Our Cancer Prevention Officer, Jo Stanford, lost her mum to ovarian cancer in 2006. She looks back on the final Christmas they shared together and to the future, grateful that access to genetic testing means she can be there for her own children for many Christmases to come.
"Christmas eve 2005. I was at back home from university for the holidays, chopping carrots for dinner for me, my parents and my brother.
Although I can remember exactly what I was looking at, I can’t quite remember my dad’s exact words...but it was something along the lines of, “Your mum’s doctors say there’s nothing else they can do, and she has about six months left.”
From that moment on, I have always thought of my life as 'before' and 'after' those words.
My mum had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003, after going back and forth to her doctor with symptoms like bloating and constipation for a long time. She agreed to be part of a research study into whether it was better to have surgery first then chemo, or vice versa. She was allocated to the group having surgery first to remove as much of the cancer as possible, then went on to have the chemo.
She was an assistant headteacher at our local secondary school and would have her chemo on a Wednesday knowing it would be Saturday and Sunday that she’d feel at her worst, so she could keep working as much as possible. She saw her situation as one of a chronic illness, but one that could be managed.
She had a period of time where she was well once again, even moaning that she had put weight back on. I remember telling her, “You’re beautiful as you are, and I would rather you be here looking healthy than ill again, or even worse.”
Eventually though, her prognosis worsened, and that's where we found ourselves on that Christmas Eve. After my dad told me the news, I went and found her and, aged 21, cuddled up with her on her bed like I used to as a little girl.
"My mum gave us the gift of having a BRCA test before she died"Jo Stanford
That Christmas was going to be her last, so every little thing took on a new meaning. We took lots of pictures, looked at her more often whilst trying not to let her notice, and made sure to do things we had always put off before — like going for a horse and carriage ride through Bath at night time. She really wanted to take me to the ballet; it was her bucket list thing to do with me. We had booked tickets, but sadly she took a turn for the worse and never recovered enough to go.
My mum passed away in the early hours in March 2006, a few hours after her dad’s birthday was over, (I do believe she held on), and we were lucky enough to be with her, holding her hand, as she took her last breaths.
My mum gave us the gift of having a BRCA test before she died. This was a gift because it meant I also then got tested and found out I carry the BRCA1 mutation that she had, and that my grandma and her aunties must have also had. This gift has allowed me to have risk-reducing surgery to lower my risk of breast cancer, and gives me the opportunity to have my ovaries removed in a couple of years to reduce my ovarian cancer risk.
I now have two children of my own, so Christmas is magical again. However, it will always be a bittersweet time for me — not only for the gap we have where she should be, but because of the memories of that last Christmas Eve. I try to make Christmas special for my children who never got to meet their Grandma. My Christmas wish is that they never have to have the Christmas Eve that I did in 2005, and that they always associate Christmas with happy times. I never want them to have that 'before and after' moment that I did with my mum."
There are lots of ways you can raise money to fund ovarian cancer research this Christmas. Find out more.