Friends launch crowd fundraiser for family facing uncertain future
“Cancer can take away many things, but not our precious memories” – Georgia Bendall
Just eight weeks ago, Orkney mum Georgia Bendall was looking forward to the future and watching her three daughters grow and blossom, nurturing them into young adults.
A visit to her GP for what she thought was a simple, routine matter has since turned her world upside down as she faces an uncertain future following a stage four colorectal cancer diagnosis.
Georgia, 46, from Kirkwall, has been told the cancer is incurable but she has begun chemotherapy at Macmillan in Orkney – part of a palliative care package - to allow her precious time to spend with her beloved daughters – Azra, 16, Jess, 8 and Anna, nearly four.
A further blow was dealt to the family when a scan showed the possibility of an unrelated cancer in her breast – she awaits the results of three core biopsies taken recently.
Despite this, Georgia, nee Thacker, an Early Years’ Practitioner at the Council’s Glaitness Nursery for the past five years, is still thinking of others and she has chosen to speak out in a bid to raise awareness of what is generally regarded as an older person’s cancer.
The selfless mum is also calling for screening for this “silent killer” to be earlier than at present.
Georgia said: “Bowel screening is offered to men and women aged 50 to 74 across Scotland to help find bowel cancer early when it can often be cured. You're 14 times more likely to survive bowel cancer if it's found early.
“I felt well and the only symptoms I had were some bowel changes over the course of a week and what I thought was a hemorrhoid. People need to be more vigilant, if I save even one life or stop one little one losing a parent, my story will be worth it. Everyone is so reluctant to talk about their bowel habits or anything related to that area of your body. There remains such a stigma attached, and it is quite literally killing people.
“I felt fine which is what makes my diagnosis so shocking and unbelievable and very hard to come to terms with.”
Georgia’s father was diagnosed with colon cancer in his 40s and underwent surgery without the need for any further treatment – he remains cured 30 or so years later. So, when Georgia started experiencing a change to her bowel habits two years ago, she went to see her Doctor and underwent a colonoscopy. There were no signs of a tumour or anything sinister, but she was diagnosed with diverticulitis – a digestive condition that affects the large intestine (colon).
“Within two years I have stage four colorectal cancer which would usually take five to ten years to develop. I am told that it can be aggressive in younger people so why on earth don’t the NHS screen earlier than 50?
“I am now also more than likely walking around with breast cancer and, again, no symptoms at all. I just want to appeal to others out there who believed, like me, that it won’t happen to them – well it does happen, and we are now living this nightmare.
“I will fight this with every bit of my being for the sake of my girls – and, you never know, miracles do happen. I want to be here for as long as possible and make beautiful memories with them.”
Georgia hails from West Calder, a village in West Lothian, four miles from Livingston but moved to Orkney six years ago.
Her career in social work and early years’ education has focused on caring and nurturing others. She was employed by West Lothian Council for nearly 20 years working with children and families in various roles before taking up her current post in Orkney.
Despite the physical and mental trauma which has been inflicted on Georgia, she is using this valuable knowledge to continue nurturing her children through this horrendous journey. A journey that began just eight weeks ago.
“I called Skerryvore GP Practice on April 15 and explained the symptoms, knowing the background, I was asked to go in that day for an appointment – by the 19th I had a consultant appointment in Orkney and on the 23rd I underwent the colonoscopy at the Balfour and a biopsy was taken.
“It was indicated at that time it was more than likely I had cancer. Yes, it was a massive shock, but you remain hopeful. I used this time to get in touch with the schools to make sure that the girls would be supported moving forward. My mum has been a great help and came to Orkney to be with me and the girls.
“After the colonoscopy I had a CT scan which showed the cancer had not spread to any major organs. On 29 April I was sent for an MRI scan in Aberdeen, accompanied by my friend Denise who met me there. The MRI confirmed I had an aggressive tumour which had spread to my lymph nodes.
“Because my symptoms were getting worse, I underwent major surgery for a double loop colostomy (stoma) on 13 May and further biopsies were taken. I was really quite unwell and in a lot of pain so, unfortunately, missed Jess’s 8th birthday. Due to the Covid restrictions, her dad brought her to the window outside the Balfour so we could wave to each other.”
Whilst in hospital in Orkney and only six days after surgery, Georgia then had to return to Aberdeen for a PET scan, used for investigating confirmed cases of cancer to determine how far the cancer has spread among other things. Beth, NHS Orkney’s specialist stoma care nurse, accompanied Georgia to the hospital appointment which meant another trip south and an uncomfortable long journey on the boat back to the Balfour due to the lack of flights as a result of Covid.
Despite this, such is Georgia’s determination that they will lead as normal a life as possible, when she returned home a couple days later, they were out and about making memories.
“On 28 May I was called to go and see my consultant and was told that the PET scan had showed up potential cancer in my breast, completely unrelated to the colorectal cancer. A mammogram and ultrasound was inconclusive so earlier in June I had to go back to Aberdeen and undergo two stereotactic biopsies and one core biopsy on my breast. I am still waiting for the results.”
During that visit, Georgia’s world was about to come crashing down upon her.
“The oncologist for the colorectal cancer told me it was incurable. My response was ‘I am going nowhere. I have three children that need me. I want to be around for my youngest turning 21’. He told me it was important that I keep that attitude and learn to respect the cancer.”
After a short delay in getting the chemotherapy to Orkney, Georgia has now begun her treatment – intravenous and tablet form chemo over a two-week period, then a week’s break, before beginning the cycle again. After three courses, Georgia will be scanned to see if there has been any improvement.
While Georgia wants to raise awareness, her friends want to raise funds for the family to allow them to make some very special memories so a GoFundMe page has been set up by good friend and work colleague Shaaron Kennedy – you can donate here via the website www.justgiving.com.
Shaaron said: “We, her friends, have set up this crowd fund as we do not want Georgia to have to worry and stress about anything other than focusing on herself and her girls. We want them to be able to spend quality time as a family, making memories.”
Georgia says the support from the Orkney and West Lothian communities, family and friends has been overwhelming and she will be forever grateful.
“My best friend Caroline is like the sister I’ve never had, and she is at the end of the phone day and night. I can call her at 3am for reassurance when I’m feeling overwhelmed and can’t breathe at the fear of not being here for my daughters. She travelled from the mainland to be by my side at this difficult time and is hoping to return to spend many more weeks here over the summer. Linda, a friend and neighbour, treats my children like her own and hers is like a second home to the girls. She is a great listener.
“I may have only been in Orkney for six years, but I have made so many friendships and those friends continue to show me such support at this time. Kylie has been my rock coming to every appointment with me. She’s a wonderful friend and an experienced nurse so she is able to support me both emotionally and ensure I’m understanding my medical journey too.
“Some others have set up a ‘meals on wheels’ so I don’t have to worry about cooking all the time, others have helped clean the house, walk the dog. My boss, Shaun Tulloch, my colleagues at Glaitness Nursery and the girl’s teachers at Glaitness School and Kirkwall Grammar School have all been incredible. The staff at Macmillan and the Balfour have been so supportive and gone the extra mile when it comes to the girls – even organising a treasure hunt of all the rooms that I have to go in and giving them stoma teddies.
“I also want to thank CLAN and the support I have had from there including through the children’s support worker. My girls are everything and give me the strength to carry on. Azra is 16 and wants to be a beauty therapist, is interested in fashion and plans to stay on 'til 6th year at school. We are more like best friends than mother and daughter. She was an only child for eight years and we share an incredibly close bond. She is very kind and has stepped up in terms of caring for her little sisters and making sure I’m well cared for.
“Jess is a sensitive little girl, a deep thinker, a worrier and incredibly kind. She has been coping very well with the changes despite it all being so traumatic. Anna, who turns 4 on July 16, is the baby of the bunch and loves to be a princess, dressing up and has more clothes than the rest of us! Despite her young age she is very perceptive and asks lots of questions.”
The girls have been spending more time with their dad during the spells when Georgia is in hospital or unwell and showing their resilience by adjusting to FaceTime calls instead of cuddles with mum.
“Azra being the eldest is aware of my stage of illness and I am using age and stage appropriate language with the younger ones.”
Georgia plans to make memory boxes for her daughters of their lives together. She will include letters and cards for her girls to open on special occasions in the future letting the girls know how proud she is of each of them and how mum is thinking of them on their special days.
She also plans to write down quirky anecdotes and memories she has shared with her beautiful daughters which will include funny stories only they as mum and daughters will understand.
“I am aware that Anna is so little and may not remember earlier memories of mummy without her sisters to remind her. The memory boxes will hopefully be of support for the sisters to revisit and remember the special times we all shared, and how that love and bond will be as strong in life as it is when mum is no longer physically here for mummy cuddles.
“I am ensuring all my affairs are in order, preparing everyone around me for what may lie ahead. I guess I am lucky in that respect as we will not take any day for granted as so many people do. My advice - wake up thankful every morning as today is a gift and tomorrow is never promised.
“Cancer can take away many things, but not our precious memories.”
(Top photo by Ken Amer).