Thousands of people in Leeds face a life-changing cancer diagnosis every year and, as we launch our ambitious A Million for Maggie’s fundraising campaign today, reporter Jonathan Brown has spoken to one woman who knows better than most how support can help.
Wedding bells were just weeks away when Harriet Dow first found a lump in her breast.
Aged just 24 and planning for the future, the school partnerships worker was assured it was likely to be nothing serious at her tender age but little did she know that the discovery would mark the start of a 15-year cancer journey.
Harriet, who grew up in Bramhope, Leeds, had her life turned upside down by an unlikely early breast cancer diagnosis in August 2001.
Determined to move forward, she walked down the aisle with her now-husband Robin just five months later while going through intensive chemotherapy.
And after months of purging her body with chemo drugs, five years of hormone treatment and a decade of regular mammograms she was discharged and deemed cancer-free in 2010.
Her battle, however, had only just begun. The future is as uncertain as it ever has been, weeks after she celebrated her 39th birthday, but the support of friends affected by cancer and support charities has been nothing short of a lifeline.
“I don’t think I had any concept of what was to come,” she explained. “I wasn’t ill in anyway but to make me better they made me ill.
“Emotionally it was very hard. I wasn’t allowed to have a baby because of the hormone tablets I was on.”
She continued: “It can be a very lonely disease particularly with something that’s normally an older women’s disease. I’ve been in for appointments before and doctors have called my mum rather than me - thinking she was Mrs Dow.
It’s incredibly hard, it’s had a massive impact on my life in many, many ways.Harriet Dow, who is living with incurable cancer.
“It’s incredibly hard, it’s had a massive impact on my life in many, many ways.”
After it appeared that the worst of the disease was over, Harriet made it her mission to move on. Her and Robin became parents, they travelled and advanced their careers.
But what seemed innocuous shoulder and back pain proved more serious than first thought in May 2014. X-rays revealed that she had two secondary tumours on her left lung and further tests showed she also had unrelated thyroid cancer.
Just years after being given the all-clear, Harriet was diagnosed with metastatic stage four breast cancer.
“I genuinely didn’t think it would be cancer 13 years down the line. I thought it was stress-related as I had a stressful job and was a working mum,” she said.
Six rounds of chemotherapy later, she went under the knife to have 90 per cent of her left lung removed last March, before having lymph nodes in her neck and her thyroid removed.
Living with cancer has since become the new normal for Harriet. Extensive surgery has meant she has no visible tumours but cancer cells loom in her bloodstream and her condition is medically incurable.
“It was an absolute nightmare but eventually it becomes part of your life,” she said.
Harriet soon found support by joining the ‘Younger Breast Cancer Network’ Facebook community but suitable cancer support that met her needs in person proved harder to come by.
Some support facilities were geared more towards people trying to adjust to life after cancer and others were in more clinical or hospital-based settings.
Last year she was introduced to Maggie’s through a friend and later toured the charity’s unique support centre by the sea in Swansea with family members including her Cardiff-based brother. The concept changed everything.
Yorkshire will soon have a similar centre based in the grounds of Leeds St James’s Hospital, aimed at offering free practical, emotional and social support in a non-clinical setting.
“You could have your chemo and then later walk down and get your coffee,” Harriet said. “Sometimes you just need somebody to listen and understand, and Maggie’s are unique like that and the people of Yorkshire just don’t know enough about them yet.”
The A Million for Maggie’s campaign will help to make that dream a reality. We aim to help the charity raise £1million so that people with cancer, as well as their families and friends, can access no-questions-asked support literally yards from St James’s bustling Bexley Wing cancer centre.
“I don’t know how long I’ve got to live,” Harriet added. “I hope it will be decades - the chances are it wont be - but when I get poorly or I die, they [Maggie’s] will be there to support my husband, my daughter and my parents, and they’re building one in Cardiff and that will be there to support my brother.”
- See tomorrow’s Yorkshire Evening Post for a full-length A Million for Maggie’s feature on the reality of living with cancer for a Leeds NHS physiotherapist, whose worlds of work and personal health have become tragically intertwined.
How to get involved
We are determined to raise A Million for Maggie’s – and here’s how you can help.
You could take on a personal challenge, organise bake offs, concerts, charity quizzes or other events while donating the proceeds to our appeal.
Your company could set up a corporate partnership with the appeal, donating employees’ skills or time, or matching employee fundraising.
You can make a one-off gift of £5 or £10 to Maggie’s Yorkshire by texting MYEP99 £5 or MYEP99 £10 to 70070, or by sending a cheque payable to Maggie’s centres to, c/o Ben Feely, Maggie’s Centres, The Gatehouse, 10 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow, G11 6PA, with the reference: YEP A Million for Maggie’s.
For more click the ‘campaigns’ tab at yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk, visit maggiescentres.org/millionformaggies or follow @maggiesyorks on Twitter or see facebook.com/maggiesyorkshire.
If you have any exciting fundraisers planned, or would like any help or support, email firstname.lastname@example.org.