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"I spotted my mum's cancer too late - now I want to stop others dying like her"

Daily Record 27th May 2010

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STEPHEN Boyle can still remember the day when his mum first told him about her difficulty eating.

During a car trip, Ann described to her son how she was having trouble swallowing, keeping food down and how she had gone off dairy products.

Ann's symptoms may have appeared to be just another case of indigestion but to Stephen, they set alarm bells ringing.

At the time, he was a third-year medical student at Glasgow University and straight away, he recognised the symptoms as something serious - oesophageal cancer.

It was the start of a short but heartbreaking battle that ended in tragedy. After just six months, Ann died aged 54.

Now her family have vowed to help raise awareness for the cancer in the hope that they may save others.

Stephen, 23, said: "Mum told me that she had been having trouble eating but her symptoms had been persistent and growing progressively worse.

"Although the signs were typical of oesophageal cancer, at that point I wasn't overly concerned. Mum was fit and healthy, she didn't smoke or drink. She was a working mum who combined raising five children with a full-time job.

"It was like she didn't have room for cancer in her life but I told her to make an appointment with her GP all the same.

"It was strange. When I began my medical training, I never expected that I'd be diagnosing my own mum."

Ann's doctor immediately referred her to the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow where further investigations confirmed Stephen's suspicions - Ann was suffering from oesophageal cancer.

Doctors told her that she had stage three of the disease, a fairly advanced stage. But with radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she stood a good chance of fighting it.

Back at the family home in Clarkston, Glasgow, Ann's husband James, 57, and their other children Susannah, 29, Louisa, 27, Dominic, 24, and 19-year-old Marie Claire, rallied round.

Stephen said: "Mum was shocked by the diagnosis but she was told she had a fairly good chance of beating it."

Feeling positive, Ann began treatment through the Beatson Oncology Centre in Glasgow. But after just a few months, she developed a chest infection which meant she had to halt her course of chemo.

As the infection gripped her body, a hole developed between her wind pipe and food pipe meaning that when she ate or drank anything, moisture got into her lungs. The lapse in treatment gave Ann's tumour fatal time to grow.

Sadly, when she returned to the hospital for further tests, doctors told Ann that her cancer was terminal.

In February 2009, just six months after the initial diagnosis, Ann passed away with her family by her side.

Stephen said: "Mum had been so determined to win her battle against the disease but the chest infection set her back so much.

"In that time, the tumour grew and we were eventually told there was nothing else that could be done.

"That was an even bigger shock to us Ithan the initial diagnosis because, up until then, we always believed there was a chance she was going to come through it."

He added: "The day before mum died, she was taken into the Prince and Princess of Wales hospice on the south side of Glasgow.

"She had taken a turn for the worse sooner than expected.

"The whole family gathered round her bedside and were there for her final moments and when she finally slipped away, we were heartbroken. "She was so brave throughout it all and, while it was devastating losing her, we were so proud of the way she handled it."

Before Ann's diagnosis, no one in her family - apart from Stephen - had heard of oesophageal cancer.

They were shocked to learn it's one of the most prevalent forms. But, if detected early enough, the disease is curable.

However, many oesophageal cancer sufferers aren't aware of the symptoms which often mimic indigestion. This means the disease often goes unnoticed until it's too late to treat effectively.

Stephen said: "Oesophageal cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer. It has the survival rate similar to lung cancer but it is one of the least well known cancers.

"It often presents itself in a way which is similar to other complaints but if people are aware of the symptoms, it can be beaten."

After her death, Ann's devastated family were determined to raise awareness of the killer disease. Her daughter Louisa researched the statistics surrounding oesophageal cancer.

Around 7800 cases are diagnosed in the UK each year. Only one in four patients who have surgery survive more than five years.

Louisa was shocked and she decided to start fundraising. She set up the website Ann's Angels Memorial and organised concerts and club nights.

One successful event, held at the Queen Margaret Union at Glasgow University, featured top Scottish band the Attic Lights.

Then Louisa stumbled upon Ochre - a oesophageal cancer charity and contacted them to donate some of her fundraising to them. After meeting directors from the charity, Louisa was asked to sit on the committee.

She said: "When my mum died, I wanted to do something to make people aware of this cancer. I couldn't believe the statistics, they were frightening."

She added: "I'm thrilled to be involved with Ochre and their mission to make the people of Scotland more aware of oesophageal cancer."

Ann, who was a librarian and careers adviser at Kelvinside Academy for 22 years, was involved in the Balcraig Foundation's Kenyan orphanages.

The charity were set up by Stagecoach founder Ann Gloag in 1992 and their mission is to relieve human suffering and to provide a safe haven and access to education for orphaned kids in Third World countries. In the past, she had spent a month in Africa working with children, so Louisa felt it was fitting to donate half of all her funds to this charity and half to Ochre.

She said: "Mum touched so many with her kind and charitable nature. There's a huge void that has been left in the lives of all who knew her.

"So many people during the months of her illness have told of how she helped them.

"People have to know the truth about this cancer and only from there, can we make a change."

Find out more and donate at www.angelsmemorial.co.uk  

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