Melissa was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at the age of 36. She sadly passed away in March 2020 – but not before leaving behind a wonderful legacy.
She never slowed down
By the time Melissa found out she had breast cancer, it had already spread to her bones and become incurable. She had six rounds of chemotherapy and, for nearly seven years, continued with regular infusions and scans.
When it spread to her brain two months before she died, her endurance was tested, but she never lost her energy and passion. Throughout her illness, Melissa was determined to cram as much as possible into whatever time she had left.
‘She was so selfless; such a brilliant daughter, wife, mother, friend and teacher,’ says her husband, Robin. ‘It never slowed her down. She just lived 10 times the speed of everyone else to make memories and give the best while she could to those around her.’
She always put others first
Even while going through treatment, Melissa was involved in fundraising events for various charities and participated with many organisations supporting young people, such as the Parent-Teacher Association and National Childbirth Trust.
‘She loved people and always put others first, and that’s perhaps why she didn’t notice the lump in her breast; there were always other people to care about before herself.’
But when Melissa became ill, her friends turned to help her.
‘The support she had was a testament to what people thought of her,’ says Liz, a close friend of Melissa’s. ‘She lived with breast cancer for so long that people forgot she had it. She just lived life to the max and had such a brave outlook on everything.’
Melissa just wanted to live a normal life
After she was diagnosed, Melissa set up a Facebook group to keep those closest to her informed of developments.
‘When you look so well most of the time, you don’t want to tell everybody what you’re enduring behind the scenes. She didn’t want to be judged by it, so it became easier not to mention it and enjoy some of our new normality while we could,’ explains Robin.
When Melissa did pass away, it was sudden and a shock to everyone. She had been working up until the day before she died.
Her loss was felt not only by Melissa’s immediate family, but also her friends and the wider community. It was particularly difficult to deal with only a week into the first COVID-19 lockdown.
Her passion was teaching
‘Melissa was a humanities teacher, with the pastoral side of it a particular passion. She absolutely loved her pupils and they loved her; they were like another family,’ Robin explains. ‘We actually delayed having our own family so that she could see her first tutor group complete their GCSEs.’
‘Even after her diagnosis and with three young children, Melissa went back into teaching part-time.
‘Her enthusiasm was infectious with students and staff. Whether she was talking with the Head or the cleaner, it didn’t matter; conversations were always positive and engaging.’
Melissa had one more idea for others
Only a couple of weeks before her death, Melissa had one last brilliant idea to bring people together. As COVID meant schools closing, Melissa thought that the pupils in her youngest son’s class could collaborate on writing a story.
‘It was partly so that the teachers would know that the kids had been working hard and that they’d been practising their handwriting,’ Liz says. ‘She wasn’t thinking of herself; she was thinking of the kids and the teachers. She wanted something to bring them together.’
She continues: ‘When she died, we wanted to do something to remember her. We all felt helpless – she had had such an impact in our community.’
We carried it on in her legacy
‘Another school mum and I thought we could take Melissa’s book idea and continue with it. We asked the teachers what they thought – we didn’t want to do anything that would have a negative impact on the kids, especially Seth, Robin and Melissa’s son, who was only seven.’
After some discussion, they decided to go for it.
So, over the next few months, over 30 children from Seth’s year managed to write and illustrate a storybook during lockdown schooling. At the end of the summer, they presented it to Seth as gift to show that both he and his mum were so loved by everyone.
She knew she wouldn’t always be here
The project was such a success that Blue Peter got to hear of it. The story of Seth, his book and how the class came together to write it was filmed and it went out on the TV show. Everyone involved got a badge, and the book – as well as Melissa’s story – was celebrated.
This is just one of the many ways that Melissa continues to have such a positive influence on the people who were in her life.
‘She knew one day she wouldn’t be here,’ Robin says. ‘Without me realising, she set me up with things to help me.
‘Some days I’ll look at a bookshelf and see a book about managing grief, or another on how to help the children with their maths homework and wonder how it got there. She had put it there, ready for me to find when it was needed.’
Melissa is still having a positive influence
‘We're planning a memorial get together in a festival style, with friends and family. It’s going to be called MelFest,’ Robin says. ‘Because of COVID-19, we haven’t been able to meet and grieve. But, when life returns to normal, one big party is going to happen. It’ll be a time to share memories and music together. She would want it to be fun.’
In 2020, Liz and her son took on a walking challenge to raise money in Melissa’s memory. Not only did it help them fundraise, but it also allowed them some time together to grieve.
‘Nobody replaces the fact that she’s not here, but I can’t be sad,’ Liz says. ‘I have to feel so positive that she was in my life for that period of time.’
More research needs to be done
Unfortunately, Melissa and her family are not alone in their experience – and that is something she wanted to have an impact on.
‘She felt that there needed to be more acknowledgement of young women with secondary breast cancer, with money and time spent on finding positive outcomes to prolong life,’ Robin says. ‘Hopefully with research and advances in cancer care, in the future secondary breast cancer will be become a manageable disease that does not limit life.’
To help Breast Cancer Now with our research into secondary breast cancer, please consider donating to Melissa’s JustGiving page.
For more information on secondary breast cancer visit our information pages.