A mother-of-three hopes to save lives and prevent family tragedies by bravely speaking up about her own devastating cancer diagnosis.
Georgia Bendall, 46, has been told her stage four colorectal cancer is incurable and has begun chemotherapy as part of palliative care to allow her more time with her daughters.
She is also waiting the results of tests on an unrelated cancer in her breast.
But despite her own heartbreaking situation, the Orkney mum is determined to raise awareness of a ‘silent killer’ illness, normally associated with older people, and alert people to the symptoms.
Fundraising page started to help family
She also believes screening should be done earlier to help symptoms to be spotted sooner to give people more chance of survival.
Eight weeks ago Georgia, an early years’ practitioner at Orkney Islands Council’s Glaitness Nursery, was looking forward to watching her treasured children Azra, 16, Jess, eight, and Anna, three, grow up.
Now Georgia, from Kirkwall, is putting her affairs in order, ensuring the girls will be looked after and preparing memory boxes for them to open in future.
Her friends have also started a fundraising page to support the family at such a traumatic time.
Georgia first noticed changes to her bowel habit two years ago. She went to her GP and underwent a colonoscopy. While it showed nothing sinister, she was diagnosed with diverticulitis, a digestive condition that affects the large intestine (colon).
Her father was diagnosed with colon cancer in his 40s. He underwent surgery and, without any further treatment, remains healthy more than 30 years later.
But when she experienced bowel changes again in April, Georgia returned to the GP and had another colonoscopy.
A CT scan showed the cancer had not spread to any major organs. But a subsequent MRI scan in Aberdeen confirmed she had an aggressive tumour which had spread to her lymph nodes.
I want to be around for my youngest turning 21
As her symptoms worsened, Georgia had major surgery for a double loop colostomy (stoma) in May and further biopsies were taken.
Just six days after surgery, she returned to Aberdeen for a PET scan, used, among other things, to determine how far the cancer has spread.
This showed up potential cancer in her breast and she is awaiting biopsy results. But during the visit she was given even worse news.
“The oncologist for the colorectal cancer told me it was incurable. My response was ‘I am going nowhere. I have three children that need me. I want to be around for my youngest turning 21’.
‘Diagnosis was hard to come to terms with’
“He told me it was important that I keep that attitude and learn to respect the cancer.”
Recalling contacting her GP, Georgia said: “I felt well and the only symptoms I had were some bowel changes over the course of a week. I thought it was a haemorrhoid.
“I felt fine which is what makes my diagnosis so shocking and unbelievable and very hard to come to terms with.
”People need to be more vigilant. If I save even one life or stop one little one losing a parent, my story will be worth it.
“Everyone is so reluctant to talk about their bowel habits or anything related to that area of your body. There remains such a stigma attached, and it is quite literally killing people.
“Bowel screening is offered to men and women aged 50 to 74 across Scotland to help find bowel cancer early when it can often be cured. You’re 14 times more likely to survive bowel cancer if it’s found early.”
She added: “Within two years I have stage four colorectal cancer which would usually take five to 10 years to develop.
“I am told that it can be aggressive in younger people so why on earth don’t the NHS screen earlier than 50?
“I am now also more than likely walking around with breast cancer and, again, no symptoms at all.
Community support has been overwhelming
“I just want to appeal to others out there who believed, like me, that it won’t happen to them. Well it does happen, and we are now living this nightmare.
“I will fight this with every bit of my being for the sake of my girls – and, you never know, miracles do happen. I want to be here for as long as possible and make beautiful memories with them.”
Georgia moved to Orkney six years ago from West Calder in West Lothian where she worked in social work and early years’ education for nearly 20 years.
She says the support from the Orkney and West Lothian communities, family and friends has been overwhelming.
“My best friend Caroline is like the sister I’ve never had, and she is at the end of the phone day and night. I can call her at 3am for reassurance when I’m feeling overwhelmed and can’t breathe at the fear of not being here for my daughters.”
My girls are everything and give me the strength to carry on
Other friends have travelled to Orkney to be with her, while a neighbour has helped look after the children. Some others have set up a ‘meals on wheels’ so Georgia doesn’t have to cook, others still have helped clean the house, and walk the dog.
“I may have only been in Orkney for six years, but I have made so many friendships and those friends continue to show me such support at this time.”
She also paid tribute to her colleagues at the nursery, teachers at the girl’s schools, cancer support teams at CLAN and Macmillan and Balfour Hospital.
She added: “My girls are everything and give me the strength to carry on. Azra is 16 and wants to be a beauty therapist, is interested in fashion and plans to stay on until 6th year at school.
“We are more like best friends than mother and daughter. She was an only child for eight years and we share an incredibly close bond. She is very kind and has stepped up in terms of caring for her little sisters and making sure I’m well cared for.
“Jess is a sensitive little girl, a deep thinker, a worrier and incredibly kind. She has been coping very well with the changes despite it all being so traumatic.
“Anna, who turns 4 on July 16, is the baby of the bunch and loves to be a princess, dressing up and has more clothes than the rest of us. Despite her young age she is very perceptive and asks lots of questions.”
Georgia’s memory boxes will include letters and cards for her daughters to open on special occasions, letting the girls know how proud she is of each of them. She also plans to write quirky anecdotes and funny stories she has shared with them.
‘Wake up thankful every morning’
The family have also shared a poignant Mother’s Day letter the girl’s wrote. It includes: “We don’t say this enough but thank you. Thank you for making us laugh. Thank you for loving us. Thank you being over-protective.
“But most importantly, thank you for being this amazing person that we call mum.”
Georgia added: “I am aware that Anna is so little and may not remember earlier memories of mummy without her sisters to remind her.
“The memory boxes will hopefully be of support for the sisters to revisit and remember the special times we all shared. And how that love and bond will be as strong in life as it is when mum is no longer physically here for mummy cuddles.
“I am ensuring all my affairs are in order, preparing everyone around me for what may lie ahead. I guess I am lucky in that respect as we will not take any day for granted as so many people do.
Cancer can take away many things, but not our precious memories
“My advice – wake up thankful every morning as today is a gift and tomorrow is never promised.
“Cancer can take away many things, but not our precious memories.”
The crowdfunding page was set up by Georgia’s friend and colleague Shaaron Kennedy to raise £1,000 for the family. However it has already brought in more than £4,000.
Shaaron said Georgia is an amazing mother, daughter, sister and friend: “We, her friends, have set up this crowd fund as we do not want Georgia to have to worry and stress about anything other than focusing on herself and her girls.
“We want them to be able to spend quality time as a family, making memories.”