ON November 8, 2016, Cork woman Erika Sexton received a very unsettling phone call.
“I got a call from my son-in-law, and he said, ‘I think Tina has cancer’,” recalls Erika.
Tina Bills, her then 27-year-old daughter, had gone to a hospital in the US State of Virginia, hoping to put her worries to rest about a few lumps in her breasts.
It was a week before Tina’s daughter — and Erika’s granddaughter — Zoey was due to have her first birthday, and the young mother wanted to focus on throwing a big party for her with a clear head.
Tina, who was born and raised in Ballinacarriga, near Dunmanway, had started to develop the symptoms two months after giving birth to her daughter. However, she was invariably told that it was normal for new mothers to mistake “blocked milk ducts” for dangerous lumps.
“I think the word cancer came up once, but it was said that I was too young to have it,” Tina recalls.
The doctor on duty that day in November, 2016, however, happened to be an oncologist adept at recognising cancerous tumours.
“He knew right away that it was 100 per cent breast cancer,” Tina says.
A growing body of research suggests that, compared with women who have never given birth, those who have recently had babies may have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer, which starts to decline after five years.
The threat has been described as very small by researchers, and no risk was detected in women who had babies before age 25.
Tina was finally diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer, an advanced and incurable form of the disease.
Further tests revealed that the cancer had already spread to Tina’s lymph nodes and liver. Late last year, the disease grew into her bones as well.
In Ireland, metastatic breast cancer affects around 675 women each year. Research suggests that about 30% of women initially diagnosed with early stages of breast cancer end up developing the metastatic version.
According to her physicians, Tina’s chance of survival is not more than three to five years.
Here in Cork, her mother, Erika, is now preparing to gradually let go of her daughter, a devastating process that she believes merits more support and recognition.
Erika, an avid gardener whose Pint Tree Lodge Garden in Ballinacarriga is part of the West Cork Garden Trail, says you can’t just ease yourself into the reality of your child’s imminent death.
“It’s just wrong for nature, no daughter should go before her mother,” she says.
The 60-year-old is a member of an American support group for mothers who have a child with terminal disease on Facebook.
Erika has not come across a similar Irish group, and is hoping that Irish mothers with terminally ill children will come together and start one.
She also seeks solace in her love of art.
“When I’m painting, I forget about everything,” she says.
Tina now faces the prospect of having to say goodbye to her three-year-old daughter, an idea that frightens her more than the notion of death.
“My three-year-old may not have me when she starts school or has to deal with bullying or growing up,” says Tina.
Erika says her that granddaughter has soaked up her knowledge of Tina’s illness, and she has watched the little girl taking her toys’ temperatures or giving them injections.
Tina, who documents her illness on a Facebook page called ‘Tina for Remission’, says she often has a sensation of being trapped in a fishbowl made of thoughtful words, breathing different air.
“People treat you differently once that’s there. Like, you get a lot of people offering help that’s not necessarily sincere,” she reasons.
“It’s like, hey, you have cancer it’s my obligation to say that,” she adds.
Erika describes Tina as a “home bird” who never slept at her friends’ houses as a child. But she fell in love with an American man and ended up moving to the States in her early twenties.
Erika stresses that if the family are eventually faced with the option of putting Tina in hospice care in California, where she now lives, she will fly her daughter back to Cork instead.
“What I certainly would like is if she would be fit enough to actually travel to Ireland. And I would have her here at home,” she says. “Her husband is a medic and can give her the injections at home.”
A survey of patients with terminal illnesses found that their top priorities included, in addition to avoiding suffering, “being with family, being mentally aware and not becoming a burden to others”.
Recently, Tina’s childhood friends in Cork decided to organise a fundraising bingo event for her.
Tina, who is determined to make the most of her limited time, has also set up a crowd-funding page, hoping to raise enough money to pay her daughter’s medical bills for the next few years.
Both Tina and Erika recommend that others in the same situation spend time with supportive people and allow themselves time and space to grieve.
“The big thing is finding people that will understand you, who will let you vent or cry or be mad,” Tina says.
“People who can listen, and you could be sincere about your worries to them — no matter how out of this world they can be sometimes.”
Bingo Night for Tina’ will take place at the Parkway Hotel in Dunmanway on February 19 at 8.30 pm.
If you wish to donate to Tina’s crowdfunding campaign visit https://www.gofundme.com/nwwupg-support-for-tina.
For more information on support for cancer patients and their families in Cork see www.corkcancersupport.ie