Cancer be damned! I'll make this our best Christmas ever: The utterly inspiring story of a mother-of-six with breast cancer
22:23 GMT, 19 December 2012
As the mother of six young children with just a few days to go until Christmas, I’m working my way through the very long list of jobs that send all of us into a spin at this time of year.
There’s the hundred stocking fillers I have to buy, a mountain of presents to wrap, a super-sized turkey to source, tree-lights to untangle, Post Office queues to stand in and pine needles constantly to vacuum up.
These festive duties can drive us mothers to despair, but this year I’m relishing every single task that comes my way. Why Because, while Christmas will be as busy and eventful as ever in the Brazier household, my attitude to it — and every other aspect of our family life — has been altered for ever.
Uncertain future: Jo Brazier, who has breast cancer, with husband Colin and their children
In August, I was diagnosed with third-stage breast cancer in the form of a large tumour that has spread to my lymph nodes. I have since had six of the eight cycles of chemotherapy required before I have to undergo surgery to remove my left breast in the New Year. After that there will be a course of radiotherapy. Then — who knows
Of course, I have to hope for the best. What else can I do As the 50-year-old mum to Edith, 13, Agnes, nine, Constance, eight, Gwendolyn, six, Katharine, four, and John-Jo, three, I cannot dwell on the ‘what-ifs’.
This Christmas I am here, surrounded by my family, whom I utterly adore. Right here, right now, there is nothing more in this world that I wish for.
This is not the first time cancer has stalked my family. Three years ago, my husband Colin, a presenter on Sky News, was also diagnosed with a form of cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and had a small growth on his face removed, followed by radiotherapy.
He still has six-monthly check-ups and his prognosis looks good, but it is a form of cancer that tends to recur, and so now we have a double spectre looming over us.
One of the first things Colin, 44, said following his diagnosis was: ‘So that’s my hopes of living to a ripe old age up the spout.’ Now I, too, am facing the same prospect, and we’re both suddenly a lot more conscious of our mortality than we were before cancer reared its ugly head.
We just have to be the very best parents we can to our children while we're still here
It sounds like a cliche, but we are both determined to make every single second of our lives count. Every moment is precious, even the frantic, hectic, noisy chaotic ones. They’re all being banked and treasured.
One good thing about this busy time of year is that it leaves Colin and I little time to dwell. How can we feel down when our days are filled with excited banter about Santa and the baby Jesus
It is my duty as a mother to keep my anxieties in check, as I am acutely aware of the ripple-effect my mood can have on my young family. Only my eldest daughter, Edith, knows that I have cancer. I sat her down the day after my diagnosis and said: ‘You know I’ve had a sore booby Well, it’s a bit serious. The doctors found a tumour.’
I had to wrap my arms around her as she dissolved into tears.
Edith is a bright kid — she knows cancer can kill; my own mother died from lung cancer two years ago, so I can’t deceive her. I’ve reassured her that my cancer is not as serious as Grandma’s was, and told her not to worry too much, but I know it’s an impossible order to follow.
The younger ones know about the ‘sore booby’, too, and the nasty medicine that has made my hair fall out. But to them I’m still just Mum — admittedly a balding one — and they are relying on me to carry on with Christmas as normal.
If anything, this Christmas will be better than previous ones. I have put an awful lot of thought into their presents this year, and probably spent way too much money.
Dependable Edith will be getting her very own laptop, while Agnes, our little prima donna, will be ecstatic to discover that we’ve given in and bought her a springer spaniel to add to our existing menagerie of pets.
Family ties: Colin and Jo Brazier with their children shortly after the birth of their youngest, John-Jo
Big-hearted Constance will receive a Curio 7 tablet, Gwendolyn, our livewire, a LeapPad learning tablet, Katharine, the little cutie, has a Baby Annabell doll to look forward to, while boisterous John-Jo can thank his father for insisting that we get him a toy gun.
Overindulged and politically incorrect Maybe, but each of my children is worth every single penny.
I will, as ever, be up until the wee small hours on Christmas Eve, wrapping dozens of presents and writing the little gift tags, while polishing off Rudolf’s carrot and the brandy and mince pie left out for Santa.
A few hours later, everyone will pile into our bed at 6am to open their gifts, and when we can no longer see the floor for paper, I will do what I always do: make a breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, before we all wrap up warm and head off to Mass at our local church.
In the afternoon, Christmas carols will run on a loop in our detached six-bedroom home in the Hampshire countryside as I tackle the dinner. We’ll probably get through 1kg of roast potatoes and 50 parsnips, each individually glazed in honey.
People keep asking if the cancer makes me tired and yes, of course it does, but what’s a little bit of fatigue to deal with in the grand scheme of things
I'm not angry towards my body for letting me down. It bore me six children, after all'
It’s hard to believe that just seven months have passed since I first noticed something different about my left breast. I’d raised my arm to blow-dry my hair and saw a puckering on the underside that I mistook for cellulite. It was a warning sign — I now know that women don’t get cellulite on their breasts. Then I felt the lump and headed to my GP, convinced it was nothing more sinister than a case of mastitis.
Eventually, a mammogram and biopsy at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester revealed the terrifying truth. The tumour was a big one — 4.5cm by 6cm to be precise — and a ‘stage three’.
There are only four stages, so it’s pretty bad. Also, the cancer had advanced to the lymph nodes under my arm.
All I could say was ‘Oh’ as this new, shocking reality took shape in my mind. I drove home in a daze. How could I, who had always been so physically strong and healthy, have succumbed to this
When I sat Colin down and told him my diagnosis, his panicked response was: ‘Oh God, what if we both croak What about our children’
Of course, this had occurred to me, too, but I knew at that moment what we had to do as parents: we had to be strong and calm in the face of bad news.
‘Then that will be the end of our journey,’ I told Colin gently. ‘And it will be a part of our children’s journey that their parents died young, and worrying won’t change a thing. We just have to be the best parents we can be to our children while we’re here.’
That’s why I’m determined this Christmas will be our best yet.
It goes without saying that I hope with every atom of my being that our children will not be orphaned.
But, if they are, I can comfort myself with the knowledge that we have made all the necessary arrangements, regarding wills and guardians, to take care of them. My younger sister and her husband have agreed to take all six children — just in case. We all hope it will never come to that.
Toasting the season: The couple hope to have many more Christmases together
I’m not angry towards my body for letting me down. It bore me six children, after all. In fact, I think of the enormous tumour in my left breast (which Colin jokingly refers to as ‘the treacherous tit’) as a part of me — albeit a very much unwelcome part of me.
One of the few positives is that the hospital has tested my tumour and there are no indicators that it is genetic. With two sisters and five daughters, I’m deeply thankful for that.
But I often wonder whether my tumour could be the result of having so many late-life babies.
I know that having children past the age of 35 can double your risk of breast cancer and, as someone who had five within six years in my 40s, I have to accept that this may have been a contributing factor.
I met Colin 15 years ago when I was head of foreign news at Sky TV and he was royal correspondent, and we were both very keen to have a big family. I know that if I could go back in time I’d do nothing differently.
People say I’m brave, that they don’t know how I’m coping. But I’m enjoying the unexpected benefits of my diagnosis: I appreciate the value of the mundane things I do every day — the washing, the ironing, the grind of getting six children out of the door.
I’m human so, inevitably, there are dark times when I cannot stop my mind wandering to worst-case scenarios: getting to the end of my treatment and discovering that the doctors couldn’t clear all the cancer, or fast-forwarding a few years and being told the cancer is back.
Driving home from a recent Christmas shopping trip, four-year-old Katharine leaned forward in her booster seat and reached for my hand.
As she placed her tiny palm against mine, I was suddenly blind-sided by a gut-wrenching thought: ‘What if I never see this little hand when it’s big’
Last year, 49,564 women and 397 men in the UK were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer
Tears streamed down my cheeks and they did so again when, back at home, I shut myself in the kitchen with Colin and had a little cry.
Of course, I could sink to the ground weeping, overwhelmed with fear, every day. But what good would that do any of us
Whatever is going on in my life or in my head, first and foremost I’m a mother — so I keep doing my job the best I can.
It’s difficult, of course. Coping with the after-effects of chemotherapy while dealing with six children is no easy feat.
Colin brings me a cup of tea first thing so I can take my anti-nausea tablets and feel well enough to wave the children off on the school bus at 8.30am. I’m determined things will remain as normal as possible.
But, of course, there are bad days. A couple of weeks ago I was admitted to hospital for two nights with a chest infection after catching a cold from the children.
Normally I would have batted off a sniffle but, because my immune system is compromised by the chemotherapy, I needed intravenous antibiotics to stop the infection running riot.
Thankfully, if I need help and Colin is at work, my sisters are not far away.
My neighbours have also been wonderful. Friends have made big, home-cooked meals for our freezer which are a God-send some days.
It makes my heart swell seeing how much my illness has turned Edith, always a nurturing big sister, into a miniature mother.
While I’m clearing up the kitchen and she’s eating dinner in the dining room with her siblings, I hear her reminding them to keep their elbows off the table and place knives and forks neatly on their plates at the end of meals. Listening to her taking charge makes me very proud.
Consciously passing on my wisdom and values to my eldest daughter feels a bit like loading a floppy disc or memory stick, but it’s just an insurance policy: I sincerely hope that she will never have to take on the responsibility of a motherly role to her younger siblings.
However, I’m ensuring she has a good grasp of what I would do, or want, in most situations, just in case I’m not always here. For example, I want my children to be able to stand up for themselves. If they come home from school complaining that another child has said or done something to upset them, I ask: ‘What’s so important about this person that their words or actions can make you cry and feel so terrible’
I also remind my children that, even if the whole world turns against them, there will always be enough people who love them in our family for it not to really matter.
Friends have asked how I stop myself falling apart in those dark moments where I imagine my beloved children growing up without me.
The answer I console myself with the knowledge that they will always have each other. That is the biggest comfort of all.
This year we will sit down to dinner, served on my best Christmas crockery, beside our twinkling 7ft tree, decorated by little hands, looking out of our windows onto the field and stables where we keep our ponies.
As Colin and I toast the season with a glass of champagne, I’m sure there will be a moment when my mind wanders to thoughts of Christmases future.
And I’ll say a little prayer that we will be here for many years to come, to watch the joy on our children’s faces as they bounce on our bed amid a sea of wrapping paper.
Interview: HELEN CARROLL