'She never thought of dying' - mum of tragic teenager who lost cancer battle says life is 'empty now'
A month after her daughter lost her battle against leukaemia, Colette Haughey recalls the 18-year-old's bravery and spirit
Published 04/10/2016 | 11:19
The mum of a child who died of cancer has revealed that her life is so empty without her fun-loving daughter that she has to force herself to get up and face every day.
Colette and her other daughter Lisa (21) have been left bereft by the loss of 18-year-old Rebecca, who until her tragic death on September 8 had been full of plans for her future.
When she learned in late July that there was no more treatment available, Rebecca refused to accept she was going to die, and, sharing the latest prognosis from doctors on her Facebook page, told everyone she would beat it.
Her mum says: "She never thought of dying. It never crossed her mind. She was going to beat it, no matter what the doctors said. She wanted to live so much and she had so much to live for.
"She had always wanted a career in drama, but her illness made her change her mind and she decided she wanted to become a psychologist and help people.
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"Shortly before she died she was walking past the mental health unit in the hospital and told her friend: 'I might be working there in 10 years' time'. She didn't know her life was coming to an end so soon and neither did I. It shocked everyone. She was so positive right until the end."
Colette (53), who lost her husband Owen three years ago at the age of 51, has found some solace since her loss in raising funds in her memory for charity CLIC Sargent.
The charity's new Home From Home Amy House - which Belfast Telegraph readers helped raise more than £50,000 to build - provided a sanctuary for her while her daughter spent months in hospital earlier this year.
Knowing that her mum was staying in Amy House just a couple of minutes from Belfast City Hospital also gave Rebecca peace of mind and took a lot of pressure from both of them during a traumatic period.
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Colette was the first person to use the new facility, and her gratitude is obvious: "CLIC Sargent was fantastic. Our social worker Simon Darby was there for us and still is there for me, every step of the way.
"Amy House really was a home from home. It has a kitchen and laundry facilities and I had my own bed. Rebecca was so long in hospital that even though the food there is fine, you can only take it for so long. I was able to cook for her in Amy House and bring her hot meals.
"She knew she only had to text me and I would be with her in minutes if she needed me.
"Having to drive up and down every day, morning and night from Lurgan seven days a week, and then having to do washing late at night and get it dried would have made things so much harder.
"It was also good to talk to other families and share our experiences, and I was able to help some of the other parents and put their minds at ease about treatments Rebecca had already been through."
Rebecca fought cancer twice in her short life.
She was first diagnosed at 16 with a tumour - known as a Ewing sarcoma - which developed on her face.
She missed a year of school as she came through 10 months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but made a full recovery.
Her life had returned to normal and she went on to sit her GCSEs, passing eight of them, and had been enthusiastic about doing her A-levels when tragedy struck again in February this year with a shocking leukaemia diagnosis.
Colette says: "When she was 16 she developed this lump on the side of her face at her temple from the tip of her ear to her eye and it would come up like an egg and then go away. Usually it came up at weekends, and by the time we got to the doctor on Monday it had gone again.
"She was eventually sent for a biopsy and we were told she it was a Ewing sarcoma, which is a rare cancer of the bone. She had 10 months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
"She sailed through it. She was fatigued and at one point got an infection that meant she had to be hospitalised for 10 days, which set her back a bit, but she was determined to get back to normal, and she did.
"She had to resit a year of her GCSEs and she was doing great, and we thought it was all behind us."
It was at the beginning of February of this year that Rebecca started to suffer from nausea and bouts of vomiting.
Her mum says she was so committed to her school work that she insisted on going into class despite being sick one morning. Teachers had to persuade her to go home when they saw how ill she was.
Colette says: "There was a bug going round school and we thought it might be that, but then I noticed funny marks like a rash on her feet and took her to the doctor who, because of her history of cancer, sent her straight to A&E at Craigavon Hospital.
"She had tests and we were told she had leukaemia. It was horrendous. The consultant told us it was the second worse case he had ever seen, which really put the frighteners on us."
Rebecca was admitted to the cancer unit at Belfast City Hospital and immediately started chemotherapy, which at first appeared to be working.
However, her white blood cells started to multiply again.
Doctors then resorted to a new treatment that had not been used before in Northern Ireland.
Initially it appeared to be working and everything seemed positive, but by the end of July it became obvious that her body could no longer fight the multiplying white blood cells.
Her mum recalls: "Everything was looking really positive, but within just two weeks it all went pear-shaped. Her body just couldn't fight it any more and there were no more options as the treatment was starting to poison her system.
"When she realised there was nothing that could be done she was so positive about it. She said that it wasn't going to take her and she was so determined and so strong. But she then developed E. coli, which seeped into her blood system."
When she was given the devastating news that nothing could be done to save her Rebecca showed the strength of her spirit in a moving Facebook post to her friends.
She wrote: "Hi everyone, I guess there's no time like the present to give you guys an update on everything. I got some bad news on Friday: my consultant told me that my white blood cell count was back up and it looked like the cancer was working too fast for my treatment to catch up with it.
"She doubted there was much she could do for me. Understandably, I was in a state of shock. I was basically just told that I was going to die.
"All I could say was, no. This can't be happening. No. There has to be something you could do. No. No. No. You need to do something. I need to do something. We can't let this happen. I'm not going to die. I need to do something.
"That news gave me the kick up the backside I needed to make me more determined than ever to succeed... to beat this ruddy cancer that had taken over my life.
"I was determined to see the end of this. I told the doctor to put me back on to the steroids and other medications to keep my white cell counts under control.
"It's going to be a long, difficult journey ahead, but through Hell or high water, I'm going to get through it all and prove to my consultant that this will not beat me."
Rebecca put up a brave fight, but in the end nothing could stop the progression of the disease, which cut her life short just weeks after her 18th birthday.
Her schoolfriends and teachers were among the first to lead tributes to the popular and fun-loving teen.
Noeleen Tiffney, principal of St Catherine's College in Armagh, said she would be remembered as "a delightful girl, multi-talented, gifted and full of laughter".
She added: "She had kindness and compassion at her core and was a true friend to everyone. The loss of this precious member of our school community has left those of us who knew her deeply saddened. She gave so much of herself to St Catherine's College and we were all enriched by having known her."
Rebecca's school had sprung a surprise for her to mark her 18th birthday on March 22. Allowed home from hospital to celebrate, she had no idea that teachers in St Catherine's had organised for all her school friends to visit her at home with a cake and presents.
Colette says: "Rebecca didn't want her friends to see her in hospital, so she didn't see a lot of them, and she was so delighted when they all arrived at the house to surprise her on her birthday.
"We also had a party for her and her friends came back for that without their school uniforms on."
Rebecca was a talented and intelligent teenager who loved singing and drama. She played the piano and had hoped for a career in the theatre, but changed her mind during her illness and decided instead to go into nursing to help others. She loved make-up and her mum says she would have skipped breakfast in the morning to ensure she got her "eye flick" perfect before she went into school.
Colette recalls fondly: "She wasn't into heavy make-up, but she would have spent an hour getting her flick right and then put on her mascara in the mornings."
Contemplating life without her lovely daughter is unbearable now for Colette and Lisa.
She says: "Lisa is at university in Newcastle, although she is home at the minute. She is devastated and misses Rebecca so much. She is coping the best she can, but it is just so hard.
"I'm taking it one day at a time. I need to find something to do to get me out of bed in the morning to face the day.
"The house is just so quiet. Rebecca used to watch funny programmes on her computer and you could hear her laughter right through the house, and now there is only silence and that silence in deafening. It doesn't feel like our house any more.
"Lisa will be going back to uni in January and I will be here on my own and I don't know how I am going to cope with that."
Colette has been delighted that so many people have supported her Just Giving appeal for CLIC Sargent in memory of Rebecca.
More than £2,000 has been raised so far towards the costs of running Amy House, which provides a lifeline to families from all over Northern Ireland who have a loved one going through cancer treatment.
She adds: "I am so grateful to everyone who has supported the appeal.
"We couldn't have coped without Amy House and it is wonderful to know people are donating in Rebecca's memory."
To support Colette's appeal you can go to justgiving.com/fundraising/inmemoryofrebecca