The inspirational Morecambe mum facing cancer on horseback
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 February 2020
An inspirational mum from Morecambe is determined to stand up to cancer and to continue her active lifestyle for as long as possible.
Helena Lavin might only have months left to live, but you wouldn't know it. In spite of her cancer, the mum-of-two is continuing to lead a busy and active life - riding her horses in eventing competitions, attending heavy metal gigs and even taking part in a triathlon. And she is still working as finance director for Trinity Hospice and Brian House, the Blackpool charity which cares for thousands of terminally ill people every year. 'I want to keep doing things,' she says.
'I know some people just give up but even if I wanted to do that, I want the children to see me enjoying life and carrying on. I probably won't be here in 12 months, or at least not be fit to do these things, so I want to do them while I can.'
There's no hint of 'Why me?' from the 43-year-old, but plenty of 'What's next?'
'Some people lose a parent suddenly - they could be hit by a bus, or have a heart attack - I'm lucky in that I have time,' she says.
'Having cancer is very annoying, but the positive side of it is that it makes you do things: if the children want a bedtime story reading, you might think "I can't be bothered, I'll read one tomorrow", but you do it. I've bought horses I wouldn't have bought and been on holidays I wouldn't have been on.
'I travelled a lot before I had children but then had some bad experiences with planes and I didn't fly from 2005 to 2014. But there are things I want to see with the children, so cancer made me fly again. We are going to Hawaii in April and we might go to Iceland in June. She's also seeing her favourite band, Guns n Roses, at Wembley in May.
'I don't know how my health will deteriorate or how quickly it will happen - it could be weeks or months, but I want to carry on doing things for as long as I can.'
She spoke to Lancashire Life in the living room of the Morecambe home she shares with husband Phil, children Jess, 12, and Charlie, 10, and whippets Brenda and Rose. The family also keep four horses at stables a mile or so from the house.
Helena was a pupil at St Mary's school in Morecambe and Our Lady's in Lancaster before studying biochemistry at university in Lancaster, with the aim of becoming a vet. But those plans changed, and she moved into a different field - working in finance and accountancy. Her passion for animals remained though, a love that began before she could walk. She was riding horses as soon as she was able to sit up, and the animals are in her blood: her mum and auntie both ride and her great-grandfather operated carriage horses on Morecambe promenade in the resort's 1920s heyday.
'I was riding every day and in the school holidays I'd take food to the stables and not go home until it was dark,' she says. 'I competed for the Pony Club from the age of 12 until I went to uni, but then I started again in my 20s and until I had children. I find it so relaxing to be at the stables. It doesn't matter what sort of day I've had, if I'm with the horses for five minutes the stress all falls away, like taking a coat off.'
Helena met Wiganer Phil in 2005 through mutual friends and married in his home town in 2007. They relocated to Morecambe when Jess was a few months old and Charlie arrived a little over a year later. At that time everything seemed idyllic - she was enjoying family life, the horses and her new job with the Blackpool-based hospice.
Her children have inherited her passion and ability on horseback: Jess won a national championship last year and Charlie has been selected to compete for England in the tetrathlon in June.
But in the early summer of 2014 she found a lump on her rib cage, above her breast. Investigations also found problematic lymph nodes. She had a mastectomy and then went through episodes of chemotherapy and, later, radiotherapy.
She responded well, but in 2018 the cancer came back.
'I was in a meeting at work and resting my head on my hand and I found a lump in my neck,' she says. 'I showed the clinical director who said it was on my lymph nodes - I had had a sore throat, but assumed it was just a cold or an infection - and that I should get it checked out.
'I had an x-ray, an MRI scan and a biopsy which showed the cancer had returned. The scary thing was that the x-ray didn't show anything, it all looked clear until I had the MRI. And that also showed two marks on my brain which the medics decided were lesions. My hip had been sore too, and it turned out that was because the cancer was in the bone in my pelvis and it was widespread in my lungs.
'Bone injections have given me back some movement - at one point I was struggling to climb the stairs but I did a triathlon not long ago with ten other people from the Pony Club and we raised £1500 for the hospice.
'I went through chemo and immunotherapy, then had targeted radiotherapy on my brain. That attacked the lesions that were there, but then more came. I had full-brain treatment, but you can only have that once. They will come back, it's just a matter of when - that's probably what will get me in the end.
'I was told that if it wasn't for the issues with my brain, one in three people would be alive eight years later - they're not great odds, but they're better than mine when you factor in the brain issues.'
It's an enormous thing to come to terms with, and it's a conversation no-one ever wants to have to have with their children. But Charlie and Jess have grown up knowing the time they have with their mum will be short.
'It does hang over the children, but children generally seem to cope well with things,' Helena says. 'They have known the situation for five or six years, it's almost normal to them. They have lots of other things going on but occasionally you can see it's on their mind particularly.
'We know other families who have lost a parent and my children can see that those people have come through the experience, so I think that helps.'
And Phil adds: 'The Christmas before last, Jess asked me: 'What will I do if this is mum's last Christmas?' At moments like that it's very hard. What do you say? I want to reassure her, but I don't want to mislead her, because it could have been Helena's last Christmas.
'It's hard when they're arguing or doing the stuff other children do. Their mum's not going to be here for a long time and I want them to be able to think back and remember her. I want them to use this time to make memories.
'We try to carry on as normal and to do as much as we can with the time we have left. As time goes on her health will deteriorate. We all know what's coming but we deal with things as well as we can.'
And when that time does come, Helena hopes she will be able to have the death she wants, which - predictably enough - involves her beloved horses. 'I am adamant I'm not going to die in hospital,' she says.
'I want to be outside, if possible, at the stables, surrounded by creatures.'