THIS time last year Lynne McNicoll knew something was wrong.
The charity campaigner had been operating at less than her usual tireless speed. There had been a busy few months of fashion shows, charity teas and blingo – and being named the Edinburgh Citizen of the Year – as well as the family Christmas to organise. But she was more exhausted than she’d ever been.
“It was Hogmanay, and I don’t know what made me do it, but I thought I’d just check. Properly check, not just a perfunctory one. I thought ‘OK, what’s that?’ Now I think what a stupid day to do it, because the GP wasn’t open til January 5th – and that was the anniversary of Andrew’s death – and so I didn’t even phone the doctor until the 6th.”
Finding a lump in her right breast triggered a year of the lowest lows and some of the highest highs for the 59-year-old who is known throughout the Lothians for her cancer charity It’s Good 2 Give and her ambition to open a retreat for families whose children are suffering from the illness.
She and her husband Ian also lead a campaign for safer cycling in the city after he lost his son – Lynne’s stepson – Andrew in 2012 when he was killed while cycling to work.
Sitting in her Craiglockhart home office, the walls of which are covered with slogans about positivity, she says: “It’s been the strangest year – the worst lows and I had thought nothing could be worse than when Andrew died but I think that was the worst for the family as a whole, all of us supporting each other, this was a terror which was my own.
Of course your family are there for you, but you realise that only one person is really living with it, only one person can take the medicine.Lynne McNicoll
“Of course, your family share and are there for you, but you realise that only one person is really living with it, only one person can take the medicine.”
She adds: “I kept it to myself and we had a fairly ordinary New Year’s Day. I had a concern obviously but lots of women find lumps and often it’s nothing. When I did go to the GP – who is fantastic – I still wasn’t too worried.
“So much so that when I went to the breast cancer clinic for a mammogram and ultrasound I told Ian not to come with me. Of course, when they told me it was looking bad he came straight down to join me. I had a biopsy and went home. Only then did I let my emotions come out.”
Lynne was placed on Professor Mike Dixon’s surgical list, and when they first met he was unequivocal about her chances. “He told me I’d live to be an old lady,” she laughs.
By the end of January she’d had her lumpectomy surgery and her chemotherapy had been scheduled. “I had thought I would only need radiotherapy so being told it was chemo was a big blow.
“Again I had gone on my own to the hospital – I called Ian and cried down the phone. It was a freezing day and when I got home he was standing in the garage in his coat, waiting for me to return... I realised this was going to be terrible for us both.
“But at the same time I kept thinking of the children I know – and have known – who have gone through much worse and kept smiling. I realised that despite what I’d heard, the empathy I had with them, I really didn’t have a clue. So I couldn’t do any less, and sometimes I found that my forced smile became a real one.”
Lynne admits the chemotherapy was the worst five months of her life – but every setback in 2015 seemed to be countered with good news. “Some of the most wonderful things have happened this year too so I feel pretty philosophical about it all.
“I was named volunteer of the year in the Evening News Local Hero awards which was amazing, though I was too ill to go [to the ceremony].
“And in May I’d received a very fancy envelope through the door which contained a letter asking me if I’d accept an OBE. I got very emotional about that – and I had to keep it to myself which was incredibly difficult.”
Lynne received her OBE from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace just this month – a few weeks after she was given the Forth One Cash For Kids Award for her dedication to helping youngsters with cancer.
“Getting the OBE was lovely, but still I’d say the William Y Darling award the previous year was really special, particularly because my Mum and Dad could be there. They were very proud and I think because as it was for good citizenship there was a certain reflection on them – my brother and I were certainly raised to think of others.
“My dad was born in New Zealand, brought up in Australia to Scottish parents but Edinburgh is his home. It’s from him that I get my love of the city. We’re both passionate about Edinburgh.”
She adds: “I felt sick first thing in the morning when I was getting ready to go to Buckingham Palace. But once I was in the waiting room with the other people and heard their amazing stories of what they’d achieved, I calmed down. I thought I’m just going to enjoy this. Prince Charles was lovely, and of course I invited him to the Ripple Retreat.”
For most importantly this year the £1 million retreat her charity is building at Loch Venachar, Stirlingshire, has made huge progress. “I was lucky to be able to work most days despite being ill, but Ian took charge of the retreat as I couldn’t get there. He was dealing with the architect and the contractors John Dennis of Bonnyrigg – who are doing all the work on a no-profit basis – as well as those who have wonderfully offered to help like Kitchens International and David Phillips furniture
“The day the foundations went in though, that was a super day, I really had to pinch myself. And of course come May it will actually open.”
Indeed the coming year will be as jammed-packed full as the past ten years since Lynne began fundraising. “I hope I have more energy – the medication I’m on just now is still tiring me out and leaving me all puffy and I’m really not liking it. I need to lose weight and get fit and to have a healthier year.
“I’m going to do a 5k in March – Ian and I will walk it together. We’ve got some families booked in for the retreat already and the Beatson Unit in Glasgow want to use it too and there will be open days for families to see what it’s all about and Judy Murray has agreed to open the tennis court.
“And I’m 60 at the end of the year so I’ll be looking for a new challenge to mark that. I’m really looking forward to the new year.”