they agreed to schedule my surgery for New Year’s Eve.
“I drove myself home, got changed and went straight to the supermarket for my nightshift stocking shelves.”
As December rolled in Andrea donned her favourite festive fancy dress and filled her pockets with chocolate coins.
“No one knew that something sinister was lurking beneath my cheery red tunic,” she says. “Cancer couldn’t stop Mrs Claus.
“I kept working right up to Christmas Eve, and then on Boxing Day I packed up my tree early and got my hospital bag ready.”
Andrea underwent her mastectomy and reconstruction operation on December 31 and found herself back on the ward just in time to enjoy the jolly atmosphere.
“It felt like a good omen,” she smiles. “I’d be starting the new year cancer-free. I soon made friends with the ladies in the other beds.
“As the clock struck midnight the nurses gathered round the windows to watch the fireworks. Of course I was stuck in bed, hooked up to a drain and drip.
“I shouted at them to get out of the way because they were blocking my view.”
Tragically, in early 2019 Andrea’s beloved sister Emma lost her battle with lung cancer, aged just 40.
In the early hours of February 11, Andrea sat at Emma’s bedside in Newry Hospice, holding her hand as she slipped away.
Hours later she was due in hospital herself to hear whether her operation had been a success.
She says: “Emma must have been my guardian angel that morning, because my consultant had good news. The mastectomy had been so successful that I wouldn’t need chemo or radiotherapy.
“The doctors were sure they’d got it all.
“I knew Emma would have been so happy for me. I vowed there and then to live each day to the full in her memory.
“So of course, I went home, grabbed a couple of hours’ sleep, and went straight back into Tesco for my nightshift.”
In November 2019 Andrea needed further surgery to reconstruct her nipple, but she was still back in store in time for Christmas, with a pad beneath her green elf’s tunic to protect the wound.
She also took part in a sponsored fancy-dress cycle for charity, heading to the supermarket on her days off to put in a couple of hours on the static bike mounted in the foyer.
But despite being cancer-free she was still plagued with the after-effects. Her surgery had triggered an auto-immune response, which in turn led to a form of arthritis.
“When Covid hit in spring 2020, I ended up having to take time off work to shield,” she says. “I told myself it would be over in a few weeks — but of course it wasn’t.
“By Christmas I’d had enough. I was a key worker, and I knew exactly where I needed to be. Sod shielding… I wanted to be in work.
“We’d had such a rubbish year, the customers needed to see Mrs Claus more than ever.
“I took my own mug in for my tea breaks and covered myself in hand sanitiser, protecting myself as best as I could.
“But there was no way I was missing Christmas. Not for cancer — and not for Covid.”
Andrea also got a tattoo on her leg to remind herself of everything she’d been through, showing a lady cyclist in flames, with the words ‘I believed I could, so I did’.
This year she’s been on a new type of biological therapy to treat her arthritis and is on a steroid treatment too.
“Every little helps,” Andrea laughs. “I’ve been wearing Christmas snowmen masks and my costumes since the beginning of December.
“A lot of people started stocking up early this year, I think we’re all keen to make the most of Christmas after yet another Covid year.”