Nichola who lives in Antrim with her husband Alan and is mum to five children Luke (19), Kelsey (12), Georgia-Leigh (9), Ryley (6) and Alannah (3) is sharing her experience to raise awareness of the support we offer to children who have a parent with cancer and their families.
Speaking about her breast cancer diagnosis Nichola says,
“I found a lump three days before I went into hospital to have Alannah. After I gave birth, I mentioned it to the nurse. She got the doctor to look and they said it could be to do with the pregnancy, but that if it was still there in two weeks, to see my GP.
I went to my GP who wanted to get it checked out. I’d lost my mum to ovarian cancer when I was 24 years old and that was in the back of my head. I had lots of tests and biopsies but because I was so busy with the kids, I didn’t really have time to think about it and that it could be cancer.”
“When I was sitting waiting for the results, I remember seeing everyone before me coming out and no one was crying, so I started thinking “it’s me” and on 12th October 2016, when Alannah was 4 weeks old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shortly after my diagnosis, I had surgery and just after Christmas, I was told I needed chemo and radiotherapy. After this treatment, I found out I had the BRCA1 gene, so decided to have preventative surgery to reduce the risk of recurrence.”
Nichola decided not to tell her children about her breast cancer diagnosis until after she got her results and at the time says she didn’t know how to tell them.
“I couldn’t say the words out loud. My diagnosis has had such an impact on the children, more than we will probably ever know. Kelsey who was nine at the time was just devastated. I think the worst part was when I lost my hair. I don’t think my cancer had really sunk in for the kids and then when I lost my hair, I thought Kelsey was going to have a nervous breakdown. I’ll never ever forget that day. She just cried and cried and cried.
Georgia-Leigh and Ryley were younger, and I don’t think they really understood but Kesley definitely did. They thought it was funny because I was getting my head shaved, and Kelsey got really angry with them.”
“Kelsey had always been so good, but as time went on, I started to see different traits in her that I wouldn’t have seen before. She was really angry, and her school also noticed changes. She wasn’t doing her homework and she threw tantrums; she was suddenly disobedient, and she wasn’t as chatty anymore. It just wasn’t like her; she was really in turmoil. I was so sick I wasn’t even thinking about homework. Life was just so crazy, and I was just trying to be a mummy and fight this and do everything.”
At Cancer Fund for Children we understand the devastating impact a cancer diagnosis has on the whole family, especially children. Speaking about the support her family received Nichola said,
“My breast care nurse referred me to Cancer Fund For Children. I’d heard of the charity but didn’t know much about it at the time. We went to their short break centre Daisy Lodge and from the minute we got there, it was like you just shut the doors and didn’t have to worry about anything. All your everyday needs were looked after and that was massive.
It made such a difference for my husband Alan because he just hadn’t had a minute since I was diagnosed. When he had a meal set in front of him, he said how brilliant it was because he could just sit down and enjoy his dinner without having to worry about what else needed done. There was nothing the staff down there wouldn’t do for you.
It was also exactly what I needed at the time. I had been picking at food, so to have really tasty food set down in front of you when you hadn’t eaten properly in so long and actually want to eat it was great.
The kids loved it too! All the activities helped them take their mind off my cancer. We enjoyed time in Newcastle as a family. It was just really good to spend time together because there was just so much going on at home. We met a couple of families when we were there, and we still keep in touch with some.”
“The good thing about going to Daisy Lodge is that everybody was going through the same thing. The kids could go and play and do the things they should be doing every day, rather than worrying about whether their mummy could get up or needs their help. We hadn’t been able to go anywhere or do anything because I was always scared of getting the cold or flu but in Daisy Lodge you knew you were with people who understood all that because they were going through the same thing.
During my treatment I’d been wearing a headscarf, and the second time we went to Daisy Lodge another mummy said to me “sure you don’t need that, we’re all in the same boat here!” and that was the first time I took it off.”
Another way Cancer Fund for Children supported Nichola’s family was through residential group support which gives children who have a parent with cancer the opportunity to meet other young people in a similar situation, have fun, build resilience and develop coping skills. Speaking about the support Kelsey received Nichola said,
“Kelsey just loved it. I think after taking part in group support, she grew up. Since being involved she’s been really supportive. She really understands the impact my diagnosis has had on me and that my life is probably never going to be the same again. You can see she gets that now.”
Kelsey has also benefited from individual support from her Cancer Fund for Children Specialist Laura.
“Kelsey started individual support with Laura at the first anniversary of my diagnosis. She was able to pinpoint the exact day she found out I had cancer. At that time Kelsey was really struggling. She didn’t want to go to school, and when she was in school, she was having to leave class and spending a lot of time at home in her room. My cancer was massively on her mind.”
“Individual support was so good for Kelsey because she was able get out of the house for the sessions, and away from the situation at home. This was her time to talk about how she was feeling and try to manage those feelings.
I’m so proud of her, of how she’s handled everything and that’s thanks to her Cancer Fund for Children Specialist, Laura. She couldn’t have told me much. She didn’t want to upset me or worry me. She knew that talking to me about the ‘dying’ word would have destroyed me. She was able to talk to Laura about her fears about death and Laura gave her the time and space to do that and reassure her.
If she’d tried to have that conversation with me, it would have broken my heart and I think she knew that. Understanding and knowing how to manage her feelings really, really helped Kelsey. Now she is able to pass the information she has learned on to her younger brother and sisters, so the charity’s support is helping all of them- it’s amazing.
Kelsey knew another young person whose mummy was diagnosed with breast cancer and she was able to talk to her and support her, letting her know that she understood what she was going through. Kelsey has used some of the coping tools she’d used during her individual support sessions to help that other girl. She has such an understanding and caring nature. Kelsey was also able to make the transition from primary into secondary school smoothly because she could manage her feelings and she knew what to do if she was struggling.”
“From my point of view, I’ll never ever be able to re-pay Cancer Fund for Children for the difference their support made to Kelsey. I want everybody to know that if they need help and need to speak to someone, they should take it. Kelsey now has confidence and skills that will help her for the the rest of her life.”
Speaking about life now and her plans for Mother’s Day Nichola said,
“Things are so much better now. It’s like we’re a family again. We’re so thankful for the memories we have made. They’re things we’ll never forget because when life was so hard and so tough for us, Cancer Fund for Children were there to make it a bit easier…. just that wee light amidst it all.
It’s 20 years this year since my mummy died from ovarian cancer, so this year I want to do something to make Mother’s Day really special. We’re going to do a walk in her name. My kids never got to meet her, and they ask about her so it will be good to do something special for her that day.”
Cancer Fund for Children understands the devastating impact a cancer diagnosis has on the whole family and that aside from the essential medical care there is a family life that needs to be rebuilt.
Find out more about the support we provide children who have a parent diagnosed with cancer here.