Why Deirdre is swimming for her mum

Deirdre McKenny’s mum Bernadette had wonderful support from the Marie Curie Hospice, Belfast in the last two years of her life while she was in remission from oesophageal cancer.

Deirdre explains why she’s taken on the Swimathon challenge three times in support of Marie Curie, and why she’s signing up for Swimathon
again this year.

Deirdre's mum Bernadette had spent four months in hospital getting treatment, including radiotherapy and chemotherapy, for oesophageal cancer. At the time, she was also in remission from breast cancer after undergoing a mastectomy.  

After 27 sessions of treatment, Bernadette decided to discontinue her treatment and it was then that she was referred to the Marie Curie Hospice, Belfast.

Deirdre recalls the initial uncertainty about her mother’s condition and how long she would have after she was discharged from hospital. "When Mum was transferred to the hospice, the expectation was that she wouldn't come back out – she was very ill and couldn't eat at all. We thought she may have another two or three weeks to live, at the most.”

How hospice care helped

Deirdre describes the care her mother received from Marie Curie staff while she was at the hospice as wonderful. “They saw that she was getting a bit stronger and organised for her to have a feeding tube so she could get some food. At that time, Mum probably hadn’t eaten anything for three or four weeks. She had been on a drip in hospital.”

After four weeks at the Marie Curie Hospice, Bernadette's health improved greatly, taking everyone by surprise, and she was discharged home. She continued getting her food fed through a tube and was soon in remission from oesophageal cancer.

Deirdre remembers the time, around four months later, when her mum started eating again without using a feeding tube: “The first thing she had was a small piece of fish. But then she got right back on to proper food.”

Rediscovering a love of food

In the 1960s and 70s, Deirdre’s parents ran a restaurant and bar together in Lisburn – her mum did all the cooking. Later on, her mum started making cakes for weddings and other special occasions.

As Bernadette was a trained pastry chef, Deirdre knew that food was central to her mum’s life. “When Mum lost her appetite, and was unable to eat, she lost a big part of her life. It meant a lot to her to be able to eat again. 

“During the period she was in remission, she became very adventurous in her tastes. She enjoyed flavours and foods she would never have tried before. She would try anything and she came to love spicy food, especially Thai cuisine.”

Deirdre’s mum also got back into cooking while she was in remission. “We had a wonderful Christmas in 2004. My sister, who lives in France, came over with her five children. Mum made a traditional Christmas dinner for everybody. It was wonderful, absolutely fantastic. We all remember it very fondly.”

Living life to the fullest 

Deirdre’s mum Bernadette had a good quality of life during her last 18 months in remission from oesophageal cancer. She enjoyed all the things she used to and spent lots of time with her children and grandchildren.

"During remission, Mum was more like her old self and really embraced life. We had a fantastic time and that’s in no small measure thanks to the care and support we received from Marie Curie.

"For two years, Marie Curie was a wonderful support to the family and to my mother. I looked after my mum at home as that's where she felt secure. But I'd call the nurses when I needed advice – for example, if I couldn't get Mum to eat anything, or if I was concerned about the falls she was having if she was weak. They also offered emotional support to both Mum and me when either of us started to worry about 'what next'?”

Remembering Mum

Bernadette died in March 2005 when the cancer had spread to her lungs. In memory of her mum, Deirdre has been raising money for Marie Curie for the past 11 years. She’s completed the Swimathon challenge three times and is looking forward to swimming another 5k in this year’s event.

"When mum died, I needed to lose weight as I hadn't been looking after myself too well. This has been a great motivator to get fit and stay fit, and now I go swimming four times a week.

“One of the things that’s really good about Swimathon is that, even if you’re doing it by yourself, there are other people there with the same sort of motivation and the sense of why you're all doing it is very strong. It really is a very fun thing to do and there's a great sense of achievement afterwards."

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