Rhona's fight against terminal cancer

DESPITE being terminally ill, breast cancer victim Rhona Damant is doing everything she can to raise awareness of the terrible disease. She told KATY EDWARDS how she has come to terms with her fate.

DESPITE being terminally ill, breast cancer victim Rhona Damant is doing everything she can to raise awareness of the terrible disease. She told KATY EDWARDS how she has come to terms with her fate.

EVERY night Rhona Damant lies awake wondering how she could have ever ended up in such a desperate situation.

At the age of just 42 and with two teenage children, she knows time is running out for her as the cancer continues its devastating attack on her body.

Rhona was initially diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38, but believed she had been spared after treatment appeared to have been successful.

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Surgeons had carried out a single mastectomy of her right breast, containing an 11cm tumour, and removed 24 lymph nodes.

But earlier this year she began to have difficulty breathing and, although asthma was initially suspected, eventually had to face the horrible truth that the cancer had re-emerged in her lungs.

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"I couldn't speak two words without coughing. I was given stronger and stronger inhalers. It turned out that both lungs were absolutely full of cancer," said Rhona, a former florist and air stewardess, from Great Waldingfield, near Sudbury.

The disease has now spread to her brain, her liver and her spine. As she says, Rhona is "riddled with the stuff" and surgeons have deemed the cancer too far advanced to operate.

"A professor at the Royal Marsden (a specialist London cancer hospital) said he had never seen anyone with so much cancer," she added.

A petite, pretty blonde with tanned skin and bright eyes, it is difficult to imagine the horror that is chipping away at Rhona's life, from the inside.

Her mother died of the same disease at the age of 45, when Rhona was a teenager and her grandmother also succumbed to it in when aged in her 50s.

"I always thought I might get it with my family history, but I never imagined I would be so young," said Rhona.

She does not shy away from the reality of her condition – and has vowed to face death head on and live every minute to the full.

Rhona has even prepared memory boxes and written 18th and 21st birthday cards for her children – Kristopher, 13 and Francesca, 12.

She has also bought the family a little white West Highland Terrier puppy, named Lily after her favourite flower, which she hopes will be a great comfort to them once she is gone.

"When mum died my dog was my best friend and soul mate. I wanted that for them too," explained Rhona.

Although wracked by pain in her back, neck and ribs and dogged by pressure headaches, owing to tumours in her brain and behind her eyes, Rhona lives every day to the full. She enjoys lunching with her enormous circle of friends, going to the cinema and is redecorating her home.

She has also planned and booked what will possibly be the last Damant family holiday – an epic four-week trip to Australia at Christmas.

Her number one goal is to survive until next September, when her daughter begins senior school. "At least then I will have seen her on the road to adulthood," said Rhona.

But she admitted that it would be a stiff challenge. She is currently participating in a medical trial at the Royal Marsden Hospital, receiving a chemotherapy drug Capecitabine that may reduce the size of her tumours, buying her a few extra months.

However, a recent MRI scan has shown little improvement. Rhona has been told that if there is still no progress in two weeks time, when her sixth cycle of treatment ends, she may have little time left.

"I know I'm never going to be cured," she said. "Doctors have told me I am terminally ill and that there is no magic wand to make it go away.

"My liver is so badly diseased. That will be the thing that will get me in the end. One day, it will just pack up and that will be it."

Rhona has refused full-scale chemotherapy treatment this time. Having experienced it once already, she had no desire to lose her hair again.

"I just feel that once that is gone, normal life stops. Obviously I still have to spend days hooked up to tubes, but in between I try to live as normal a life as possible. Even when I have to go to hospital I get up and do my hair and make-up," she said.

Her children are coping in very different ways.

Kristopher, a pupil at Sudbury Upper School, is undergoing counselling, but Francesca, who attends Stoke-By-Nayland Primary School, has had more difficulty accepting the situation.

"She thinks because I've beaten it before I can beat it again," explained Rhona, who added her husband, David, a surveyor, was also in denial.

"Yesterday I remembered it was our 19th anniversary of getting together and he made some comment about it being 20 next year. I said there wouldn't be a next year, but he wasn't having any of it," she said.

"It is very difficult for him. I don't know how I would ever cope if the situation was reversed. I've asked him how he feels about being a single dad and have made it very clear that I have no objections to him remarrying – he's only 44 after all.

"We'd always said that once our children had grown and gone we would travel the world together. I still want him to be able to do that with someone."

Rhona, who was diagnosed on June 6, believes if the cancer had been caught earlier, she could have been facing a different future.

"Unfortunately, I was just one of those who slipped through the net. It happens. I would never pursue legal action – I haven't got the energy to fight," she said.

"I am just thankful it was picked up when it was. If I hadn't got to the Royal Marsden when I did, I believe I would be dead by now.

"I just want to make sure that other women are aware of what is happening to them. Cancer isn't an old people's disease – I was 38 when I first got it."

Rhona added: "Four years ago, I went through a blip and thought I had come out the other side. You think if it's happened to you once, it can't happen again. How wrong I was.

"I am too young to die. My children are too young to lose their mother. It has gone so terribly wrong for me. I lie awake at night thinking 'How can this have happened? How has it got to this stage?' I'm young. I need to see my children grow up, but that isn't an option for me.

"If it wasn't for my children I would give up tomorrow, but there's a lot of fight in me yet. I can feel my memory going already because of the tumours. There is so much I want to do before I go completely loopy."

Rhona is excited about the Christmas holiday trip, which will take in Brisbane and the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney, Honolulu, Hawaii and finishing in Los Angeles.

"I know I won't be able to climb Sydney harbour bridge, but I can watch the children do it," she said. "I want to make sure we do things they will remember forever."

Rhona has taken the brave decision to document the weeks ahead in diary form for the East Anglian Daily Times so readers who may be in a similar position might gain something from her experiences.

"When my own mother was dying, I read a piece in the paper about a woman who had breast cancer. She was so determined to get the best out of life, I thought I wanted to be like her if ever that should happen to me," she said.

"It is difficult to keep yourself sane when you are dying. The way I see it, you have two choices – you can either go to pieces and give into the illness, or you can fight and enjoy the time you have left.

"I know the time will come when I will be so tired I will have no choice, but I'm not going to give in, not yet – not while there's still fight left in me."

n The first instalment of Rhona's Diary will be featured in the East Anglian Daily Times during Breast Awareness Month, which starts on Wednesday. For more information about breast cancer, log on to www.breakthrough.org.uk or www.cancerresearchuk.org.


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