When Emma was receiving treatment for breast cancer, she was given the devastating news that her 15-year-old son Lewis had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She met Sue on the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at UCLH when Sue's son George was having treatment for leukaemia, and the two became firm friends. This year they’re running the Virgin Money London Marathon together to raise money for the charity that supported their sons.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2014. Receiving that news was incredibly difficult, and we kept it secret from the kids for as long as we could to try and protect them. I said I was having an operation on my arm, but when I was told I needed to have chemo we had to tell them. It was a heart-wrenching time, but little did we know, breaking the news about my diagnosis was only the start of an incredibly difficult journey ahead.
That winter, whilst I was going through my treatment, my son Lewis, aged 15, started to complain of a back ache and tummy ache. He’d started doing weights at the gym at school, so we rang them and asked to keep any eye on him; we just thought he was pushing himself too hard. After the pain continued for the following months, his dad and I started to worry. We took him to the GP, who told him to take Gaviscon and paracetamol.
At Christmas, Lewis was playing with his young niece, who ran into his belly. He crumpled to the floor and started to sob. We couldn’t work out what he was doing; we thought it was a joke. He went into the hallway, sat on the stairs, crying. We knew then that it was something serious, and we had to get him seen straight away. We went back to the hospital, and they sent him for blood tests. The next day he was called in for more blood tests, and being nervous around needles, he passed out. Lewis was admitted as an inpatient, and from then didn’t leave hospital for a long time.
He was in our local hospital, and after five days with no diagnosis, his dad was losing patience, and asked for him to be transferred to somewhere more specialist. He was referred to St Mary’s Infectious Diseases Unit because they thought he had toxoplasmosis. That was where he got his diagnosis. They said it was either leukaemia or lymphoma, and he needed to go to T12, the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at UCLH. This was just a week after his niece had pushed into his belly.
Up until then he’d been a perfectly healthy boy. He played football, had been in police cadets, really into sports and the gym and then suddenly this just hit him. The diagnosis came, and it was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We couldn’t believe it. All we could think was this happens to other people, this doesn’t happen to us. Why was this happening to us?
During this time I was receiving chemo, so I wasn’t allowed to go into the hospital because of the risk of infection. It was heart breaking. His dad kept me updated with phone calls throughout the day, but as a mother, being told you can’t see your first-born child, is so hard. How do you deal with that?
For the first 3 months of his treatment I saw him for just one weekend. I made the decision to delay my chemo for a week so that I could go and stay with him on the Teenage Cancer Trust unit.
I finished my treatment and was told that there was just a 3% chance of the cancer returning in the next 10 years. It was some good news that we all needed, and meant that I could fully focus on Lewis getting better.
I remember when Lewis and his dad first walked onto the Teenage Cancer Trust unit, his dad rang me and said “This place is amazing. If he’s not going to get better here, he’s not going to get better.” Even down to the facilities for the parents: the kitchen, the vending machine, it was like nothing we’d seen.
He had his own room, and his Youth Support Coordinator brought him an Xbox, and kept bringing different games for him. He was in isolation, so this made a huge difference. It’s hard to describe, but just being able to stay in there with him on the camper bed meant so much to us. You don’t ever want to leave their side, and on T12 you don’t have to.
The unit felt like a little community of people supporting each other. You’d meet other parents in the kitchen and you’d chat. Someone might have just been given some unfortunate news, or were waiting to take their kid into their next round of chemo, and you’d share your experiences. Your friends at home don’t really know what to say, or how to relate to you, so having people around you in the same situation was incredibly important.
That kitchen is where I met Sue. Her son George was in for treatment for leukaemia at the same time as Lewis. We got chatting whilst I was making some food for Lewis, as mums do.
This friendship made that dark period in our lives so much easier. Even at the worst times, we were able to support each other.
One day we were sat watching the London Marathon together. Susan’s oldest son was taking part, and we were trying to catch a glimpse of him as he ran. When it ended I turned to her and said, “Shall we do it?”. She said “Yeah, go on then!”.
We both applied, and we both got charity places for Teenage Cancer Trust, the charity that supported our sons through the hardest time in our life. We’ve made a pledge to stick with each other for the whole race. If one of us is crawling, the other will be crawling too. Metaphorically we see it as finishing this journey together. The boys are moving on with their lives, and it’s time to draw a line underneath it all. For us, that line is the London Marathon finish line. I can guarantee there will be lots of tears, with Lewis and George cheering us on along the way.