Private Lives: A lasting memory of lavender

Young breast cancer sufferers have a charity to help.
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The Independent Culture
BETH WAGSTAFF was 39, a dynamic career woman, and had three children. Ruth Picardie was 33, had two-year-old twins, and was a successful journalist. The two women knew each other for only a short time but they became close friends. Ruth had tracked Beth down after seeing a note pinned to a hospital board and realising that she was another young woman with breast cancer.

Before they met, both had felt deeply isolated. Their age, they felt, mattered. The majority of women with breast cancer are past the menopause. Only around 7,000 cases a year, out of the 33,000 who are diagnosed, are women under the age of 49. At Beth's first support group, she was the only woman of her generation present, and she felt that there was no one who was addressing her particular needs.

Beth died two weeks ago. All her friends describe her as the epitome of a modern woman, with a happy home life and a career. When she died, she was assistant chief executive of Hertfordshire County Council, having been a chief officer in local government by the age of 33; she continued working nearly until her death. She leaves a husband and children, Max, 11, Molly, 8, and Ben, 7.

At her funeral 10 days ago, her husband Jon Lansman asked for no flowers but for people to make donations to the Lavender Trust, the fund Beth had set up to raise awareness of breast cancer among young women and provide support for them.

"Beth had a huge number of friends who felt there was nothing they could do," says Julia Unwin, one of her friends. "The trust was a way of saying to people that there was something you can do. It's been amazingly successful."

Beth and Ruth had discussed setting up a charity to help, but it was only after Ruth's death in September 1997 that the project was realised. The Lavender Trust was organised under the umbrella of Breast Cancer Care, a charity already working to support women with breast cancer.

"It's a hellish illness, however old you are," says Beth's friend Julia Unwin, "but to get it when you have young children or might want to have children and are worried about your fertility - all of that seemed to them to be a different kind of problem."

The trust was launched on 1 May last year, coinciding with the publication of Before I Say Goodbye, a book of the magazine articles Ruth wrote in her last few months. The book's publisher, Penguin, gave a contribution to the fund, which now stands at pounds 140,000. A flood of new donations followed Beth's funeral.

Already the money has had an impact. The Breast Cancer Care helpline used to be open from Monday to Friday; it now opens on Saturdays too.

The trust is paying the salary of a nurse, Mary Pole, who is dedicated to answering the needs of younger women. They have plans to set up support networks by telephone for those with children, who find it difficult to get out of the house, and they are advising other breast cancer nurses with younger cases.

Mary says although the numbers of younger women with breast cancer are small, that is no consolation if you are among them. The trouble is, a woman in her twenties may not relate to someone in her forties, Mary stresses. Getting breast cancer in your twenties, before you meet your life partner and get a mortgage and life insurance, may be different from a diagnosis in your thirties. In all these cases, though, the sense of injustice can be great.

"You can see in her book that Ruth was quite angry; that if you get breast cancer in your sixties or seventies at least you've had a life. She felt she was denied her future. Beth had fought so incredibly hard for such a long time," says a colleague and friend, Georgina Stanton. "She said, `This [the trust] will be my lasting memorial.'"

Donations to the Lavender Trust Fund c/o Breast Cancer Care, Kiln House, 210 New Kings Road, London SW6 4NZ. The Breast Cancer Care helpline: 0500 245345