'I HAVE good days and bad days, but above all I have busy days. Each night I pray that I don't die tomorrow because I have too much to do.' So wrote Lesley Elliott last December at the height of her campaign to 'put breast cancer on the nation's agenda'.
A Dorset farmer's wife, and mother of three small children, Elliott had her life shattered in 1992 when, at the age of 33, she was told that her breast lump was malignant. She had breast cancer. Despite a mastectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, it spread to her lungs. Her response, with John's support, was to team up with the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer to raise money to establish a breast cancer research centre in London. Her horror at the incidence of breast cancer, particularly in younger women, women like her, fuelled her resolve. In January 1994 she had an article published in the British Medical Journal which called for a network of walk-in breast cancer clinics. In May one of the first of these one-stop cancer screening centres was opened by her consultant in Dorset, in Dorchester.
Elliott's determination, personality and natural gifts as a communicator were put to good use to increase awareness of the scale and devastating effects of this cruel disease. With increasing dexterity and confidence Elliott handled hardened journalists with humour and, when necessary, a quick tongue. After one gruelling session with a tabloid photographer I heard her say: 'No, I can't climb on a five-bar gate for another picture. Didn't they tell you I'm dying of cancer?'
Elliott was an inspirational young woman. She loved theatre, films and opera and bubbled with life. But her anger that she was to be denied the right to bring up her children was evident. Nevertheless she prepared Jack, Nancy and Eve for her death by being open and truthful with them. 'Being honest with the children has not been easy,' she wrote, 'one instinctively wants to protect them by lying and saying that things will get better. But this would betray their trust.' A video camera was bought and everything and anything was recorded. But her greatest investment was the books she wrote, one for each of the children. They describe her feelings for each child, with anecdotes, photographs and mementoes; when they lost their first tooth, how much they weighed, even where they were conceived.
In May she published an anthology of poetry for the sick and terminally ill - The Longest Journey. The proceeds went to her hospice and it is already being reprinted.
In her final months, through her interviews, articles and a film for Channel 4, Living with Lesley, Lesley Elliott shared her strengths, weaknesses, optimisms and fears with friends and strangers. Despite being very ill, she came up to London to be at the telephone support-line service after the broadcast. 'I wouldn't want people to think I made a film and then just walked away,' she said.
Towards the end Lesley asked John: 'When I finally pop my clogs do you think the whole of Dorset will heave a huge sigh of relief that they don't have to talk about breast cancer any more?' John replied: 'Well, I'll keep on shouting.' So will we all.
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