‘Don’t cry mummy”, says three-year-old Emily Horsburgh. Content after the tears subside, she becomes absorbed in conversation with her princess doll. In Emily’s world, her 28-year-old mummy, Cherie Darkings, was crying because she has a “poorly tummy”. Then, she hears the name of her big brother, seven-year-old Warrick. Emily pipes up, proudly announcing that he’s “busy at school”.
She is blissfully unaware of the tragic truth – that in the months to come, the children’s lives are to be turned upside down.
Upstairs, at their home in Mayfield, the dress that Emily will get married in is carefully wrapped. What little Emily can’t comprehend is that her mum will never see her in the wedding dress that she lovingly chose.
Cherie has her heart set on seeing her daughter turn four, but she knows she may not be there when she reaches five.
Little over a year ago, Cherie was diagnosed with an incredibly rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer. She has amazed doctors by remaining as well as she is currently and is determined that she will also be there for Warrick’s next birthday, and to see her daughter’s excitement when she sets off for her first day at school in August.
But Cherie knows it is only a matter of time before the cancer will become too much, and then, in the words of Warrick, mummy will “turn into an angel”.
It all started on a night out clubbing with pals. A friend noticed a small, jelly-like lump near Cherie’s collarbone. Believing the painless growth to be a cyst, she brought it up the next time she happened to see her GP.
Even when she was sent to have a biopsy taken, at St John’s Hospital in January last year, Cherie was more worried about the needles and anaesthetic than what the results of the test might be.
Two weeks later, Cherie went to the ENT department at the Capital’s Lauriston Building. Younger brother Rheece came along to look after Warrick and Emily.
Cherie, who is speaking about her experience in the hope that other young people will not be complacent about the symptoms of cancer, said: “The doctor just sat me down and said, ‘I’m afraid it’s not good news, you’ve got cancer’.
“I just cried, then went and sat for a few minutes and they gave me a drink of water. I asked them to get my brother. He’s 6ft 8in, but he went chalk white and just about fainted when I told him.
“Then I walked all the way to my mum’s [at The Pleasance] in the rain. I cried the whole way there. She thought something had happened to one of the bairns but I blurted out, ‘mum, I’ve got cancer’. She didn’t know what to say.”
Mum Sharon Fyfe, 52, was convinced that her daughter would be treated with chemotherapy. It was February when Cherie received the news that there would be no cure.
“They said it was very aggressive, it had spread to my lymph nodes and it was terminal.
“They said they were going to see if it was worth taking the kidney out, then I sat for 30 minutes waiting for them to decide. I was just thinking, ‘I’ve never been abroad, I’ve never been married’. Then I thought, I’m going to miss my daughter’s first day at school – but I’m not.”
Cherie’s kidney was removed, giving her valuable extra time. The form of kidney cancer – called collecting duct – is so rare that she agreed the organ could be sent to the University of Aberdeen so researchers can attempt to learn more about the disease.
While they had been together just a week when she was given the diagnosis, Cherie’s boyfriend, Craig Duncan, 28, vowed to stand by her to the end. The pair are now engaged.
They encountered a further tragedy shortly after Cherie was diagnosed, when doctors treating her found that she was pregnant.
She was told that she and her baby would not survive the pregnancy, and she had to have a termination. The couple held a funeral for their daughter, whom they named Emelia.
While Emily is too young to understand what her future holds, the family has begun to prepare Warrick as best they can as Cherie battles to make the most of the time she has left. She has adopted the word “optimistic” as her motto – and her mum has had it tattooed on her wrist in a show of support.
The family is preparing mementos to be placed in memory boxes, while dedicated Jambo Cherie has achieved many of her ambitions – such as meeting the Hearts squad. “The little one knows mummy’s got a sore tummy,” Cherie added. “Warrick said one day, ‘when you’re an angel, will you come to see me in my dreams?’
“I’m getting lots of photos for them and I’m going to start making videos. I’ve got the nighty I gave birth to Warrick in and I’ve kept all my nice dresses for my daughter. I’ve bought her a wedding dress – she’d better be a size 10 when she’s older.
“I’m going to write them cards for things like their 18th birthdays and passing driving tests.
“I’ve locked myself in a bubble – when I’m in there, no-one can touch me. I just pretend I haven’t got it and get on with life.
“The one message I want to get across is for people my age to be aware. Don’t always assume it’s not going to be cancer and it doesn’t have to be a hard lump. Check yourself all the time and even if it’s just a tiny wee lump, please go to the doctors.”
Each year in Britain, more than 9000 people are diagnosed with kidney cancer, most aged 60 or over. Collecting duct carcinoma is a rare
and very aggressive variant.
It represents fewer than one per cent of cases and is more common in the young.
Someone with this form of cancer can expect to survive on average for between 11 and 22 months, studies have reported.
The cancer can be treated if caught early enough, although survival rates are poor, with chemotherapy having only a limited affect on the disease.
Researchers have said that more work is needed to understand the condition, with the low number of cases limiting the number of studies that have been carried out.
CENTRES HELP CUSHION THE BLOW
MAGGIE’S Centres offers free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their families and friends.
The charity encourages the use of memory boxes, such as the ones Cherie is creating for Warrick and Emily.
Andrew Anderson, Maggie’s Centre head in Edinburgh, said: “For children the loss of a parent has a significant emotional impact, and here at Maggie’s we look to support families to help the children through this complex transition. One effective way is with the use of memory boxes. The involvement of the parents creating a memory box is a real and permanent gift for the child and can give a precious personal connection after the parent has died.
“These very personal boxes are a helpful tool for expressing thoughts and feelings. They allow the expression of sadness and joy throughout the bereavement process. Recollecting the stories of the person through these essential transitional objects can help the child understand and hold onto memories in a rich and meaningful way whilst coping with their loss.”
The first Maggie’s Centre opened in Edinburgh in 1996. There are now 17 centres across the UK, online and abroad, with more planned for the future.