THE grins on the faces of Rosie and Emma Sutherland are infectious. They are the smiles of a mother and daughter who know how lucky they are, how good life can be – and how bad.
Today, they have a lot to smile about, but this time last year they were making their first visit to the Maggie’s Centre at the Western General. Rosie had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy in March, but five months later it had become clear that 12-year-old Emma was not coping with all that had happened to her mum.
So, it was to Maggie’s they turned, and for the first time Emma was able to be honest about how she was feeling about seeing her “rock” become ill and weak, about dealing with the possibility of losing her mum to cancer, and for the first time she was able to cry without fear it would upset Rosie.
Today, as they laugh and smile in the lounge of Maggie’s, that meeting with counsellor Seonaid Green seems a lifetime ago. Yet it was from that session that the spark of an idea was struck – and it’s why last week they were back again, delivering a pile of Emma’s newly-published book, Eek! My Mummy Has Breast Cancer, to centre head Andrew Anderson.
The book, penned solely by Emma, is a heartfelt guide to how children her age can deal with such a potentially life-changing event.
“When mum was diagnosed I had loads of questions but I didn’t want to ask her because I thought they might upset her,” says Emma, now 13. “So I looked for information and I couldn’t really find anything that was written for someone my age. There was loads of stuff on the internet which was all quite complicated and then even when I came to Maggie’s I was shown some children’s books, but they were for much younger children. I said to mum, ‘Maybe I should write a book,’ and she said, ‘Yes, you should’, so I did.”
Doing things is the Sutherland way. The family from Fairmilehead is not the type to sit back and accept the help of others without giving something in return. Since the age of seven, Emma has been fundraising for the special care babies unit at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary – the place she was cared for in the first three weeks of her life. Born prematurely because of Rosie’s dangerously high blood pressure, she weighed just 3lbs 7oz and was given a 50-50 chance of surviving. She pulled through and when she heard about her precarious start in life, the Boroughmuir pupil decided she wanted to thank the Simpson’s staff, opening up her family home to strangers in a “yard sale” and getting her younger sister, Kate, to paint nails for cash.
Similarly, when childminder Rosie was diagnosed with breast cancer – shortly after she split from her husband – she did not sit at home and wait for her treatment to begin. Two weeks later, she was organising volunteers to pose for a naked calendar as well as pulling strings to hold a fundraising ball, with the ambitious target of raising £35,000 for Breast Cancer Care.
So, writing a book to help youngsters seemed the obvious thing to do. “I suppose we are ‘do-ers’,” says Rosie, 42. “It might be our way of coping. Emma and Kate reacted to my cancer in different ways. Kate is very practical and matter-of-fact and has just got on with things.
“It seemed to hit Emma harder, though she hid it well for quite a while. It was all done quite quickly which might be why Emma’s reaction was delayed – I had the diagnosis, mastectomy and reconstruction but it was only when I was home and not able to do the same things I used to do, because of the physical aspects of the operation, that I think it sank in.”
Rosie – and her fiance Scott Reid – started to get concerned about Emma’s mental health. “We began to realise that Emma wasn’t really coping. She had lost confidence and wasn’t managing well at school, was over-reacting to things and even the way she was walking . . . all hunched shoulders . . . as if she was protecting herself from something, it really wasn’t like her. I think she thought I was going to die.
“I contacted her school first and they were great, very supportive of Emma, but it wasn’t enough. I wouldn’t say I was desperate but I didn’t know where to turn to get her some help. The only place I could think of was Maggie’s given that the changes in her centred around my cancer.
“I called first to ask if they dealt with teenagers and they said ‘of course’, so we came down for a chat with Seonaid. Emma asked loads of questions and left as a different child, happy and positive again – and I came out more knowledgeable as well.”
Emma adds: “She just explained everything I should have known from the start, in a way I could understand. She was brilliant – and I’ve dedicated the book to her and to Mike Dixon, my mum’s surgeon.”
Mike, though, is not just Rosie’s doctor. In a twist of fate, last October Emma started feeling pain in her left breast.
“She couldn’t bear anything against the skin. It was red and fiery looking,” says Rosie. “She’d kept it from me – she’d thought it was growing pains. We went to the GP who referred us straight to the Western. It was surreal sitting there with my daughter, the same place I’d been just a few months before having my biopsy done, wondering what on earth it was. It was scary.”
It transpired that Emma was suffering from a rare condition which had formed a benign cyst. “She had it drained under a local anaesthetic, but all the doctors, including Mike Dixon, were very excited about it because it was so unusual,” says Rosie. “Which was great, but we could have done without it.”
They certainly could have when it happened a few months later in Emma’s other breast.
Rosie, who is now on Tamoxifen, adds: “She’s been amazing in the way she’s coped with it all. I think concentrating on the book helped. She wanted to make a difference and I think with the book she will. She’s already been awarded a school prize for outstanding achievement in writing, which was fantastic.”
While the pink-covered book has been printed for free by SHN Publishing it costs the Sutherlands £2500 for 1000 copies, which are then given out free by libraries and to Maggie’s Centres. “So we’ve still got a lot of fundraising to do and a lot of books to sell to donate the money to Maggie’s,” says Emma. “But people seem really interested. I got 1600 likes on the Facebook page so it’d be great if that transferred into people buying the book.”
She adds: “Sitting down to do the book is the first time I’ve written anything properly. It was quite easy, though sometimes finding the words to describe how I felt was hard. It made me really think about how I felt about it all, how at first I didn’t take it in, couldn’t get my head round it, and how hard it was to see my mum ill.
“It’s been a great experience for me, and I just hope it helps other people my age who find themselves going through the same thing. I always thought that cancer meant a person would die. Now I know that it doesn’t.”
n Eek! My Mummy Has Breast Cancer, is being launched on September 27 at 3.30pm in the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the High Street, by DJ Grant Stott. It can be purchased for £7 on www.eekmymummy.co.uk and 100 per cent of proceeds go to Maggie’s.
An extract from EEK! My Mummy Has Breast Cancer
“Monday 19th March 2012: I got up for school and my Mum was already up. She said she was so hungry but wasn’t allowed to eat anything as she was having her operation that day. It seemed like a normal morning. It came to 7.30am and time for me to leave for the bus.
“My Mum didn’t seem any different but I now know she was terrified that morning but didn’t want to show her emotions. We actually walked down the street together – I went for my bus and my Mum went to her friend’s house a few doors down who was taking her to the hospital.
“I continued down the street with my earphones in, listening to music. My favourite track at the time was Beautiful by Christina Aguilera. Seems quite appropriate now.
“I somehow managed to keep it all together until I got on my school bus. I sat down and cried. I was on the bus alone with my tears, my thoughts and missing my mummy already.
“I so often felt alone and completely isolated. School was dreadful for me during this time as it seemed everyone was living in another world from me; the world I wanted to be in – just to be a normal teenager.”