'He was the love of her life, and she was a radiant bride' - How cancer cruelly took woman (35) from her family
Cancer cruelly took Caroline Dwyer-Hickey from her family at just 35. But her legacy of courage is now helping others access clinical trials
To visitors and residents alike, it's become a familiar and much-loved attraction on the seafront in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Less well known is that this cheerful bronze sculpture of a giant teddy bear is inspired by the memory of a remarkable local woman with an unshakeable belief that science will one day soon find a cure for cancer.
Though her life was cut tragically short by the disease at the age of 35, Caroline Dwyer-Hickey has left a lasting legacy that's set to benefit generations to come. In the five years since her death, a charity set up in her name has raised a remarkable €600,000 for cancer research.
And now the Caroline Foundation, led by a committee of seven volunteers, is giving the nation something to sing about on the first weekend of February this year. Launched by RTÉ presenter and cancer survivor Áine Lawlor, and cancer specialist Professor John Crown, the 'Give Us a Song!' campaign invites choirs, groups, colleagues, buskers, friends and families nationwide to find their voice in aid of the Cancer Clinical Research Trust (CCRT), of which the Caroline Foundation is an active part.
"Having taken part in a clinical trial myself, I'm a firm believer in the potential of research to decode and ultimately defeat cancer," says Áine Lawlor. "We'd love people in villages, towns and cities all over the country to get out and sing over the first weekend in February for this important cause."
One of the key events in the Caroline Foundation's calendar, the fundraiser marks World Cancer Day on February 4, which this year coincides with what would have been Caroline's 40th birthday.
A beloved wife, daughter, sister, friend and primary schoolteacher who lived with cancer for nine years, Caroline finally succumbed to the disease in 2013 - but not without a fight. At their home in Greystones, her father Dermod Dwyer, a well-known face in the business world as chairman of the Dublin Convention Centre, and stepmother Helen O'Sullivan-Dwyer, a retired school principal, describe their sadness over her loss, but also their treasured memories of her life, the love and strength she shared, and that firm belief that science will not only cure but find a way of preventing the disease.
"Caroline participated in every clinical trial she could, which in our view probably extended her life by a good five years," says Dermod. "And it wasn't just adding days to her life, this was quality time. Caroline lived a full, purposeful life right up to the end, packing more into those 35 years than many others experience in a far longer lifetime."
Caroline's diagnosis came as a shock to the family, not just because of her age, but because she was so proactive about her health. Her mother Fidelma had died from lung cancer at the age of 38, when Caroline was 11 and her brother Denis a few years younger.
"Consequently, when Caroline grew up, she was extraordinarily diligent in taking care of herself," says Dermod. "She was active, played tennis, ate a balanced diet and went for a medical check every six months."
In June 2004, Caroline, a much-loved primary school teacher at St Brigid's School in Glasnevin, was looking forward to a summer trip to the States with her then boyfriend, Ronán Hickey. But first she went to have a small lump on her breast checked out. And then came the bombshell - a biopsy showed it was malignant. She had surgery within a week.
"It was a bolt out of the blue," says Dermod, whose wife Helen frequently accompanied her stepdaughter to chemo sessions and appointments with her oncologist, Professor Crown. Shortly after the treatment, Caroline took part in her first clinical trial, for Lapatinib, a drug still at that time under investigation. It's now a mainstream treatment for breast cancer and other solid tumours. The trial appeared to be a resounding success and in 2007, having been declared cancer-free, she and Ronán were married.
"He was the love of her life, and she was a radiant bride," remembers Helen. "She said it was the happiest day of her life."
But the remission was not to last. When the cancer returned aggressively, a new drug, T-DMI, offered a potential lifeline. Again, it was still under investigation, and there were no clinical trials in Ireland at the time, but one was being carried out at the Karmanos Institute in Detroit, USA. When Caroline was offered a place on the trial, she grabbed the opportunity.
"It was a gruelling schedule," says Helen. "Caroline was a meticulous planner, and hadn't missed a day at school. Every time she saw Professor Crown her question was, 'How soon can I get back to work?' Her priority was that her classes would not be disrupted, so every three weeks, she would hand over to a replacement teacher on a Wednesday evening, then take an 18-hour flight to Detroit via Chicago on Thursday, have her treatment on Friday and Saturday, fly home on Sunday and be back at school on Monday morning."
When she quickly responded well to the treatment, the family was elated but, ever the pragmatist, Caroline urged caution.
"She took the good and the bad and treated them both the same," says Helen. "If we enthused about a particular treatment bringing positive results, she'd say, 'Stop, we have to wait.' And she was right, because sometimes it would seem highly successful initially, and then the effects would dip. While managing this rollercoaster, she was managing us as well."
And she was living her life with her usual gusto. Helen and Dermod have a painting on their wall that shows a window from Caroline's old bedroom, with a few of her favourite things in the frame, like the hoodies she loved to wear, a couple of old teddy bears, and a tennis racquet.
"She and I went to Wimbledon together each year," says Dermod. "We always enjoyed that father-daughter time together. She was a strong, quiet person with a wonderfully quirky sense of humour.
"Throughout all the ups and downs, the good news and bad, the stops and starts, Caroline never once complained or asked 'Why me?' and she never spoke about death. She always had hope."
When she died in March 2013, the family was determined to give something back. That year they, along with friends and some patients of CCRT, set up the Caroline Foundation, not as a standalone charity, but affiliated with and supporting the work of the CCRT, and accountable to its auditors. Unlike some other charities, the foundation does not pay salaries or expenses for any of its committee members or volunteers. Every cent raised is used to pay the salaries of scientific researchers in their cancer studies.
This year, the foundation is funding the work of a third scientist to conduct new aspects of research, while an earlier study has already borne fruit and has moved to a promising new stage.
"In 2017, research supported and facilitated by the Caroline Foundation yielded new insights into potential treatments for the most aggressive types of breast cancer, HER2+ and triple negative," says Professor Crown of the CCRT. "As a result, we are starting new clinical trials for patients with both of these disease types in 2018. We are also applying these insights into potential treatment programmes in other cancer types. The new generation of trials will be called after Caroline, and we anticipate that we will be entering patients on to the Caroline 1 Trial in the first quarter of this year."
"To have sown the seeds from research to clinical trial is part of Caroline's legacy," says Dermod. "In fact, anybody who takes part in clinical trials leaves their legacy so that others can benefit.
"At one time clinical trials were almost unheard of. Now there's a global international network, and the system here in Ireland is as good as any in the world. Two weeks don't go by without oncology researchers knowing what's going on elsewhere in the world.
"Caroline always held on to the hope that cancer research gives. When one treatment begins to lose its effect, there are new forms of personal, targeted therapies coming along all the time, giving real hope to new generations.
"As Professor Crown puts it, every piece of research is like a little pebble being added to a bank of pebbles built up against a wall. You never know which is the one that will eventually tip over that wall and make the breakthrough."
In continuing to pile up those pebbles, the Caroline Foundation aims to have raised €1m for the CCRT within the next two years. Key annual fundraisers include the upcoming 'Give Us a Song!' campaign in February, marathons in June, and an October lunch hosted by broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan, whose sister Anne died from cancer at the age of 33.
Previous events include a Guinness World Record for the Longest Awareness Ribbon Chain in 2014. About 3,000 people lined the route between Bray and Greystones holding the chain aloft, raising €57,000 in the process. The foundation also won a world record for the Most People in a Decorated Hat Competition, and a national record for the longest line of teddy bears.
Which brings us back to the giant bronze bear on the seafront.
"Caroline loved teddy bears, and a year after she died, the local Tidy Towns committee was looking for a sculpture on the seafront," Dermod recalls. "So we got sculptor Patrick O'Reilly to create the Beach Bear. It's not a memorial, it's a fun piece of art that children love to climb and swing out of. That bear has attitude and determination, qualities that Caroline had in spades."
• To find out more or sign up for 'Give Us A Song!' visit thecarolinefoundation.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Health & Living