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Bishop's Stortford designer Jen Pope and nurse Nic Owen devise way to explain cancer to children in a flash

When Jen Pope was diagnosed with incurable secondary cancer, she found it unbearably difficult to break the news to her family.

The 35-year-old – who lives in Thorley Park with husband Richard and two young children Eliza and Albie both pupils at Richard Whittington Primary School – she struggled with how the 'experts' advised her to approach the subject and felt the resources on offer were too loaded with emotion, which made it distressing for everyone.

"Time stood still when they said I had incurable secondary breast cancer," she said. "But thankfully they told me it is manageable and the cancer is now stable."

L-R, Nic Owen and Jen Pope with cards (43858392)
L-R, Nic Owen and Jen Pope with cards (43858392)

"Eliza was eight and Albie was four. We told them the basics – Mummy has cancer and is going to have treatment and her hair will fall out because of the medicine. Eliza understood more and my husband, Richard, explained things to her because I couldn’t do it."

But after meeting 36-year-old nurse Nic Owen at a conference for young breast cancer patients, the women decided to combine their years of experience as professionals and as mums.

They found a way to "take the scary" out of secondary cancer and designed a pack of colourful, easy-to-understand A-Z cards introducing children to cancer in the same way they would learn about phonics at school. One side of each card is heavily visual for tots and the other carries more information for older children.

Their Little C Club Flash Cards are now available on the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) website.

Jen, a member of Stortford's Hummingbird Cancer Support Group, works as a design teacher in Hoddesdon. She designed the cards while Nic wrote the information.

Jen said: "When we each got our first diagnosis... we were given a basic folder from the NHS which included suggestions on how to talk to your children. But it just felt so alien."

Nic, who lives in Dartford, Kent, added: "These were stories about mummies who got sick, had the treatment and got better. That isn’t the case with secondary cancer."

Jen’s primary diagnosis was in May 2019 after she found a small lump in her left breast. Her GP referred her for checks because of her family history – her mother had twice had breast cancer. Within a week it was confirmed she had grade 2 oestrogen positive breast cancer in two places. She underwent eight rounds of chemo.

The diagnosis of secondary cancer came in November 2019, just as she was due to have a reconstructive mastectomy. The cancer had spread to her pelvic bone and spine.

Nic was diagnosed with multifocal invasive ductal carcinoma in her left breast in 2011, aged just 26. She was halfway through a university course and newly-engaged to Matt, now her husband. She had a full mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy plus hormone treatment.

She was warned she could have fertility issues but went on to have Dylan, 5, and Poppy, 2. All was well until 2018 when, four months after Poppy’s birth, she was given the secondary diagnosis. However, thanks to treatment, she says she is "mostly OK".

She said: "I've had my secondary diagnosis for over two years now and things are positive. You can still live – and live a good life.

"Our experience means we understand the importance of Cancer Research UK’s work all too clearly. It’s thanks to research and improved treatments that we’re able to have more precious time with our families. If we'd been diagnosed ten years earlier, it might be a very different situation."

The pair are appealing to people to help the charity tackle a devastating loss of research funding caused by Covid-19. CRUK is predicting a £300m drop in income over the next three years, which could put future breakthroughs at risk.

Nic said: "We don’t want to think about future treatments being delayed because of the effects of the pandemic, so we hope people will be inspired by the charity’s determination to carry on beating cancer and give what they can."

Donate to CRUK via cruk.org/give.

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