September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. To help our charity partner CLIC Sargent highlight the hidden costs of cancer - particularly the emotional impact of a diagnosis on families - we asked Morrisons staff member Fleur Garstang Stubbs to share her story. Here’s how this amazing charity stepped in when her young daughter Millie was diagnosed with cancer aged 12 in 2015.

“It was July 2015 when my husband first noticed something was wrong. Millie was an athlete, she had just been picked to compete in cross country for Lancashire. But that July my husband asked me ‘have you noticed that lump on her neck?’ I saw it, and it was like an Adam’s apple – about the size of a bouncy ball.

Our GP sent us to Royal Blackburn Hospital, where the paediatrician told us Millie has something called a thyroglossal cyst, which is a benign mass in the neck caused by the thyroid gland growing a bit more than it should. Even though we were told it was harmless, we decided to have it removed and in September Millie, then 12, went for her routine operation. But three weeks later, when we returned for what we thought would just be a check-up, we found out the devastating news that Millie had thyroid cancer. I couldn’t believe it. I lost all control of my bodily functions, it was a feeling I have never felt.

We're pleased to announce that Morrisons have raised over £1.5million so far for CLIC Sargent
Your donations are helping CLIC Sargent create new ‘Home Hubs’ close to hospitals. These make sure the children they help are just a ‘slipper-walk’ away from the medical support they need.

Millie asked me if she was going to die, which was heartbreaking. But she was very strong. Her treatment started on 5th October, her 13th birthday. Up to that point I don’t think I still really believed it was happening. We had her party on the Friday, and the next day we went up to Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. That is where the reality of it hit me.

Hidden Cost of Cancer: 95% of parents experienced anxiety

We went on to the Oncology ward, where there are all these gorgeous children and they have no hair or are in wheelchairs. I just had to stuff my handkerchief in my mouth as all I wanted to do was cry and scream. There was a mum of one of the boys on the ward who came over and started talking to me. But I didn’t want to know, I thought ‘I’m not part of this!’. I was in such denial, and then I felt like such an awful person for feeling like that, but I felt angry. I didn’t know where that emotion came from.

CLIC Sargent have started recruiting for two of five nurse educator posts to be funded by Morrisons.They will pass on skills and knowledge to clinicians and other health,social care and education professionals outside the principal cancer treatment centres. This means children like Fleur’s daughter Millie don’t have to travel for miles for treatment and can instead have blood tests, chemotherapy and other care at their local hospital.

 

Hidden Cost of Cancer: 37% of parents experienced panic attacks

The medical team told us it was thyroid cancer and they were going to have to remove the whole thyroid and that would be she would be on medication for the rest of her life. Up until that point, I didn’t realise how important the thyroid is, but without it you will die if you don’t take medication. I was just in a state of complete shock. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t speak. We were supposed to go home, but I didn’t want to take Millie home. I wanted her to be fixed there and then.

“I had never heard of CLIC Sargent before...then Alison appeared. She explained what CLIC Sargent do, and said she would be there for anything we want and if ever we wanted to talk about anything.”

Then Alison appeared. She asked if I was Fleur, and I said yes, and she told me she was going to be my social worker for CLIC Sargent. I had never heard of CLIC Sargent before, but she invited me in for a chat. She explained what CLIC Sargent do, and said she would be there for anything we want and if ever we wanted to talk about anything. She offered to help us navigate the complicated world of the condition, by being there to clarify complex medical terms. She reassured me that everything I was feeling was totally normal. She said ‘you will experience some extreme thoughts’ and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about them. Then it came back to me how I felt with that mum with that boy. I rang Alison the next day, because I had to get it off my chest. And she just said ‘it’s completely normal’. She said ‘I have heard it many times’. It was a massive relief because I had never felt so mean in my whole life.

Hidden Cost of Cancer: 63% of parents experienced depression during their child’s treatment

From there Alison came to the hospital regularly to visit Millie, and asked her if there is anything she needed. I had some real low moments. She kept telling us how well we were doing, and she reminded me that having difficult episodes is normal, and that I wasn’t dwelling on things – that I was allowed to feel this way. It is the worst thing in the world to hear that your child has cancer, and Alison made me feel like my feelings were valid.

Find out how Morrisons support will help CLIC Sargent do even more great work

 

Millie’s treatment involved her thyroid being removed in the November. After that she went on thyroxin, and had radiotherapy. Then in January 2016 she had to go on an iodine-free diet to starve her body of anything with iodine in to kill off the thyroid cells. For a month she couldn’t have any dairy, any salt – much of anything really as nearly everything has salt in. She could eat sweets though, which she enjoyed. She then spent a week in Christie hospital in Manchester in absolute isolation in a sealed room.

 

I sat in a room at the side. Any food she had was just pushed through on a tray. At one point, the radioiodine treatment made her really sick, but because she was radioactive, no one could come in and clean the sick up so it just had to stay there overnight. It was really horrible for her. After the treatment, she had to go for a second week of radioiodine treatment because they realised there was still some left.

Millie has regular check ups every three months, to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back. It is a slow growing cancer, so they just need to monitor it. Millie is now enjoying life as a teenager, but because she has no thyroid, there are all the things that come with it like physical changes – but it is hard to tell what is a normal part of growing up and being a teenager and what is the cancer.

Hidden Cost of Cancer: 84% of parents experienced loneliness

When I think of CLIC Sargent, I feel so emotional. My mum died when I was three and having Alison and CLIC Sargent there was like having your mum there. I could just lay all my thoughts on the table and know there was no judgement. It was just like having a family member. It was all about the words, the way she said things and the way she allowed me the space to say what I had to say. It meant everything to me. She was the missing link, the missing link that is so necessary. I don’t know what we would have done without CLIC Sargent. 

It's hard for me to believe what CLIC Sargent do for families like ours. I cried when I found out Morrisons had picked them for charity partner.