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Mum, 37, compiles ‘living list’ with her family after incurable cancer diagnosis

A mum-of-two who has been told her cancer is incurable is putting together a “living list” with her family to make as many happy memories in the time that she has left. Sara McKenzie thought she had conquered her battle against cancer after that joyful moment when she pulled her treatment bell at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary.

The primary school teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33 after giving birth to her youngest child Willow but, following nine months of surgery and grieving treatment, she was given the all clear. The family, which also includes husband Ross and eldest child Noah, then decided to relocate from Newcastle into their dream “forever home” in Belfast.

It was a move that placed Sara closer to her family again and life seemed perfect. But, this March, the family’s world was turned upside down for a second time.

Now 37, Sara felt a pain in her back and subsequent tests confirmed that stage four breast cancer had spread to her bones and caused fractures to her spine. Doctors told her the disease could only be managed from that point on and was now incurable.

Recalling the chain of events that led to that moment, Sara told the Newcastle Chronicle: “At the start of December I started to feel some back pain, but it was only a small pain that I could manage with paracetamol. But it didn’t go away for about two weeks and, then, one morning, it was suddenly so severe I couldn’t move.

“I couldn’t get out of bed. I had an MRI on January 4 and it showed multiple tumors, one in particular that had caused a huge fracture in my spine.



Sara McKenzie with husband Ross and children Willow and Noah

“To me that was a huge, huge shock. I am a positive person, one of these people that just gets up and gets on, and I had had that doctor’s appointment before Christmas and we spent a week in Newcastle over New Year. At that point I knew I had the MRI coming up but not once over that time did I expect the news that I was going to get.

“I really did just think it was a bit of muscle pain, because I did exercise, I was running, if you looked at me I was the picture of health. I was working full-time, I had regular checks showing the all- clear.

“It really was a huge shock. Hearing the words ‘it is not curable’, that is the really hard part.”

Breaking the news to Noah and Willow, who were now seven and five, was not easy either. Both were of an age that would mean they were more aware of their mum’s illness than they had been before.

“The advice we got was if they ask if I’m going to die we say, ‘that’s not the plan for now, the plan is for the doctors to give Mummy medicine to keep the cancer still for as long as possible’,” Sara said. “One night Noah got upset when he was going to bed and he asked me ‘Mummy, what happens when you die, do you get a second life?’ – he must have been thinking about a computer game where you get to go again.

“I had to say unfortunately no, and he hugged me and said ‘Mummy I don’t want to ever leave you’. That conversation was extremely hard, but I kept it together to be strong for him, and we started writing down all the things we wanted to do together as a family while we’re here.



Sara rings the treatment bell at Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary at the end of her first battle against cancer
Sara rings the treatment bell at Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary at the end of her first battle against cancer

“The first thing he said was ‘I want to go to Florida’ – so aiming high! So that was where the living list came from, and now when things come up we write them down.

“I’m focusing on making the most of what time I have with my family and the list really does help with that. It makes me determined to fulfill as much of it as I can, to make as many happy memories as I can.

“Obviously there are some big things on there that do cost money but it’s also little things that I would probably take for granted before, like going to the children’s sports day. These memories just mean so much to me now.”

Along with some once-in-a-lifetime experiences, a family stay in a campervan and a hiking trip just for Sara and Ross are high on the list, with friends having helped to raise thousands of pounds to make as many as possible happen. A dream treehouse has already been built with the funds as a present for Ella’s Willow’s fifth birthday.

“The support has been really overwhelming but in such a lovely way,” Sara added. “I have been blown away by it, from Newcastle, from Belfast, it’s just been incredible. It’s so comforting to have so many people around us who are giving us that love and support and I honestly couldn’t do this without our friends and Familia.”

Sara’s friends are raising money for her at https://www.gofundme.com/f/sara-mckenzie

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