Limavady women Debbie Smyth and Audrey Moore have been friends since they were little girls, and they’ve shared everything together.
Their friendship has seen them through the best and worst of times. They’re so close they joke they may as well be family, but now the remarkable bond between them is even stronger.
Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She was 36 at the time and the news was devastating, but as she starts her third round of chemotherapy, she says her prognosis is good; an early diagnosis key.
“I have a good prognosis in that it didn’t affect anything else and it didn’t spread to any other organ. It didn’t get a chance to so, I’m very lucky,” she says.
“I know there is an end in sight, and once the radiotherapy is over - I know I’ll be on tablets - but I will be closely monitored and given the ‘all clear’. A lot of people don’t have that chance.”
Due to side effects from the treatment Debbie’s hair started to fall out. She knew she would have to get it shaved off but, before she did, Audrey showed just what an amazing friend she is.
Days before Debbie was due to get her head shaved, Audrey decided she would shave hers, and raise money at the same time for Cancer Research UK. Debbie’s sister, Janine Brown joined Audrey last month at the hairdressers, not giving the amazing gesture a second thought.
To date the big hearted pair have raised more than £3,000 for charity but, the way they see it, it’s not just about the money.
“The money is a bonus really,” says Audrey. “I work at Tesco’s in Coleraine and our charity this year was Cancer Research UK. I’ve been to the main cancer laboratory and seen how that end of things work, and it’s amazing what they do,” explained Audrey.
“Debbie is very strong and always has a very upbeat, positive outlook in life and she always keeps me going.
“If what I’m doing helps Debbie through this, and it raises awareness, then it’s worth it.”
Janine, who works with the Ambulance Service, is no stranger to seeing people who have cancer.
“I see it day in, day out; young people, older people, children, male, female. There are no boundaries, but I think until it hits your own doorstep it’s only then you see things totally different,” said Janine.
The 35-year-old believes the gesture - while not only raising awareness - will also challenge people’s perceptions.
“Someone came up to me and asked if I was sick,” says Janine, “so at least it means Debbie isn’t alone. It’s the very least I can do for her.”
Janine says her sister is “so fantastic”, and that her incredible strength of character has really shone since her diagnosis.
“The admiration I have for her, not just as a sister, but as a woman - as anyone fighting cancer - is mind blowing. Not once has she backed down. She is always positive. She is amazing.”
Debbie still can’t quite believe what the women have done. She is blown away by their generosity, and that of family friends Edna Hutchinson and her 19-year-old daughter Laura who on the 15 March at Douglas’ Bar in Limavady will also shave their hair off to support Debbie, and raise money for breast cancer charity Pretty ‘n’ Pink.
“We’re doing it to support Debbie,” said Edna, “and it’s for a good cause, raising funds and awareness.”
Debbie, who has turned 37, says she had been dreading getting her hair shaved off, but the girls made it so much easier.
“I went in and got it done and it was fine,” she says.
“Audrey and Janine have been unbelievable. They’ve made my journey a lot easier.
“They’re brilliant and at least when we go out people are looking at all three of us!”
Debbie says if anything comes out of what she is going through it’s that people must realise cancer can happen to anyone, at any age.
“People need to get over thinking cancer is something that happens to older people and start checking once they reach adulthood, men and women,” she says.
“It is a vicious disease and it touches everyone. I just want people to be aware.”
Debbie said it was while on holiday she felt bruising on her chest, which developed into a lump.
“It was fairly obvious, but I was lucky. People need to be aware and get checked as early as possible,” she urged.
Debbie admits there are days when she feels sick and down but, now the surgery is over and she is half way through her treatment, for the most part she feels strong.
“I know some days I have limitations on what I can do because I get tired, but I feel it’s harder on the family,” she said.
“The thing is, I don’t feel sick and, to be honest, I still can’t believe it. I look sick because I have no hair, but I don’t feel it.”
Debbie praised the amazing staff at Altnagelvin Hospital where she says she is “treated like royalty”. She also thanked everyone who has offered her support, including those who have made donations.
The women also paid tribute to Limavady hairdresser, J.J. Johnston who they said was fantastic and even opened up his salon for Debbie on a Monday when it’s normally closed.
Debbie says her husband and family, and friends, have been her “rock”, getting her through the difficult days and always being there for her.
She added: “I always say if you were to pull everyone’s troubles into the middle of the floor you’d pick out your own. There’s always somebody worse off than you. I’m lucky.”
For information log onto www.cancerresearchuk.org or www.prettynpink.org