PUBLISHED ON: 21 December 2017

Kate was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in 2015, three years after the death of her husband. She tells us how she has learnt to grab opportunities as they come, including making the most of Christmas with her son. 

Kate by her Christmas tree

It's always been a special time 

Christmas has always been a very special time of year for us. Something that's been passed on to me by my grandparents, then my mum. It's always been really important. For us, it's about children, winter and spending time with people that we love, not just family.  

After my husband, Bruce, died in 2012, things changed as it was suddenly just me and my son Ollie. That year we didn’t stick to a routine or have a Christmas dinner. We decided to do what we wanted to, relaxing and watching movies. 

We both thought this would be wonderful, but on Boxing Day both admitted it was horrible. 

We don't have a routine anymore 

Before Bruce died we'd always watch the Muppet Christmas Carols on Christmas Eve, then go to Midnight Mass, and the family service on Christmas morning. The religious side is very important for us. We'd have family Christmas lunch and open presents afterwards.  

That routine has gone now. The first year afterwards I was taken aback when Ollie came rushing up telling me he'd left his letter out for Father Christmas. It was something I hadn't even thought about – each year Bruce would write back to him as 'Santa'.  

It was one of those, 'Oh wow, how do I deal with this?' moments. I couldn't copy Bruce's handwriting, so that year Father Christmas upgraded to a laptop. 

Together we make new memories 

Now I try to make new memories and focus on us being together. We also just do what everyone else does and have fun! I don't think my secondary diagnosis has changed that.  

Christmas is a part of life, and when it's just the two of us, we get on with it.  Ollie doesn't worry about me, and he doesn't use my diagnosis as an excuse – or let me use it as one either. 

I don't focus on my diagnosis 

I think it might be different if I wasn't in remission and on a more aggressive form of treatment with bigger side effects that were more obvious. I don't want people to think about it all the time, and I don't want to either. Although sometimes I'd like people to understand, at other times it's nice that we can all carry on as normal. 

I just have to remember to take it easy myself, as every now and then I catch myself and think, 'I’m exhausted!' and realise that I’ve done way too much. But I try not to let it get in the way.  

There are moments where I wonder if it's my last Christmas 

There’s inevitably that fleeting moment of, 'It’s Christmas again, will I be here for the next one?'. I don't think that's necessarily unique to someone with secondary breast cancer, but you're definitely more aware of it. 

That feeling tends to get stronger as more time passes, and the likelihood of recurrence increases. Being five years down the line doesn’t make you safer. But as time goes on I've also become better at handling those thoughts.  

There's always that underlying worry and uncertainty 

You can never be 100% sure about your future, as a prognosis is only as good as the last study that’s been done, whether it's on life expectancy or the cancer getting more aggressive. Opinion changes all the time. 

It can be easy to be scared by all the numbers. When you have a diagnosis, there’s always that underlying worry, a concern, a niggle, a doubt. It wouldn’t be normal if there wasn’t.  

Christmas itself isn't a trigger for these feelings, but the fact that it's something that comes around once a year. It's the same with anniversaries or birthdays – a date in the calendar that you can pinpoint and remember what you did last year, and question whether there'll be one next year.  

I've learnt to seize the opportunity if it's there 

The Christmas after I was diagnosed I took Ollie to Florida. We'd booked it before I'd even found a lump, but I decided to go ahead with it anyway. It became my goal – the light at the end of the tunnel after active treatment.  

We decided that we don't need routine, just a lot of love and joy, and chocolate. Last year we went to Ollie's friend's house, which is something we've never done. This year they're coming to us, and he's more excited than ever! He’s your typical child at Christmas – chocolate coins, stockings, a carrot for the reindeer, even though he’s 15.  

We just keep on keeping it magic. Whatever you do, wherever you are, cherish every moment, hug the ones you love a little bit closer and have fun!  

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