Ballymena women diagnosed with same rare cancer at 19 and 20 back new friendship campaign

Dessie Blackadder

Reporter:

Dessie Blackadder

Two young women from Ballymena are sharing their inspiring story of cancer and friendship in support of a new Teenage Cancer Trust charity campaign.

In 2018 Cat McKenna from Ballymena, who now lives in Belfast, was just 19 when diagnosed with cancer.

Cat explains: “They discovered a neuroendocrine tumour in part of my appendix and that it had grown into the right-hand side of my bowel, it was a shock.

“The cancer I had was quite rare and I was told that it was usually found in people in their 70’s and 80’s and I was like – well great, I’m a senior citizen now then!

“After I was diagnosed, I felt very isolated from everything. My family and friends, just everything. I did not cry a lot; I was just silently sad for such a long time.”

But five months later Cat’s Teenage Cancer Trust Nurse, Kerrie, who supported her through treatment, let her know that another young woman, who lived just 10 minutes away from her, had been diagnosed with the same rare cancer.

Kerrie suggested that Cat meet with Amber Scott, who herself was just 20 when diagnosed, and despite being ‘very different people’ the two have become extremely close friends.

Cat, now 21, said: “When we talked the first thing Amber said to me is ‘I am really blonde, I’m the blondest person you’ve ever seen, I’m impossible to miss’.

“And I said, ‘well, I’m a big goth - and I’m also impossible to miss’.”

Amber, now 22, comments: “We met at Starbucks and we were sat there like the odd pair. I was wearing something feminine and pink and she was in black head to toe with black hair and these big biker boots and I was like, ‘I hope I don’t see anyone I know’!

“When we started talking about what we had been through we realised that we’d had a relatively similar reaction to things, and that we could relate to each other and have a laugh.

Cat adds: “We were both so weird about meeting at first then we ended up sitting in my car chatting for an hour before we went home. It was strange and wonderful.

“There’s no effort that needs to go into our conversations, they flow easily. We both had to have major bowel surgery and the cancer has left lasting damage. When I talk about the after-effects, she just gets it. That is what is so important to me.”

Amber said: “But it wasn’t just like, ‘oh we had the same cancer, we’re friends now’. Genuinely Cat is one of the nicest most compassionate people. We get along so well.”

Teenage Cancer Trust nurses and youth workers make introductions between young people that they support and also run social events that help reduce the isolation and loneliness that a cancer diagnosis at a young age can bring.

As well as meeting through their Teenage Cancer Trust nurse Kerrie, who Amber describes as a ‘literal angel’, Kerrie also arranged for them and a group of other young people across Northern Ireland attend a weekend away run by the charity called Find Your Sense of Tumour with hundreds of other young people affected by cancer.

When Cat and Amber were first diagnosed, they kept their cancer and surgery largely secret from all but a few friends and family. And when they did open-up, their wider friendship groups were all supportive.

However according to new research from Teenage Cancer Trust during treatment three quarters of young people with cancer found their friendships changed – with more than half (55%) finding friends stopped contacting them as much, and over a third (40%) finding some stopped contacting them completely.

Nearly half (49%) of those surveyed believe that awkwardness around what to say or do when they were diagnosed was the reason friends fell out of touch.

That’s why to help with this problem, as part of the charity’s new Friendship and Cancer campaign, Amber and Cat are joining over 20 other young people supported by the charity to share their experiences and tips on how to be a good friend to someone during their treatment.

Amber, who also features in the campaign’s ‘top tips’ film, said:

“Stay in touch with your friends, send messages to let them know you care.

“One of the nicest messages I remember getting was just after I’d come out of surgery and it made me laugh a lot. My friend had texted me during the operation and it said: I don’t want to be cringy, but I love you a lot, and please don’t die on me…because who else would I go for Sunday eats with?”

Cat said: “My advice to someone who has found out their friend has cancer is to not allow cancer to have the spotlight over your friend.

“Yes, your friend has cancer and yes, that’s a horrible, difficult and traumatic thing for anyone of any age. But when you’re young and just getting to know yourself, going through changes every single day, and then suddenly you’ve got this huge other change called cancer, the last thing you want is to be identified with your cancer rather than who you are as a person, who you’ve built yourself to be.

“You get that feeling enough whenever you’re hooked up to machines or spending days, months, years in hospitals and doctor’s offices. You have the power as a friend to identify with them and help them through that, so love your mates as much as you’ve always done and keep them in the loop.

“Don’t let cancer have the spotlight and let it change how you approach the people you love and care for, unless you’re going to love them harder, because that works too. “

Visit www.teenagecancertrust.org/friends for more tips from young people on how to be a good friend to someone with cancer.

Helen Veitch, Head of Youth Support Coordinators, Teenage Cancer Trust, said:

“It is totally understandable to feel scared when your friend has cancer, and not know what to say or do, or be afraid of saying the wrong thing or asking the wrong question.

“But not contacting your friend as much, or not getting in touch at all because you feel awkward or frightened, can feel to your friend like you’ve forgotten or even abandoned them at a time when they really need you.

“Speak to them about how you are feeling, ask how you can help them out, and find out more about how you can support them on the Teenage Cancer Trust website.”

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