'I was 33 when I was told I had two and a half years to live' - Mum on preparing her young children for her death
An Offaly mum has spoken about the unimaginable task of preparing her young family for life without her after she was told she was terminally ill at just 33.
Evelyn Wakefield (36) said life was just settling down for her family including her husband Clive and their children Cian (12) and Zoe (6) when she discovered a lump in her breast in May 2014.
Within weeks of her discovery, the mum-of-two was diagnosed with incurable stage four breast cancer, which had spread to her spine, ribs and sternum.
After celebrating her youngest daughter's third birthday, the mum was told by doctors she would not live to see her turn six.
Speaking to Independent.ie, Evelyn spoke about the shattering diagnosis.
"It's really, really hard. It's not what I would have expected at 33. I was just after getting what I thought was my ideal job.
"We were just becoming comfortable. We had just built our own house. It was really the start of our own family journey and bang, you're told you have two and a half years to live.
"Before I was due to have my mastectomy, they discovered I had seven deposits of cancer down through my spine and some through my ribs and my sternum, which basically means my disease has metastasized meaning it had moved from my primary site and I was no longer curable.
"Surgery was no longer an option because it wasn't going to be of benefit to me medically," said Evelyn, who is from Westmeath but lives in Shinrone in Offaly.
Since she was a little girl, Evelyn said she dreamed of being a mother and said she was determined to be alive to see Cian and Zoe's childhood milestones. The mum has well exceeded the life expectations of her oncology team.
"I immediately jumped away from the two and a half years and said to myself, 'No way is this going to get me in two and a half years'.
"I always wanted a daughter, I always wanted to see her First Communion. My son was nine at the time, he was talking about going to secondary school and going to boarding school and I said, 'I'm not missing those things, I'm just not'."
And yet, the young mum said she is a realist when it comes to her disease and has begun to prepare her children and husband for life after she has gone, even though it is enormously difficult.
"As time has gone on and my children have got bigger and we do more together I find it hard to look at my end. I find it more difficult to say 'Yes this is going to get me' although I know it and I know it quite strongly in my heart that this is what's going to happen. But we have to face it and I suppose my approach to death is very, very different. I've introduced concepts of death to my children in a way you wouldn't ordinarily with children," said Evelyn.
"For instance at the moment my choice would be cremation and myself and my son watch a lot of Home and Away together. On a passing comment one day I said to him, 'Do you know what, will you bring a bit of my ashes and spread it in Summer Bay?' That would be something that would mean something for us.
"He just took that as a flippant comment, but for me it was a little bit more serious than that. I was just setting something up in his head for down the road although he never once thought to himself, 'Well if I'm going to be going travelling I'm probably going to be about 20, that's only 11 years away, why does Mum think she's going to be dead?' But that's just the way we work it. I just slip it in gently and introduce things gently to the children," she said.
Evelyn said that because her children have grown up with her illness, they sometimes have a more honest approach than adults when it comes to speaking about it.
"We went to buy the school books this year and because Cian was going into first year there was quite a lot of heavy books. I just said to the young lad, I suppose he was about 16 at the desk, 'Would you mind carrying them out to the car for me, I have a bad back?'
"Zoe just piped up, 'Yeah my Mum has got cancer and she's going to die'.
"The poor guy was just standing there and he didn't know what way to turn. She just does that because that's just her life. I feel that we have the best family in the world, but I feel very, very lucky."
As Evelyn's illness has progressed, her physicians began to speak about palliative care, which the mum said made her fear her life would be over within weeks.
"I kind of coasted along after that treatment for a while until the pain became more and more severe and I discovered that I started losing power in my left leg. I spoke to my oncology team about this, and they said from an oncology point of view my cancer was contained so the only other option for me was palliative care.
"This was a big fright to me because it was in February of 2016 which was exactly fitting into the time frame I had been given of two to two and a half years to live.
"I got an awful fright because I believed I was facing the end of my life. When the palliative care nurse first called out to me I was of the opinion 'Oh please don't call out to me'. I thought if I kept her away I could keep my imminent death away."
However, more than 18 months later, Evelyn said the process has greatly improved her quality of life.
"I thought she was going to have a bit of a miracle quick fix, a bit of a timetable, 'Do X, Y and Z and there you are you have your life back' but it isn't that simple. They knew what drugs I needed, because everyone's different. We continued for about three months until one day I was here in my kitchen, having my shower and getting ready for my day when I realised I felt normal. I felt like a person again. I had no pains in my joints, in my back, I could just function and for that reason palliative care is just fantastic.
"It gave me back my quality of life. It gave me the opportunity to go to things with my children again that previously I wasn't able to do because I was spending about 18 or 19 hours a day in bed. It gave me back my whole world," she said.
Evelyn's palliative care team has also been helping her prepare her children for life without her, which has been immensely helpful.
"It wasn't just the medications. They worked with me mentally and physically and everything together, they worked with my children.
"We're currently working on memory books for the children. It's something I feel quite strong and passionate about. I want something to leave to my children. Through that process, she explained to me that the best way to do it was to prepare them now so that if and when I get the news that I'm going to pass, I can sit down with my children and I can go through them with them. I thought it would be something my husband would give to them afterwards but they say it's much more comforting for the children if they get it in the weeks and months before my death.
"It's something that they'll have and the memory they'll have of cuddling up with mum going through the stuff," said Evelyn.
The mum said her illness has made her value her family in new way, and they make a huge effort to make the most of the time they have left together.
"Yes my life is sad but yet we've done some wonderful things. Would I have done as much with my kids if I wasn't sick? Probably not. I'm not talking about big things. Yes we've done big trips but we've also done very, very simple things like camping out in our back garden here or sitting out reading a story together. Just simple things that bring our family together.
"I think long term for my family, the fact that we come together and do things as much as we possibly will definitely give them something. They know that some days are horrendous here but they know that I won't go down without a fight. I've brought my family on an interesting journey and we've done it together. For us all it has been a whirlwind of emotions."
For more details on Palliative Care please visit www.thepalliativehub.com