A mum given just two years to live after being diagnosed with terminal cancer has revealed her heartbreak at leaving her young daughter to grow up with no parents.
Vicky Fenn, 38, knows her eight-year-old daughter, Roxy, will have to reach milestones without both her mum and dad after the family were struck by a series of tragedies.
Vicky’s partner, and Roxy’s dad, Bob, passed away in his sleep aged 55 in 2015 following several problems with his heart and triple bypass surgery.
At the time, little Roxy was just five.
But the run of cruel luck hadn’t ended, and one year later, as Vicky and her daughter were attempting to get their lives back to normal, the mum discovered a lump in her breast.
Then aged just 36, she was horrified to be diagnosed with stage 3 grade 3 invasive lobular triple negative breast cancer .
And now, after being told the disease is terminal, she faces the prospect of leaving her daughter behind without both of her parents.
"Roxy’s already lost a parent," she told Mirror Online.
"I’ve not even lost a parent. And now she’s facing the prospect of losing both her mummy and daddy. I’m not the unlucky one, she is.
"My dad too, he’s heartbroken. It’s not the way round it’s supposed to happen for him. He wanted me to outlive him, not the other way around."
Vicky, from Benfleet, Essex, found the lump in her breast in July 2016.
"It was almost one year to the day since Bob had died," she said.
"I finally decided to go and get it checked out in August. I was sent for a mammogram, then an ultrasound scan and a biopsy.
"Obviously they were worried, to put me through all these tests, but even when I was sitting there, waiting for the results, I didn’t think it was cancer.
"I’d gone in on my own, I didn’t have anyone with me. A doctor asked if I might want to take a seat, and then suddenly I heard him say: ‘I’m really sorry to tell you that you have breast cancer’.
"I was really shocked. Completely. I called my dad when I came out of the appointment and told him.
"His voice changed almost immediately. He didn’t sound like my dad anymore, he already sounded like someone who was grieving.
"I might as well have told him I had died that night."
Doctors told Vicky that her particular kind of cancer was extremely rare in a woman of her age.
"By rights, I should have been over 60, and post-menopausal," she said.
"In fact, doctors told me it was rare that my kind of cancer had even presented with a lump. I wasn’t fitting into any of the normal boxes."
Vicky was initially told that while her type of cancer was often only found in the terminal stage, hers wasn’t as advanced, and could well be curable.
But within weeks, the disease had spread to her bones.
And in May 2017, she was told it was terminal. She was given a prognosis of just two years to live, if her chemotherapy treatment is successful.
"I feel robbed," Vicky said. "They told me it was curable, then all of a sudden, it wasn’t. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I felt betrayed.
"I was only 37 at the time."
Vicky now has to face the prospect of preparing her young daughter for a life without both her mum and dad.
"When I first found the lumps, I told Roxy that I needed to have an operation to get them out. We named then Larry and Fred, to make it seem less frightening for her," Vicky said.
"When I found it was terminal, I sat her down and said to her: ‘You know Larry and Fred? Well, there’s some new little Larrys and Freds, and they can’t be got rid of. Mummy is going to have cancer forever, now’.
"She immediately replied: ‘Does that mean you’re going to die of cancer, mummy?’
"I told her the truth. I said it was possible that I would die of cancer, but that everyone was going to die one day and no one really knows what they are going to die of.
"She’s not a silly kid, she pretty much knows exactly what’s going on."
But while Vicky has never lied to her daughter about her condition, she doesn’t want it to define their remaining time together.
"When Bob was really ill, he would look after Roxy while she wasn’t at school, if I was out at work," she said.
"We taught her what to do in an emergency, what she would have to do if she couldn’t wake daddy up.
"We did the whole 999 thing, got her to learn our address off by heart.
"But I’m not going through all that with her again. I know if push came to shove, she’d be able to get help.
"She’s been through enough as it is, she doesn’t need to start thinking that way again about me."
Vicky’s main concern is spending as much time with her loved ones as possible, as she battles against her terrible disease.
Breast cancer NHS advice
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over 50, but younger women can also get breast cancer.
About one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. There’s a good chance of recovery if it’s detected in its early stages.
For this reason, it’s vital that women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always get any changes examined by their GP.
In rare cases, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Breast cancer can have a number of symptoms, but the first noticeable symptom is usually a lump or area of thickened breast tissue.
Most breast lumps aren’t cancerous, but it’s always best to have them checked by your doctor.
You should also see your GP if you notice any of the following:
- a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- a discharge from either of your nipples, which may be streaked with blood
- a lump or swelling in either of your armpits
- dimpling on the skin of your breasts
- a rash on or around your nipple
- a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast
Breast pain isn’t usually a symptom of breast cancer.
For cancer support, call Macmillan for free on 0808 808 0000 (Monday to Friday, 9am – 8pm)
"After my terminal diagnosis, I immediately booked Roxy and I on a plane to Florida for a ‘bucket list holiday’," she said.
"I also want to go to the Northern Lights, and take her around the UK, maybe Scotland. I want to give her some memories, and experience of travel before I go."
The mum has also started putting together a memory box for her daughter, which she is going to fill with cards and gifts, each one carefully chosen for her daughter as she grows up.
"I’m buying birthdays, engagement and wedding cards. She’ll have a big box, and it will say when she can open each one. I want to write her letters, too. I want her to know I’m always there," she said.
"I’m going to be crocheting two blankets for her. It’s for her first baby. I’m doing one in blue and one in pink," she added.
The mum-of-one is only too painfully aware of the milestones she is set to miss as her daughter becomes an adult.
"Everyone worries about me and when the ‘time is going to come’," she said.
"But I feel like I’m going through my own grieving stage right now. My friends and family will lose me, but I’m going to lose every single one of them too."
Vicky has already had to make the heartbreaking arrangements for Roxy’s care when she is gone.
"She’s going to be looked after by my sister, she’ll live with her cousins, family is the best place for her," she said.
"My sister has all the stories of when Roxy was little so she can share them with her. They can talk about me together.
"It feels like an unwritten rule in our family, that my sister will step in when the time comes.
"When I found out the cancer was terminal, I had to sit her down and say, ‘this is it, this is crunch time. are you sure you want to do this?’
"But she’s told me she wouldn’t have it any other way. And it’s comforting to know that Roxy will be surrounded by people who love her."
Brave Vicky has been defiant in the face of her illness.
And while it might be too late for her, she wants to leave a legacy behind that means other children will never be in the position that her own daughter is now.
The mum has started a petition calling for the age for mandatory mammograms to be reduced.
Currently, only women between the ages of 50 and 70 are offered three-yearly screenings on the NHS.
Vicky said: "Breast screening is only done for women over 50.
"I’ve spoken to several cancer groups, and the amount of women in their 20s, 30s, with young children, and they are facing a terminal breast cancer diagnosis. It is just so upsetting.
"The frightening thing is, I sat there in that waiting room totally oblivious to the fact it could be cancer.
"I said to my doctor: ‘But you can’t get cancer until you’re 50.’ He said: ‘Yes, you can.
"So why is there no option for mammograms for people under 50?
"I think women should have some sort of choice about breast screening between 20 and 50, the option should be available to them."
Vicky currently has 27,048 signatures on her petition, but needs 100,000 before it will be considered for debate in Parliament. She has just under a month before the deadline on the petition comes to an end, on March 13.
In a statement, the Department of Health said: "The NHS Breast Screening Programme (NHS BSP) in England offers all women between the ages of 50 and 70 the opportunity to be screened every three years for breast cancer, in order to help detect abnormalities and reduce the number of lives lost to invasive breast cancer.
"The aim of the NHS BSP is to detect breast cancer early when there is a greater chance of cure, thus reducing the number of lives lost to invasive breast cancer.
"The programme recognises that whilst early detection is the best way to reduce breast cancer mortality by giving the opportunity to offer women more treatment options, which may save lives, it accepts that there are also risks.
"These risks include over-diagnosis (referring women for unnecessary tests) and over-treatment (operating on women with disease which is unlikely to cause serious harm to them).
"For women under the age of 50, breast screening is not very effective, especially when they have not reached the menopause .
"Breast screening is offered from the age of 50 based on the average age of menopause being 51 and that the chance of developing breast cancer increases with age.
"Four out of five breast cancers develop in women over the age of 50. There is insufficient evidence to confidently offer breast screening to women at a much younger age because to do so may cause more harm than good."
- To follow Vicky’s journey, visit her Facebook page, Fenn’s Fighters
- To support the petition calling for earlier mammograms, visit here.