Why I chose to support my son when he turned down treatment for a deadly tumour
Bangor woman Joyce Craig pays tribute to her late son's courageous decision not to have treatment for a tumour. Now, she tells Stephanie Bell how she wants to help others through their cancer journey
As she prepares to mark the first anniversary of her son Michael's death next Tuesday, Belfast Telegraph Mum of the Year 2015 Joyce Craig has revealed plans to create what will be a lasting tribute to his bravery.
Michael's decision to refuse treatment when diagnosed with an advanced, inoperable and incurable brain tumour in August 2014 was one which bought both him and his mum quality time together.
Although initially shocked that her son refused treatment, Joyce stood by him. And it was only when she lost him five months later that she realised his decision had been the right one.
Now, in the hope of helping others who face the same difficult decisions, Joyce is launching a website as a tribute to her son, to be called Michael's Choice.
Michael was just 25 when he died last February. His illness had been diagnosed the previous August, just as he was putting plans in place to start a new life in Australia where the family had lived for two years when he was a child.
Joyce (58) also lost a daughter, Nicola, who was disabled, four years ago, aged 26. The Bangor mum has a 23-year-old son Christopher who has cerebral palsy and requires round-the-clock care.
As we call for entries for the 2016 Woman of the Year Awards, Joyce, who won our Mum of the Year title last year, says she can look back with happiness to those final precious months with Michael - thanks to the choice he made not to have treatment.
"When people are diagnosed with cancer, they go on what I call 'the cancer conveyor belt'. There is no time to think and you are put straight onto that conveyor belt of surgery and treatment and off you go," she says. "When you get a cancer diagnosis, it is the loneliest place to be - it was certainly the loneliest I have ever felt.
"You go out of that hospital room and there's nothing and no one there." The tireless mum adds: "I hope the website will bring people together to talk to each other and ask questions about cancer.
"We didn't go down the treatment route, although I would like to know more about that. I would also like to show people what it is like if you choose not to.
"I know Michael didn't suffer - which was an eye opener for me, because most people suffer and would tell you that the end is very unpleasant."
Joyce says she wants to share her memories of Michael's journey to help inform others that there is another option besides treatment following a cancer diagnosis.
"Initially there was great hope when Michael was told that his tumour was slow growing and low grade," she recalls.
But 10 days later, after a biopsy, Michael and his mum were stunned and shattered to be told that, tragically, it was a high grade, inoperable and incurable tumour.
Michael was offered a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy which he was told would not save him, but might buy him some time.
Joyce recalls a nurse telling her that Michael was fortunate to be offered treatment as it wasn't available to everyone. She was told the fact Michael was young and fit were the reasons he qualified.
She was naturally relieved to be told her son could be treated, but Michael wanted to think about his options before deciding to have treatment.
Although medical staff were shocked when he turned the treatment down, his mother understood why her son had made his choice. From that moment until she lost him five months later, Joyce stayed by his side and made the most of every moment.
Joyce says: "Michael made me think outside the box and I'm grateful for that. He said to me: 'Mum I am going to lose my hair, will probably end up in a wheelchair and maybe eventually lose my mind and for what? They are not going to save me'.
"Michael made it clear he wanted to spend his last Christmas with me and from that moment he took me on a journey with him.
"The more I listened to him, the more I thought 'this young man knows exactly what is going on'. I told him I would do it with him and hold his hand until I couldn't hold it any longer."
Joyce says being by her son's side reinforced her respect for his decision. "In those months I certainly had my eyes opened. One chemo tablet that doctos wanted him to take was so toxic the nurse giving it to him had to wear gloves," she adds.
"That horrified Michael and I. In the end, he didn't even need morphine and he passed peacefully.
"The few months we had together were very special and we played cards together and watched TV.
"When he was well enough we went out for lunch or Michael went out with his friends."
Joyce told of a particularly poignant moment when Michael was admitted to Marie Curie Hospice in late November.
They had been enjoying a game of cards together as usual when Michael suddenly collapsed in bed.
Doctors and nurses rushed in and told a horrified Joyce that her son was dying. Michael went quiet and all the indications were that he had passed away.
In what was a miraculous moment, Joyce recalls: "I just thought 'no, I need him to go happier than this' and I started talking to him and telling him how much I had loved him from the day he was born.
"I said I had never been so proud of him and his strength, and when they said he had gone I leaned over and whispered in his ear 'please don't leave me yet' and his head moved and his eyes, too.
"The doctor said she didn't understand what had happened and she had never seen anything like it before.
"He was incredible and so brave. He gave me the most pleasant way of saying goodbye, because he didn't suffer."
Michael got his wish to spend Christmas with his mum and they had a lovely day with family in the hospice.
Now, as the first anniversary of his death approaches, Joyce says the first year without her son has been a year of huge change. She says she has done things she hadn't planned and would never have dreamt of doing - and she believes that Michael has been there with her throughout it all.
Before he died, Joyce promised Michael she would fly to Australia and mark his 26th birthday on the spot where he had planned to start a new life, which she now affectionately refers to as "Michael's Island".
The trip brought more comfort than she could ever have hoped for, as she met people Michael had been friendly with on Facebook.
While there, she also heard their stories of how he had made a positive impact on their lives.
Since losing her son, Joyce moved to a new house in Donaghadee in December because she couldn't bear to be at home without him.
"I've had the most amazing year and I've done things I would never have expect to and they were happy things," she says.
"I believe he is still around and things happen which I can't explain - I call them Michael Moments."
One of these special moments for Joyce was winning the Belfast Telegraph Mum of the Year Award last year.
On her first Mother's Day without Michael, which she had been dreading, Joyce was shocked to be told that she had been nominated for our award.
It was a special moment which she believes Michael had a hand in - to help her get through the tough first month of March without him.
"It just lifted my heart and was so out of the blue and totally unexpected," she says.
"The night of the awards I felt happiness and I wasn't expecting to feel happiness again so soon afar losing Michael."
Joyce has decided that she doesn't want to mark the death of Michael's anniversary every year and, while she has made plans for his first anniversary next week, she says it will be the first and last time.
"I have put together a collage of pictures of his life to post on my Facebook page and leave at the tree I planted for him and my daughter in Clandeboye Cemetery," she says.
"I have planned to go away with a friend that day.
"I had 25 wonderful years with him and I don't want to regret the years we didn't have, but instead celebrate the time we did have. After this year I plan to celebrate his birthday and not the day I lost him."
As well as the website, Michael's Choice, which she hopes to launch in March, Joyce has also recently set up a Just Giving page in her son's memory to raise funds for Marie Curie.
She also plans to set up a charity in his memory to support research into the causes of brain tumours.
"I want to raise funds to research the cause - not the cure - of brain cancer, which is the biggest cancer killer in under-40s ,and I would love to help discover what is causing it," she says.
"Hopefully the website will be positive and uplifting. Michael made a choice which, up until he left me, allowed his life to be as positive as it could be.
"It is that positivity I hope to celebrate and hopefully inspire others, too."
You can support Joyce's appeal at https://www.justgiving.com/MichaelsChoice
Celebrating women of substance
Do you know a special woman who has made a difference in your life or the lives of others — someone who has gone the extra mile, endured more than most or succeeded against the odds? If so, we want to hear from you.
The 2016 Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards, in association with The OUTLET, Banbridge will once again celebrate the exceptional women in our society.
This year our glittering awards night will be held on Friday, March 18 in the five-star Culloden Hotel in what is set to be a memorable and inspirational evening brimming with emotion — and one that will make you proud of the ladies from all across the province.
We are asking you to nominate outstanding women you know in each of our nine categories.
Nominations can be made by anyone who knows an incredible woman they believe is worthy of an award.
For each category, the nominee should have been in her line of work for at least 12 months and have shown particular success, a demonstrable measure of achievement, how she inspired others around her and how she has demonstrated passion, drive and energy in what she does.
Siobhan McKeown, marketing manager at The OUTLET, which is one of the main sponsors of the awards, says: “For a third year, The OUTLET Banbridge is delighted to be associated with a prestigious event that recognises the outstanding achievements of women from across our province.
“This amazing Belfast Telegraph event is a celebration of the immense contribution that women can make to our society.
“Customers visit The OUTLET Banbridge from all over Northern Ireland.
“We take great pride in offering them great quality and value for money. An example is our exclusive W5 Lite children’s interactive zone — a free to enter taster of the main W5.
“The Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year event gives us an opportunity to showcase the latest in our Spring Summer collections from LK Bennett, Jaeger, Next outlet, to mention a few. Smarter shopping and a great day awaits you at The OUTLET.”
■ Each category winner will be presented with a beautiful Belleek Living trophy at our gala dinner hosted by Wendy Austin.
■ You may enter nominations in any or all of the nine categories. The overall award for Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in association with THE OUTLET Banbridge, will be chosen by the judges from the winners of the nine categories. Each of the nominations must be supported by a citation which should not be more than 200 words.
■ Citations should also include your name, address and daytime telephone number as well as the contact numbers for the person you are nominating, and should arrive not later than 12 noon on Thursday, February 25. Send them to: Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year, Belfast Telegraph, 124 Royal Avenue, Belfast, BT1 1EB or email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
■ To secure your seat or for further information about the event, contact Sarah Weir at JPR, tel 028 9076 0066 or email email@example.com
Categories from business to beauty
■ Business Woman of the Year
A woman in the business field who has shown determination, drive and has made a real difference in her working environment
■ Woman of the Year in Hair Beauty and Fashion
Sassy, vibrant and ‘in touch’ with real women’s needs, the Woman of the Year in the Fashion Industry has to have a real sense of style and an eye for the X factor
■ Mum of the Year
Mum of the Year is a woman who is an outstanding mother, leader and role model
■ Woman of the Year in the Arts
This can be any woman in the performing arts, music, the written word or visual medium, whether it’s behind the scenes or in public … a woman who has truly maximised her talents
■ Woman of the Year in Education
Whether this is a teacher, classroom assistant, dinner lady or caretaker, we are looking for someone working in education who has gone that extra mile for children, teenagers or students and their education
■ Woman of the Year in Healthcare
She can be any woman working in any area of the health sector as a nurse, doctor, medical technician or any of the many roles across the sector
■ Woman of the Year in the Voluntary Sector
Working in the Voluntary sector, this woman could be a carer, a fundraiser or simply someone who sacrifices their time for others
■ Inspirational Woman of the Year
The Inspirational Woman of the Year will be someone who has inspired others with that extra special achievement: whether it be overcoming illness or difficulties, or devoting their time to a worthy charity. Whether it’s behind the scenes or in the public eye, this person should be an inspiration in terms of her attitude, work and life
■ Sportswoman of the Year
This award sets out to recognise a keen sportswoman who has either achieved much herself or has successfully inspired others in sport