St Columba's Hospice is helping one young mum live her life to the full
ANGIE Stephen got up from the sofa to answer her front door. Staring back at her, wide-eyed with eagerness, was a group of small boys. "Go on mum," her eight-year-old son Matthew begged. "Please take off your cap - show them your bald head."
That was 11 years ago and as she recounts the story, Angie is fighting back tears - of laughter.
"When I did take it off the boys were gobsmacked," the 41-year-old says. "I will always remember that time - it was so funny. Matthew had been out playing and telling his friends about how his mum had lost her hair and they were all desperate to see what a bald woman looked like."
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But her laughter fades to a tight smile when she explains that, going by doctors' estimations, she may only have ten years left to live. Angie is battling cancer for the fourth time in a decade.
She has no idea if she will see her children - Matthew, now 18, and 11-year-old Connor - get married, watch them become fathers or be there as they graduate from college or university. But she is refusing to dwell on it.
"I just want to enjoy what time is left - and let's hope it's a bloody long time," she says.
Angie, from Boswall, is relaxing in a brightly-coloured armchair at St Columba's Hospice, clutching a cup of tea as she reels off the events of her life since her initial breast cancer diagnosis, 11 years ago.
Since then she has been diagnosed three more times, undergoing painful chemotherapy and surgery, as well as losing her hair each time. But with every diagnosis her strength of will and love for her children has seen her through.
Angie is not at the hospice to die - far from it. She uses it very much to live, occasionally checking herself in for pain relief, or just to talk to someone who knows how she is feeling.
To meet Angie in the street, you would not know she has cancer.
With her glowing complexion, healthy frame and bubbly personality, she seems as regular as any other devoted mum, juggling the demands of two children and living life to the full through a close circle of friends and relatives.
However, she is daily fighting against a secondary breast cancer tumour in her ribcage which doctors just cannot shrink.
She has had as many bouts of radiotherapy which are legally allowed, so now she must battle on, taking every drug possible to keep her condition under control while living the healthiest life she can, physically and mentally.
But she knows there will be a time when the cancer will defeat her and for when it does, she has made plans.
She knows she wants to die in St Columba's - a place where she has found great comfort since she first walked through its doors last year.
Doctors had discovered yet another tumour, this time painfully entangled in the nerves of her left armpit.
"The hospice was mentioned and my mind went blank," she says. "I kept thinking, 'Do they know something they are not telling me? Why am I going to a hospice?'.
"But then it was explained how I could go for pain management. I knew nothing about what really went on in a hospice - more what I thought I knew."
The hospice was not the grim, dreary place she had imagined, rather a welcoming, bright centre packed with optimism and support.
She is telling her story because she wants to give something back to St Columba's - to thank the hospice staff who have supported her over the last year as she has spent days, and often nights, getting pain relief or being built back up after draining chemotherapy.
She wants to thank them now for the future for the time - when and if it comes - that they may nurse her in her final days.
"I am very matter of fact about all of this," she says. "I just don't want to be ill for a long time. Who knows what will happen though? Who knows what advances could be made medically? Who would have thought 11 years ago I could have been diagnosed with cancer four times and still survive?"
Angie has also made plans for her boys - the hardest and most painstaking reality any mother could face.
She has always been frank with them, asking them how much they wanted to know about her illness. They have answered "everything", every time.
From the first moment they did, she has told them exactly what she knows, that she is living with cancer and one day she may die from it.
Her closest friend Joanne and her husband offered early on to be legal guardians to the boys in the event of Angie's death, giving her the comfort of knowing her children will be looked after.
"I have told them they will always have a home with Joanne," she says.
"This has been the worst thing I have had to do, but it is all sorted now. I have done all the emotional and practical stuff and there have been a lot of tears and a lot of humour along the way."
With Angie's quick wit, it is hardly surprising, and she has definitely given medical staff a few laughs along the way, even in the most painful of situations.
Back in February 2006, she had to undergo surgery to remove her breasts after her cancer had returned for a second time.
She opted for reconstructive surgery at the same time, meaning she was in the operating theatre at St John's, in Livingston, for a mammoth 12 hours.
"It was amazing though," she says. "I basically got a tummy tuck and the figure I had always wanted. The doctors moved part of my stomach up into my chest to make my new boobs. I went from a size 16 to a 10 overnight!
"Everyone was laughing when I came round from my anaesthetic as one of the first questions I asked was 'Do I look like Jordan now?'.
"I was absolutely delighted when I looked - I couldn't wait to show everyone! I'm quite an expert at getting my breasts out now actually."
Angie is the first to admit that her way of dealing with cancer is exactly that - her way.
She cannot tell anyone else how to cope with the devastating news of a diagnosis.
"I just feel that if I can inspire even one person to do something for St Columba's, or for cancer awareness, then I will have achieved what I have set out to do.
"I cannot let this tumour be a ticking time bomb - I have cancer and that's it.
"My view this time around is that I will rule the cancer - it will have to live around my lifestyle.
"I really don't see myself as an unfortunate person - I am very lucky."
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