Just a year after Charlotte Lewis, now 35, had finished her treatment, Elizabeth, then eight, had to have her right eye removed after several operations over many years failed to rid her of a rare cancer.
Elizabeth faced surgery, treatments, and scans at seven hospitals including several months of proton beam therapy (a treatment used to target tumours) in Manchester when her mum was diagnosed.
Charlotte says: 'With my daughter needing operations and treatment and having a new-born early on in my treatment, I found life difficult.'
The mum of three to Elizabeth, Michael and Jack is now focusing on the future, and most of the family are taking part in Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life this year in Portsmouth.
Charlotte is keen to encourage others to get involved with the action and join them to help raise funds for life-saving research.
Daughter Elizabeth's health problems started when she was just 18 months and Charlotte noticed a slight blemish in her right eye.
Her GP advised it would go over time and, after a year, it did disappear.
However, years down the line, Charlotte realised something was growing in the corner of Elizabeth's eye. Within just a few months it covered almost half her eye.
When it continued to grow doctors diagnosed a rare form of eye cancer.
A tumour the size of an almond was removed, and Elizabeth was given the all-clear.
Charlotte moved to Gosport when her marriage to Elizabeth and Michael’s dad ended and she met Matthew, 37, a Royal Navy officer.
Charlotte and Matthew decided to start their own family, but Charlotte discovered a lump on her breast during her pregnancy.
After various tests, she was immediately referred to a breast clinic and told that a blocked duct in one of her glands was the cause.
But within weeks her breast was swollen and painful to the touch.
Charlotte says: 'I had puckering of the skin and discharge from the nipple – all the symptoms you are told to look out for.'
Mastitis – swelling of the breast - was blamed, and Charlotte was prescribed antibiotics that could be taken during pregnancy.
She explains: 'The doctor said he was loathed to refer me again because it was not long since I had been given the all-clear, and “cancer didn't grow that quickly”!
'He was the doctor, he should know, I thought, but I kick myself every day now for not pushing for a referral then,’ says Charlotte.
It was not until two weeks after she had her youngest, Jack, when a midwife arranged for Charlotte to see a specialist.
She says: ‘The midwives were concerned I was unable to feed Jack from my right breast, and they had been unable to express milk because my breast was so hard.’
Within hours of seeing the specialist, tests were ordered, which confirmed the dreaded words telling her she had cancer.
She says: 'Even before I had my results I knew I had cancer, and things were not looking good. I knew from all Elizabeth's experiences that one person in the room is ok. Two or more is reason to worry. There were three in the room waiting to give me my results.
'I cried. My first thought was would I still be able to look after my kids. Jack was only a month old, five weeks, when I started chemotherapy.
‘But I plastered a smile on my face and went to face the kids.’
After chemotherapy Charlotte had a mastectomy in January 2019, followed by radiotherapy treatment.
But there was even more heartache to come. After a routine check-up, Elizabeth was called back to the hospital, found she had more tumours and faced further surgery to remove them.
Charlotte says: ‘I was in the middle of chemotherapy treatment myself and, although her dad was with her, I also wanted to be there.’
Elizabeth's surgery went well, and Charlotte hoped they were both on the road to recovery.
But at the beginning of last year, a scan indicated Elizabeth's cancer had returned once again. The family had been warned that doctors would have to remove the youngster's eye if that happened.
'I arranged a special weekend, and I enjoyed just watching Elizabeth have fun. When I told her on the Sunday, they would have to take her eye. We cried together,’ says Charlotte.
'But she accepted there was not much she could do and went downstairs and made eye patches all afternoon with her brothers.
'The day she went in for surgery was the most horrendous day of my life. She panicked when she first saw all the medics wearing their PPE.
'She came out of it hating everything and everyone, but over the days, she became more like her chirpy, happy self.’
Elizabeth needed further surgery to remove residual cancer cells. Charlotte says: ‘The first time she looked at herself in the mirror - when she had healed enough for the dressings to come off - she looked very proud of herself.
'She should be. She has coped with everything brilliantly, especially as her more recent treatment was done during lockdown.'
Charlotte set up a Facebook page for Elizabeth when she was having her operation to give her some encouraging messages of support. Amazingly, pop group The Vamps and funk and jazz band Jamiroquai came forward to praise Elizabeth’s courageousness as well as people around the world who also like Elizabeth had one eye.
Charlotte and Matthew tied the knot at Portsmouth Register Office in October 2020 after Charlotte’s treatment had finished.
She says: ‘It was in the middle of lockdown and we only had 11 guests but it was a perfect day.’
But while Charlotte was having the chemotherapy treatment, her sister, Teresa Emberson, who lives in Dorset, was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
To add to her traumatic ordeal, at the start of lockdown their mother, Dawn Knights suffered a heart attack.
Charlotte says: ‘I’m certain it was due to the stress of having two daughters and a granddaughter ill with cancer. It’s been a stressful time all round. Both my sister and my mum are doing really well.’
In another unnerving turn of events, just when Charlotte thought her own cancer had gone for good, she found a new lump at the time of son, Jack’s birthday in July. Doctors feared the cancer had returned and spread to her bones.
But after several scans and a worrying four-week wait they were able to confirm Charlotte had cancer in her lymph nodes, but nowhere else.
She says: ‘I just need a small operation and possibly some chemotherapy and hopefully it'll be sorted.’
Even before she had been given the results, Charlotte and her family have been committed to taking part in Race for Life.
Charlotte says: ‘Even if I have to walk it, I'm doing it.’
Her children, Elizabeth Rooney now 10, Michael Rooney, eight, and Jack Lewis, three, favour getting muddy hence their excitement to join the fundraising event. Charlotte is signed up for the Portsmouth Race for Life next month, and she has just walked the charity’s 5k race in Poole over the weekend, only a day after undergoing surgery to remove a number of lymph nodes where her cancer had spread.
Elizabeth and Michael will be taking part in Pretty Muddy.
Charlotte took part in Race for Life as a youngster, and now they take part as a family, with a wide variety of medals to show for it.
Helen Johnstone, Cancer Research UK's spokesperson for Hampshire, says: ‘Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, Cancer Research UK's work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has been at the heart of the progress that has seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.’
Cancer Research has been able to spend more than £30m in the south-east last year on some of the UK’s largest scientific and clinical research.
Cancer Research UK’s Race For Life, which has been in partnership with Tesco for 20 years, is an inspiring series of 3K, 5K, 10K, Pretty Muddy and Pretty Muddy Kids events which raise millions of pounds every year to help beat cancer by funding crucial research.
Money raised funds world-class research to help beat 200 types of cancer. According to Cancer Research UK about 52,100 people are diagnosed with cancer in the south-east every year. One in two people in the UK born after 1960 will get cancer in their lifetime.
Race for Life in Portsmouth will be held at Southsea Common on Saturday, October 30 & Sunday, October 31, including a 3K, 5K, 10K, and Pretty Muddy, a 5k obstacle course.
To support the family’s fundraising efforts visit their Race for Life donation website.
A message from the editor, Mark Waldron
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