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'I beat breast cancer – and now I can see my trees grow'

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Survivors: Heather and Gerry Robinson

When the breast cancer treatment was at its most ravaging, Heather Robinson thought she wouldn't see her 50th birthday.

But having been given the all-clear five years on from her diagnosis, she and her husband, Sir Gerry Robinson (64), are preparing to celebrate the occasion with a trip to Verona to see La Traviata followed by a holiday in Sicily.

"It is a big milestone and, yes, there were times I thought I wouldn't make it," admitted Heather at the couple's luxury Georgian home, Oakfield Park near Raphoe, Co Donegal.

It has been a rollercoaster journey since Heather was first diagnosed during what had become a routine annual mammography in London.

"There's that dreadful moment when you know from the face of the woman doing the ultrasound that it's not quite so straightforward. They said they'd found something and that they'd like to take a quick flesh biopsy and they did and sent it off for analysis," she said.

Heather saw a consultant there and then and her worst fears were confirmed.

Gerry, the Donegal-born businessman who has headed up some of the largest companies in the UK, was about to deliver a speech in the Grosvenor House Hotel when Heather called him.

"It was like the bottom had fallen out of my world. The first thing is you panic. So I went out on the stage with all this stuff bouncing around in my head and then got back to Heather as quickly as I could," he recalled.

There was more shock in store days later when they learned that Heather was suffering from the more aggressive HER2-positive Grade 3 form of the disease.

With no time to waste, Heather underwent surgery but a low white blood-cell count meant her ability to tolerate the subsequent harsh regime of chemotherapy sessions was seriously compromised.

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By this point they had returned home to their rural idyll and to their teenage son and daughter, Tim and April. Gerry also has an older son and daughter and two grandchildren.

From early on, they decided to protect the younger two from knowing every high and low along the way. They named the treatment day, Grumpy Tuesday, because of the toll it was taking on Heather.

Gerry and other friends would accompany her to Letterkenny General Hospital for the chemotherapy sessions, which often couldn't happen because of her low white cell count.

"It kind of takes over your life. It was the uncertainty was the killer. You go along expecting to get treatment, then blood counts don't come up to match and then you are in this horrible place," said Gerry.

For a man who once took on the challenge of making the NHS run more efficiently, not being in control was the most terrifying aspect of all.

"Obviously the person you love is at risk of dying. You cannot predict it. You don't know where it's going. At one stage we became quite convinced that this thing is bloody not going to work because the treatment wasn't happening," he said.

Heather recalls watching the seasons turn through her bedroom window and wondering would she ever see the trees grow that they had planted.

The darkest hour came when they had to spend a night at the Accident & Emergency Unit at Letterkenny General Hospital after Heather became seriously ill from yet another infection.

"I thought I was dying. I was sitting on a wooden stool in a corner of the A&E. When I actually physically started throwing up everywhere, they couldn't ignore me.

"I was chronically sick. It was a bad night but I came through it," she said.

"It was probably the worst night of my life," added Gerry.

Another low point, which even now brings them both to tears, was when Heather lost her hair.

'That was a reality check. I had my hair short and I had bought the wig but nothing quite prepares you for that day when it really does happen.

"It still makes me cry just thinking of it," she said.

Gerry chokes up as he recalls the moment.

"I cut the remainder of the hair for Heather. It was awful, just bloody awful," he said.

They are reminded of the words in the powerful TS Eliot poem; The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

But little by little the powerful treatment started to take effect and weekly appointments became three-monthly and then six-monthly. Heather's hair grew back and the time came when cancer stopped being the first thing she thought about when she woke up.

Through it all, Gerry has been astounded by Heather's resilience and strength while she believes the experience has reinforced their relationship.

"It put the boot on the other foot. He had to look after me which makes me cry, but he was prepared to do all that running around and even cooking his own beef burgers on a Tuesday," she said, laughing through the tears.


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