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What it’s like when mum gets breast cancer

As well as dealing personally with the traumatic diagnosis, mothers also face the daunting prospect of having to tell their children. Marie Foy hears how three women coped

Breast cancer, the commonest female cancer is estimated to affect between a quarter and a third of women at some point, although survival rates are up.

One of the most difficult aspects, apart from treatments like chemotherapy, is how to tell your family — and especially your children that you've got the disease. Women I’ve known have tackled this painful task in different ways. Some postpone the hardest conversation until they’re about to go into hospital.

This is partly about protecting your nearest and dearest who may, understandably, immediately think they’re about to lose you and ratchet up the tension at home in a way that’s not helpful.

One woman I know bought small packs of tissues to hand to her grown-up |children as her way of taking control of a frightening situation.

The good news is that help is at hand.

The Ulster Cancer Foundation (UCF) for example, has specialist art therapists who work with children to help them express their fears and get to grips with the changes that may happen to their mum.

The UCF is also able to send out family support workers who can allay a child’s fears or just chat through what’s on his or her mind.

As one mother Jo-Ann Grimley ,explains, her son Jack, who was eight when she developed breast cancer, was helped to realise that people often get better. “It gave him the courage to talk to me... and we talked about what you do if the cancer comes back. It’s better to be honest and open.”

And as Jo-Ann says, she and Jack have been able to put the experience behind them now.

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, brave women tell how the Ulster Cancer Foundation supported them in their darkest hours, and how the charity helped their children cope with the traumatic news of their illness.‘I told him I had to go |to the doctor to get well’

Jo-Ann Grimley (45, right), a civil servant who lives in north Belfast, is a single parent with one son, Jack (11, left). She says:

I was diagnosed in July 2008 with breast cancer after I noticed a mark on my nipple. I went to my GP and within two weeks I had an appointment at the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital. I had a mammogram and an ultrasound which showed nothing, but a biopsy came back with a positive result. It was a total shock. I had a mastectomy, chemo and radiotherapy.

Jack was only eight at the time. At first I told him I had to go to the doctor who was going to make me well, but didn't tell him what was wrong. One day he saw me go into the Cancer Centre rather than the main hospital. Three weeks later he asked me outright if I had cancer. It was very hard but I said yes and we sat down and talked about it.

Not long after, I met Rachel Smith, the Ulster Cancer Foundation's family support/drama therapist, at a parent support group at Cancer Lifeline.

She told me about the Climb (Children's Lives include Moments of Bravery) programme, which helps children when a parent or other important adult in their lives has been diagnosed with cancer. It gives children the chance to come together and deal with their feelings and understand cancer better.

At first I was very dubious and apprehensive. I thought it would be all doom and gloom, but he loved it.

Rachel talks about the different types of cancer, treatments and so on but does it through games, drama, drawing pictures and making memory boxes. It's more of a chat really and the kids can ask about things they don't understand or are bothering them.

Jack hadn't known about the side-effects of the treatments apart from losing your hair, so it helped him understand more of what was going on. It made him realise that people very often do get better and it gave him the courage to talk to me. At eight he was asking me what do you do if the cancer comes back again. We wouldn't have had that conversation if he hadn't gone to Rachel.

Initially I had wanted to protect him and just get better again. But in hindsight I don't think you can really do that — it's better to be honest and open, they are going to worry about you anyway. He has totally put my illness behind him now.

I also did a six-week UCF Zest for Life course which was brilliant; I still have friends I keep in touch with two years later. I got a lot of support there. I had a Beauty for Life treatment — that was fantastic. My hair was starting to grow back and I had no eyebrows. I was feeling low and getting a bit of pampering, and make-up advice gave me a tremendous boost.

Jack and I both went on a UCF wellbeing weekend at Corrymeela and got totally wrapped up in the activities.

There was art, music and creative-writing therapy sessions, among other things. Most of all, it was great to spend time with people who were going through the same experiences. I hardly saw Jack all weekend, he was doing the same sort of things in children's groups and had a ball.

‘I was open from start’

Artist Isabel Kerr (47), from Ballymoney, is in the recovery stage of breast cancer. She is married to Gregor and they have a nine-year-old daughter, Emma Jean. She says:

I'd been getting a bit of pain in my breast for some time and thought I had pulled a muscle, but it didn't go away. Then I found a lump and I went to my GP. After that the whole process kicked in like a whirlwind. I went to hospital for tests and was diagnosed the same day in May 2010. It was a huge shock. Cancer is one of these things that happens to other people, not to you, especially if you don't fall into a risk category like being a smoker.

It was hard for the family too — and very difficult to have to tell Emma Jean. She was only eight and so young to have to deal with her mum being ill.

We were very open with her from the start, although I did try to shelter her from other people's reactions. Some people would come up to me with an expression on their face as though I was going to die that day. I didn't want her to think that was going to happen to me.

Just weeks after my diagnosis I had a lumpectomy followed by chemo and radiotherapy. I'm now on Tamoxifen and Herceptin and feeling a lot better.

While attending hospital, I met the Ulster Cancer Foundation's art therapist Joanne Robinson, who invited me along to her sessions. They were great.

It was there that I heard about a UCF wellbeing weekend, held last June at Corrymeela outside Ballycastle, which was absolutely brilliant. The whole family went — it was great for us to do something together. We really needed a break by then. It was lovely to be with families who were going through the same thing. I didn't feel the need to explain myself to everyone I met. My husband had the chance to talk to other carers. And it was great for Emma Jean to be with other children in the same position as her.

Rachel Smith, one of UCF's family support workers, has been to visit Emma Jean several times. It gives her the opportunity to talk to someone outside the family. I can tell her about what is happening but Rachel is good at finding out how much she actually understands, which isn't always the same thing. Rachel assures me she is coping well which is a weight off my mind.

I find it has been good to have things to look forward to and aim for. When I was diagnosed I had been studying for a PGCE, studying modern languages. I have been taking a break from that but hope to start again soon.

I have also been working on pieces for an exhibition I am holding at Ballymoney town hall this month. I usually use nature as a subject, such as flowering plants like this picture of dandelions (above). This exhibition is based on photographs I took along Riverside Park near my home where I strolled any day I was well enough. It is a kind of journey through my illness. When I look at them I remember where I was and how far I’ve come.

See Isabel’s art at:

‘I wondered how my family would cope with the news’

Wendy Roberts (53), from Lurgan, is married with two grown-up children. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 1998, an event which transformed her life. She says:

I didn't have any symptoms other than a small lump — it felt a bit like a hard pea — in my breast. My GP referred me for a needle biopsy and a lumpectomy.

I was just 37 years of age, so cancer was the last thing on my mind. I was in total shock when the results came back positive.

I was struck with a terrible fear of the unknown — what was going to happen to me? I was married with two young children — Chloe (3) and Lyndsey (8) — how would my family be able to cope?

Because the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes I needed a mastectomy and then I had to endure a lengthy dose of chemotherapy which lasted for nine months.

The rest of the year passed in a blur of hospital appointments and various treatments. I didn't start to feel ill until I began my chemo treatment. After that, I had five weeks of radiotherapy.

My family were so supportive, driving me to appointments and just being there for me. It really helped me get through a difficult time.

Then I saw an advert for the Ulster Cancer Foundation's art therapy service and it struck a cord with me. I had no art experience or training but it was something that I was interested in. It was an amazing experience.

Not only was it a great opportunity to meet other patients who were going through the same things, but it was a very safe environment to open up and talk. You worked very much at your own pace and got a chance to use and experiment with clay, pastels and paints.

I was relieved that you didn't need any kind of background in art, just an open mind and a desire to make or create something.

There was a lovely atmosphere among the group and we knew that no-one was judging us or what we created.

Cancer for me was a very emotional experience. Sometimes I just couldn't find the words to express how I felt, but through art therapy I was able to connect with my emotions and give voice to my feelings. I had a real sense of ease and unburdening. I just loved it!

The course whetted my appetite and I signed up for an art summer school before enrolling in a foundation course in art and design at Lurgan Tech. I went on to do a degree in Fine Art and a Masters in art psychotherapy.

I did a couple of placements on my Masters course and bizarrely the last one took me back to UCF, helping to deliver art therapy sessions for the charity in Dungannon and Belfast. I felt like I had come full circle.

I'm now running sessions for UCF at Craigavon Hospital. I would never have imagined the path my life would take.

I can honestly say that in spite of all the challenges that cancer brings it's been a really positive and enriching experience, which I attribute to an ongoing engagement in the creative process and the support from UCF in providing such services.

For any woman going through a similar experience, my advice would be to be kind to yourself. Give yourself time and space and allow yourself to be open to new experiences — you just never know where they may lead!

Interview: Pauline Wylie

Symptoms of breast cancer

Look out for:

  • A new change from what you are used to seeing or feeling
  • Any new lump or thickening in either breast
  • A dimple or pucker in one of your breasts which changes the shape
  • Nipple discharge, especially if blood stained
  • Any change in nipple shape or rash on the nipple
  • Persistent discomfort or pain in one or other breast
  • A new cluster of veins in part of your breast


  • Look and feel your breasts so you know what is normal for you
  • Don't forget to check under the arms as well

... and where to get help

Ulster Cancer Foundation supports local women with breast cancer. Services include information and support helpline, tel: 0800 783 3339, a bra and swimwear fitting service, Beauty for Life, creative writing, family support, counselling, Zest for Life programme, walking and support groups. For further details tel: Leonne Morrison 028 9066 3281 or go to or call the freephone helpline 0800 783 3339 between 9am and 1pm. The Ulster Cancer Foundation is the Northern Bank's designated charity of the year.

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