I told my daughter: I might not be here for Christmas

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TRACEY and Andy Coleman met in their early 20s, fell in love, got married and had three children. But their lives were turned upside down five years ago when Tracey, 46, was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer. It wasn’t a lump that she found but a thickening of the skin.

After a referral from her doctor and a six-week wait for a mammogram she was told the bad news in January 2005.

Her immediate reaction was one of despair.
‘I just thought I was going to die,’ said Tracey.
‘All I could think was “Is it just in my breast or could it have spread?”.’

Tracey feared not for herself but for her husband, 42, and their young family.
‘I immediately thought – “what’s going to happen to my children?”.’

On the day of her diagnosis, she sat down with her eldest daughter Clara, nine at the time, and told her the news.
‘I might not be here for Christmas,’ she said.
‘If I’m not here, you can still talk to me in your mind and I will be listening.’
‘It’s OK mum,’ said Clara. ‘Kids cope.’

‘Looking back now I probably shouldn’t have said that, but Clara’s reaction really meant the world to me,’ said Tracey, five years on, sitting with Clara at her side in their family home.

‘I thought that whatever happened to me, the children and Andy would find a way to cope.’

Andy, who married Tracey in 1998 at a small service involving close family and friends, was distraught to learn his wife had breast cancer.
The pair met in 1985, when they both worked at Guernsey Telecoms.
Both said the day Tracey was diagnosed was the worst of their lives.
‘We didn’t sleep at all,’ said Andy.  ‘All we could think about was the children.’

Tracey recalled that the next few weeks were a blur. ‘I had a mastectomy of my right breast,’ she said. ‘The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and we were told it was very aggressive.’

She underwent six sessions of chemotherapy over 18 weeks in Guernsey, the last of which she had to recover from in hospital, taking her away from the family for the first time since the birth of Charis, her youngest.
But the ordeal continued and later Tracey was forced to say goodbye to her husband and children – Clara, Louis, 7, and Charis, 5 – and travel to Southampton for six weeks of radiotherapy.

Andy continued to work at the Income Tax office, where Tracey had also worked before her treatment.  He took care of the children with help from his mother, who had recently lost her husband to lung disease. Her father had also died, just weeks earlier.

‘I was trying as best I could to continue working and keep the kids’ lives as normal as possible,’ he said.  ‘I’d get the children up and ready for school, go to work, leave early, meet them off the bus, cook dinner and clean.  ‘They had activities after school and it was important that they continued to take part in these.’

After three weeks, Andy and the children visited Tracey in Southampton.
She recalled: ‘I didn’t come home each weekend because I didn’t want to give the children false hope and have to put them through the upset of saying goodbye each time.’

But it was the children who found the separation from their mum the hardest.
As the eldest, Clara, now 13, felt it was her responsibility to look out for her brother and sister.  ‘I was really upset,’ said the Grammar School pupil. ‘But I wanted to help dad look after Charis and Louis.  ‘I didn’t want mum to know how sad I was because I wanted her to feel better about things.’

Charis, now nine and a pupil at Castel Primary School, said it was to her sister that she looked for support.  ‘It was difficult when mum was diagnosed because we didn’t know what was going to happen, but when she had her operation I knew everything was going to be OK.  ‘I was a bit worried but I wasn’t as worried as Clara because she had the responsibility of looking after me and Louis. She had to take care of us and she was good at that.
‘We tried to help dad because he had the most responsibility. It must have been hard for him because he had to go to work as well,’ said Charis.

Le Murier pupil Louis, now 12, said he was scared for his mum when she fell sick.  ‘I was about seven years old and she didn’t tell me because she didn’t want to worry me,’ said the young musician, a keen guitarist and band member of Blackout, who played at this year’s Liberated Youth Concert in front of hundreds at St James this month.  ‘I was very close to my mum and when she went away I felt quite sad. I felt sorry for dad because he was upset and missed mum, but he had to stay and look after three children.  ‘We tried to help dad,’ he said.

The impact of Tracey’s breast cancer and the treatment didn’t fully hit her until Louis got upset one day.  ‘He told me it wasn’t fair,’ Tracey said.
‘I told her that mums shouldn’t be allowed to be away from their children,’ said Louis.  ‘But she is better now and I’m really glad because I can spend time with her.  ‘Instead of having one parent I have two again.’

For Tracey and her family it has taken five years since the diagnosis to get their lives back on track.

After the mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and the long process of recovery she decided to undergo breast reconstruction.

The surgeon removed tissue from Tracey’s stomach and used it to reconstruct her new breast. But the scar on her stomach developed an infection and she was rushed back into hospital.

The setback took the family by surprise and meant another long recovery period for Tracey.

‘Now we’ve gone all the way through the diagnosis, treatment and finally reconstruction and it’s been a five-year process to get to where she is today,’ said Andy.

‘Everyone goes through difficult times,’ said Tracey. ‘We don’t really ever know what’s going to happen, so you just have to hang on.  ‘Having Andy and the children gave me the fight to carry on because when you don’t want to get up in the morning you know you have to keep their lives as normal as possible.
‘I didn’t want to miss the children growing up and learning. ‘You imagine growing old watching your children grow up and becoming grandparents and then suddenly all of that is taken away.

‘Now I feel for the first time in a long time as a family we can look to the future. But you never go back to being the person you were.’
This week all five of the Coleman family are in France.

Tracey joined the Pink Ladies after her diagnosis and completed the Sunset Coastal Walk in 2007. She also plans to take part in this year’s later next month.

‘It’s a club you never want to be a member of, but you get so much support,’ she said.  ‘You think you are going to meet women who are sombre and talk about horrible things, but they are very upbeat.

‘If you want to talk you can, but this is a group of women among which you can talk openly about breast cancer and that is a big help.’

And the support doesn’t stop there. When she was bedridden following her operations, the Pink Ladies provided a cleaner for her.

‘It’s amazing how much difference it can make to have your house cleaned when you are feeling so ill and it’s the last thing you want to do.

‘Every woman who suspects a change in their breast should raise their concerns with their doctor and if they are still not satisfied they should continue to seek advice,’ said Tracey.

But that’s not all she wants people to take away from her story.
Her message is this: ‘For women with young families who are diagnosed with breast cancer there is hope – and you must never give up.’

Tracey and Andy: the couple met in their early 20s. (0777837)

Looking to the future: left to right, Charis, 9, Clara, 13, Tracey, Andy and Louis, 12.                 (Picture by Steve Sarre, 0777839)

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