Brave Jamie McIntosh can hardly think of a time when his mother wasn’t fighting the nightmare of cancer.
From the moment he was born until the day the cruel illness claimed Monica’s life in November, the youngster grew up in its shadow.
Not that she let it show too much. For from his first day at primary school to seeing him become a teen, Jamie’s mum put her own struggles aside to make sure she was there for her son.
Although she knew her time was limited, fuelled by motherly love and sheer determination, she fought her cancer tooth and nail for 17 years.
Now, even though her passing in November, aged just 48, is still desperately raw, 14-year-old Jamie has made an incredible pledge in her memory: to tell her story, and his, in a generous bid to help others.
Inspired by fellow 14-year-old Emma Sutherland, who last year published Eek! My Mummy Has Breast Cancer – her personal tale of coming to terms with mum Rosie’s illness – Jamie has started writing a book of his own.
Still in its early stages, he hopes the book will help boys like him cope with the emotional rollercoaster of growing up with a desperately sick parent.
He also plans for it to raise awareness of the various support groups, in particular Maggie’s Centre, which can help patients and families cope, and to tell the story of local charity Fight Against Cancer Edinburgh (Face), a relatively unsung group which every year takes young people like Jamie on a trip of a lifetime to Lapland.
Although the teen knows penning the book will be emotionally draining, he believes writing it all down may also help him cope with his pain of loss.
“I want to do it. I feel that it would help other people,” he says. “I think about everything mum achieved and how happy she was despite what was happening. I’ve got so much I want to say about her, there’s no end to it.
“I’ll always miss her.”
Monica and husband Iain, of Corstorphine, knew she faced an uphill struggle after breast cancer was diagnosed when she was just short of her 30th birthday. And they were only too conscious that it could destroy their hopes of having a family.
However, after considering what might lie ahead, Monica underwent a mastectomy and chose not to have chemotherapy, which could have affected her fertility, opting for radiotherapy.
To the couple’s delight, Jamie was born three years later, and the proud mum set about defying her illness to give her son the best possible start.
“She knew she might have to leave me when I was still young, but she was the kind of person who really did not want to let cancer bother her at all,” says Jamie.
“Her attitude was ‘Yolo’ – you only live once. She said that recently when we were on holiday at Center Parcs,” he says with a smile. “She hadn’t been well but wanted to go in the pool and was determined. She said ‘Yolo’ and went for it. It was hysterical to hear her talking like that.
“Now I want people to know how hard she battled and to help out people in the same position, to let them know about cancer, what it does. It’s six letters, one word, but it can change a family’s life forever.”
Monica’s remarkable spirit meant the family enjoyed holidays and precious time together, even though she must have been feeling the burden of gruelling cancer treatment.
Indeed, one of Jamie’s most vivid memories is of a family holiday in France when he was around seven years old, with his mum smiling and thoroughly enjoying the time together, her hair gone as the result of cancer drugs, the devastating news that it had returned – this time to her lymph nodes and into her liver, hip, skull and spine – was set aside as she concentrated on making sure everyone had a good time.
“She took the approach to life that nothing much worse could go wrong, so just get on with things. It was ‘I’ve got cancer, get on with life and enjoy it’.”
Monica, a former hairdresser and air stewardess, had retrained as a counsellor at Maggie’s Centre in the hope her experiences could help others. However, the cancer’s return meant she felt she had to quit the job she’d come to love. Meanwhile, at home, she and Iain had to strike the fine balance between preparing Jamie for the difficult journey that would eventually come and not scaring him.
Jamie could see the changes for himself. “She didn’t run about as much, but she was always there for me to chat to. I don’t suppose she was ever really ‘well’, but sometimes she was better than others and sometimes worse. You just have to get on with it though,” he says.
Monica’s condition worsened dramatically in October 2012. But in another sign of her determined spirit, she battled long enough to meet and hold her sister Angela’s newborn twins and have one final family holiday with Iain, 62, and Jamie.
“It was like she wasn’t going to let it beat her before she got to do what she wanted,” says Jamie, who is in his third year at Craigmount High. “She wanted to see my Auntie Angela’s twins and she did.
“A week before she died we had a holiday at Center Parcs. We didn’t know if she’d be well enough to travel, but she went to hospital in the morning and the doctors said she could go, and by God we had a good time.
“It was brilliant.”
Within a week of returning home, however, Monica became desperately ill. As the family prepared for the worst, she rallied dramatically to give Iain and Jamie precious final hours by her bed at St Columba’s Hospice, holding each other, chatting and recalling happy times.
“She had rallied completely against the odds and came up with the goods,” says Jamie. “It was like it was her way of saying ‘goodbye’. She was lying in bed and she was on a lot of drugs, but was chatting to us and there were times we were laughing.
“It was honestly one of the greatest nights of my life. It was incredible and I want to tell other people that although there are lots of times when it’s awful, there can be times when you can laugh and enjoy being together, too.”
Jamie’s grief was still raw when he learned he had been chosen to join a special group of young people on the Face annual trip to the frozen north. For younger children, it’s a magical trip to meet Santa in his frozen home. And for the older ones like Jamie, it’s an escape into a special winter wonderland of skidoo rides, sledging, snowball fights and fun.
Jamie was on the flight when he met Emma, whose book EEK! My Mummy Has Breast Cancer was published last year. Reading the book, he realised that his experiences could help others.
He has already written more than 1000 words and a Facebook page to keep followers informed of its progress has notched up 778 ‘likes’ in just a few days.
Iain has thrown his support behind Jamie. “Things have snowballed a bit and he is very excited by the challenge. He’s a sensible and well-balanced person, very determined. He’s a winner, he plays a lot of sport and if he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it.
“I’m confident that it’ll happen.”
Jamie says his mum’s determination is a constant inspiration: “I’ve got a lot of things I want to say in it [his book], so I’m going to take my time and make my mum proud. I’m determined – I suppose I get that from her.”
Go to Jamie’s Facebook page My Mum Monica for more information
There was no-one I could talk to, so I wrote a book
JAMIE was inspired to start writing his book by fellow teen Emma Sutherland, whom he met while on a charity plane trip to Lapland in December.
Emma had been chosen by local charity Face to go on the special day trip after she wrote a book detailing her own journey through her mum’s breast cancer battle.
Her book was published and is now available at libraries, at Maggie’s Centres, and at the website below.
Emma, who has offered her full support to Jamie, says writing the book helped answer a lot of her own questions about her mum Rosie’s illness and come to terms with what was happening.
“When mum was diagnosed, I didn’t know anyone who was going through the same thing, so there was no-one to really talk to about it.
“And unless you’ve been through it, you don’t really understand. There are things that come up that only someone in the same situation would get.”