Edie Cleary says she felt like she was "in a dream" when she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer shortly after her husband Michael died (Image: Supplied)
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When Edie Cleary found lumps at the back of her head in early 2020, she had a feeling something was wrong – but at first she brushed it off.
Edie, 82, was busy caring for her husband Michael, who had been living with Alzheimer’s for several years. Now, his health was rapidly declining.
“It started with little things like forgetting his keys or his wallet, but over time he needed round-the-clock care,” Edie told The Mirror.
Her husband of 60 years had been her rock five years earlier in 2015, when Edie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
After noticing a strange-looking patch on her breast while the couple were on holiday, Edie went to the Royal Marsden for a check up – which confirmed her suspicions.
“I had three operations including a mastectomy, and then had chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” she said.
Edie Cleary was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer shortly after her husband Michael passed away
“I was incredibly lucky and the treatment I received was exceptional.”
Luckily, Edie was given the all-clear after six months of treatment. Through it all, Michael took care of her. Now he was ill too, Edie insisted on caring for her husband without help.
“I started feeling ill in January 2020. Everyone told me it was because I’d been caring for my husband but I knew it was more than that.
“I could tell the difference between grieving for him – he was still alive but so ill – and feeling physically unwell,” she explained.
Still, stoic Edie pushed her own health aside to make sure Michael was as comfortable as possible and cancelled a hospital appointment to check what was going on.
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Sadly, Michael was moved into a hospice where he died 10 days later in February. His funeral was held on 3 March, in a large ceremony shortly before the first coronavirus lockdown.
Around the time Michael passed away, Edie went back to the hospital for tests. Again, her instincts were proved right when she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, which had spread to her spine and bones.
“I felt like I was in a dream,” Edie told The Mirror. “You weren’t allowed to have people in hospital with you at the time, but luckily my son managed to come in as my carer when I received the news.”
Edie says she’s lucky to have a supportive family, with two sons and wonderful grandchildren.
But while she went through gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy to battle cancer once again and with lockdown putting social restrictions on all our lives, she began to feel isolated.
“Even with people around, you still feel lonely. It’s hard to explain but it’s like even if you’re in a crowd, you’re still alone,” she said.
Although she’s close with her “fantastic” family, Edie says they have busy lives of their own and she doesn’t like to trouble them too much.
Janet has helped Edie cope with feelings of loneliness through weekly phone calls arranged by The Royal Marsden
“I’m terrible at asking for help,” she said.
While she was treated at the Marsden, Edie found out about the Telephone Befriending and Supportive Listening service which was set up by the cancer hospital during lockdown.
Patients are assessed by the Adult Psychological Support team and then referred to the service before being matched up with volunteers who call every week to chat about anything and everything.
So far, 17 volunteers have signed up, including some Royal Marsden staff, and all have been specially trained in supportive listening.
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The project began in March and has funding to be able to run until December.
After chatting with a volunteer called Lizzie for eight weeks, Edie was matched up with Janet.
“It was lovely to speak to Edie from the very first phone call. We just got on and bonded instantly.
“She was telling me about her condition and what it’s been like for her during the pandemic, as well as giving me a background to her family life. She’s so interesting,” Janet said.
She added the service helps patients get things off their chest that they don’t want to tell their family for fear of worrying them.
“I always enjoyed the chat – if anything I think I talk too much,” Edie laughed.
Since chatting to Janet about her love of art and watercolour, Edie decided to get back into painting and art classes.
And now life is finally getting back to normal, she’s planning on returning to an Alzheimer’s support club she used to go to with Michael.
“A lot of people keep going after their husbands or wives have passed away,” she said. “They’re lovely people.”
Now, more than a year on from her diagnosis, Edie’s future is bright.
“When you’re first diagnosed, they give you this terrible talk. They weren’t very hopeful for me at all,” she said.
“The last time I went there, they told me I was in remission. They’ve given me a bit more time.
“I’m a strong person, and hearing that good news really makes you get up and go.”