Louise Metcalfe, who is married to Colin and has three children, Eoin (13), Jack (9) and Thomas (4), was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2010.
She shares her story of how Cancer Focus, Northern Ireland’s family support service, helped them during their darkest days.
The family live in Ballyclare, though Colin is originally from Ballymena and Louise runs the Girls’ Brigade at Ballymena Methodist Church.
Louise (38) discovered she had cancer almost by sheer fluke. Luckily it was diagnosed early and today she has successfully come through chemotherapy and is feeling well.
Cancer, she says, changes your priorities and while her three boys and husband Colin (41) were always at the centre of her life, family time suddenly became all the more precious.
Louise was naturally very worried about the long-term impact her diagnosis would have on her children, who were 11 months, six and nine at the time.
“I had to give up work so we became a one-income family but it was much more important to focus on building memories and spending time together,” she says.
Eoin, Jack and Thomas are lively young lads with enquiring minds and they had a lot of questions which their parents sometimes struggle to answer. Louise was worried that the older boys in particular were bottling their feelings up. The couple decided to seek advice from Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, which has a wonderful family support service that helps children cope when a mum or dad has cancer. The family shared their story, introduced by Kylie Minogue, on BBC’s Children In Need and Colin and the older boys were in the London studio audience.
“I was diagnosed in September 2010 after I was admitted to Antrim Area Hospital with suspected appendicitis. I was given an endoscopy and cell samples were taken from my stomach. I was discharged on a Sunday and the next day I got a call to come and see the consultant. Colin dropped me off for the appointment and went to the supermarket.
“The waiting room was packed but my name was called almost immediately but when the consultant broke the news, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was so overwhelmed by it all my first thought was that I would be dead by Christmas.” Louise recalls.
“I had six three weekly cycles of chemotherapy at Laurel House at Antrim Hospital spread over about six months – the staff there are amazing. In between chemo sessions there were regular check-ups and blood tests, so it was pretty full on.
“I was concerned about how the children would react to me losing my hair. Eoin said he never wanted to see me bald, so I agreed to wear a wig or scarf all the time. When my hair really started to fall out Colin took the clippers and cut off the last little bit. When he saw the wig Eoin said he’d take a peep and decided I looked all right, which was a relief.”
Sadly Colin had to perform the same hair cutting ritual for his mum, Molly, from Ballymena, who died a few weeks ago after her breast cancer recurred.
Louise finished treatment in February 2011 and in June was told she was in remission. “In March last year I had terrible trouble with my stomach again and of course the fear was that the cancer had returned. I had a biopsy but it came back clear. Eighteen months later I’m still alive - I have a hernia, but I’m here!”
During the worst of the Metcalfe’s ordeal, Cancer Focus’ family support workers Rachel Smith and Cherith Cousins spent many hours with the boys, encouraging them to express their emotions and explaining some of the facts about cancer in a way they could understand. Rachel also spent time with Louise and Colin.
“I had a baby just over a year old, I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be and was really worried that if I died, Thomas wouldn’t have any physical memories of me,” Louise says. “I wanted to write a letter to the boys and sat up ‘til four in the morning agonising over it – Colin did too. It was very emotional. In the end it was a letter you’d give an adult, not a child, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
“Rachel suggested the Cancer Focus Writing for the Future project. One of the charity’s volunteers spent time with me over six weeks and kept everything I wrote in a box.
“She took it away with her and so I didn’t need to think about it until the next time we met. It was one thing off my mind – I found it really helpful.
“ I still have photos and a few things to put in the box but the narrative is done, something handwritten by me. It’s something that the boys will have from me forever,” she explains.
For more information about Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s family support service email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 028 9066 3281, or visit www.cancerfocusni.org.