Speaking to Claire, 37, it is hard to believe she has been given a diagnosis of incurable breast cancer. The picture of health, she is chatty, articulate and friendly – and admits herself that she feels fine, despite undergoing oral chemotherapy treatment.
How long this feeling might last is something that she freely admits to not knowing: ‘Before my diagnosis I’d have introduced myself as ‘Claire, wife and mum’ – now my first instinct is to say “Hi, my name’s Claire and I have cancer”. It totally changes the way you see yourself, which is just so wrong!’
Signs of Claire’s young daughter are everywhere in her home – toys, a play tent and clothes show just how cherished every moment together has become. Claire was diagnosed in 2011, when her daughter was only nine months old, at a time when Claire was preparing to return to work following maternity leave. Noticing a minor change in one breast after she finished breastfeeding and suspecting a blocked milk duct, she visited the doctor – only for her doctor to find a lump and refer her for further tests. Her initial diagnosis of breast cancer was a tremendous and completely unexpected shock.
'They told me the same day I went in for tests. It shattered my world, totally shattered it. It seemed impossible that I, as a young mum, could get cancer. I was completely convinced that I would go to the Breast Unit and be told it was nothing. My husband was sitting behind me and the Consultant told me "I’m sorry but it is cancer" – one of the first things I said was "But it can’t be, I’ve got an eleven month old daughter!" as thought he was going to say "Oh well, don’t worry about it then, we’ll let you off". Now it sounds like a ridiculous thing to say but it was my first reaction.'
Claire describes herself as a very organised person and this is clear from her reaction to the diagnosis – she freely admits that she viewed the treatment, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and fertility treatment – combined with ongoing hormone therapy, as a ‘process’ – simply something to be got through in order to return to full health.
‘The only thing that got me through was Jessica. Seeing her, I knew it would be tough but I’d get through it. People along the line have said “How have you coped, with a baby?” but she had no idea of what was going on so I knew I just needed to carry on for her’.
The news a year later that her cancer had returned and was no longer curable, was devastating. Her husband Barry came with her to speak to the doctor and they received the prognosis together:
‘I felt I’d beaten it once, then the cancer came back. When they told me, I knew – I just knew that the news wasn’t good, but I was ready to deal with it – ok, chemo again... Then when I saw my Oncologist and he said “It’s incurable”, that was when I thought for the first time, “I don’t know if I can do this”. Then I went home, thought about it a bit more and just...did.’
Since this devastating news, Claire has taken time to come to terms with the future – and a large part of that is due to her innate positivity.
Many people in Claire’s situation would be focussed 100% on their treatment, their future and dealing with their treatment plan. Whilst these are obviously a priority, Claire has also spent her time proactively fundraising for The J’s; in recognition for the care she and her family are receiving.
'When (J’s Specialist Nurse) Mary came to see me for the first time, I just instantly felt like I was being looked after. Even with my treatment, I’m still fit and healthy – or so I’d like to think – so my life has carried on pretty normally. The J’s are just there though, in the background – making sure I have what I need to carry on. If times get tough, I know they’re there.'
Weeks after her first visit from Mary, Claire began to plan her first fundraising event – a children’s party.
‘I felt like I wanted to give something back – I feel well in myself, I thought this is the time to do this. I ran a ‘test’ party for the children of my NCT group and it went really well, so I then planned one on a larger scale with entertainers held at the end of May, specifically to raise funds for The J’s.’
Inspired by her success, Claire went on to plan a glamorous Charity Ball at a 4-star hotel in Southend – with some planning and hard work, she managed to sell all the available tables within weeks and is looking forward to a truly memorable event to be held in September 2014.
‘When I first found out that the cancer was back and that it wasn’t curable this time, I was filled with plans – I must make everything really memorable for Jessica, as she’s only two, I started a memory book and we try now to take a lot more photos with me in them instead of behind the camera! We try to capture and treasure every moment together.
‘Raising money for The J’s is a way for me to build something positive out of this. I want to leave as much of a mark as I can, both with my family and the rest of the world – I hope that what I’m doing helps others who are going through what I am.’
With thanks to Claire and The J’s Hospice for allowing us to reproduce this article here.
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