With no history of breast cancer in the family, Ryan’s story describes his perception of his mum’s diagnosis, the treatment that followed and the indelible imprint she left behind.
Ryan and his mum, Darrell, were really close and shared a very similar sense of humour, to the extent that people said that Ryan took after his Mum more than his Dad. Put simply, to Ryan, and many others, she was amazing.
For Darrell, socialising with friends and family, eating good food, performing in amateur dramatics with her husband and watching sport gave her great joy.
Every four years, the Olympic Games dominated the TV schedule and Darrell and Ryan would get up at 6am to watch it. The events shown early in the morning were more specialised, but they would sit there regardless with a cup of tea in hand.
Even when you see the statistics you still don’t expect it to be someone you know, let alone a member of your close family. When it happened, it just felt really strange. Breast cancer was always a thing that other people had.’
Darrell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. She underwent surgery and received rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Alongside her breast cancer surgery, the surgeon also performed an axillary clearance where the vast majority of the lymph nodes under her right arm were removed. This caused lymphoedema which was exacerbated when Darrell contracted a cold and the entire right-hand side of her body would become swollen and cause discomfort.
She loved to go out to eat, which made one side-effect of her chemotherapy even more unpleasant. The chemotherapy would make her feel very unwell, so much so that she couldn’t stand the smell or taste of some of her favourite foods. Thankfully, this side-effect eased over time and by 2009 she was in remission.
Darrell was advised to increase her iron intake and so she started including lots of dark green leafy vegetables in her diet. Ryan remembers the sudden appearance of ‘extra green stuff’ at the dinner table like spinach, broccoli and curly kale.
Mum thought of her breast cancer as something she had and something she would deal with. She wasn’t going to let it stop her from being her.
Just three years later, after a general check-up in 2012, the cancer was found to have metastasised. The prognosis was devastating, and they knew then that it was terminal. Despite this, Darrell didn’t experience many major effects until towards the end of 2015 when the cancer began to spread rapidly.
This time around, she received a different chemotherapy drug which didn’t carry the same side-effects and so although she did feel very tired the day after a chemotherapy session, she could still enjoy eating her favourite foods whilst receiving this treatment.
But then a brain tumour seemed to appear out of nowhere. Ryan’s parents had gone out for dinner with friends. They came back and all seemed fine; they were making a cup of tea and chatting as usual in the kitchen when suddenly Darrell’s speech became incomprehensible. She was taken to the hospital immediately and scans confirmed that a brain tumour had started to affect part of the brain responsible for speech production and language processing.
Ryan was living away from home by this point and so spent the whole drive up to the hospital the next morning thinking through the very worst-case scenarios. To his immense relief, by the time he’d got to the hospital, parked and walked to the ward, Darrell’s symptoms had stabilised and she was waiting to be discharged.
That same day she got an appointment to see her consultant and was booked in for surgery to remove the brain tumour at Southampton General Hospital. Gratefully, the operation was a success.
However, by May 2016 Darrell started to experience a lot of pain and was struggling to sleep so she reluctantly took herself to the hospital. She was admitted as an inpatient for a few weeks and plans were in place for her to transition to a hospice before going back home. But devastatingly, Darrell passed away before this could happen.
Even though Mum had been ill for a while, her death came as a massive shock and hit us all really hard.
Running helped Ryan’s mental health after losing his mum. Already a member of a running club, Ryan started to accompany his girlfriend on her London Marathon training runs. Training together made it easier; they planned the long run routes together and supported, motivated and empathised with each other through the process.
As the training went on he decided to put in for his own London Marathon 2017 ballot place. He wasn’t successful and this made him want to do the marathon even more. He knew he wanted to run for a cancer charity in memory of his mum and set out to find one that resonated with him. He found Against Breast Cancer and after seeing that funds were dedicated to research into secondary spread breast cancer, applied for a charity place.
Amongst the demanding training regime, Ryan put a lot of thought into his fundraising. He held a bake sale at work and an open house afternoon tea in his home town of Portsmouth. He wanted it to be a relaxed event where people could arrive when they wanted and donate what they were able. He organised several games with the help of his girlfriend, including their own take on the ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ game where people had to try to pin the Garmin running watch on a picture of Ryan!
Ryan completed his first marathon in 3:51:52. The sense of euphoria felt upon crossing the finish line is something he is unlikely to forget. The initial ‘thank goodness I can stop running now’ was quickly replaced with ‘that was amazing’.
He didn’t finish there and went on to sign up as an own place runner in the Brighton Marathon for Against Breast Cancer in 2018. He set himself two goals for this marathon: the first was to raise as much money as he could for Against Breast Cancer and the second was to beat his time from London. He added a significant amount of fundraising to his record and shaved a full ten minutes off his London time. A very proud achievement magnified by having his Dad and girlfriend waiting for him at the finish line.
In total Ryan has raised just over £4,500, an incredible contribution to research into the secondary spread of breast cancer. Not only has he done this in memory of his own mother, but also for the mothers, grandmothers and friends that may benefit from improved detection and treatments in the future.
Ryan’s story, in his own words