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Mum with incurable cancer makes ‘living list’ of ‘happy memories’ with family

A mum diagnosed with incurable cancer has created a ‘living list’ so that she and her family can fill the time they have left together with ‘happy memories’.

At the age of 33, Sara McKenzie was given the heartbreaking news that she had breast cancer while on maternity leave with her daughter, Chronicle Live reports.

In her fight against the disease, she had to undergo surgery and grievous treatment, all the while caring for her baby girl Willow and toddler Noah.

After a long and difficult nine-months, the mum-of-two finally got ring the end of treatment bell at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary – and thought her cancer battle was finally over.

As life started to return to normal, she and husband Ross decided to move from Newcastle after 18 years to be closer to Sara’s family in Belfast, where they soon found their dream ‘forever home’.

But in March the family’s world was turned upside down for a second time. Although Sara, now 37, had felt fit and healthy, an increasing pain in her back turned out to be the sign of the cancer’s return from her.

Tests revealed the primary school teacher was now living with stage four breast cancer which had spread to her bones, causing fractures in her spine. And although doctors can manage the disease, it is no longer curable.

Sara said: “At the start of December I started to feel some back pain, but it was only a small pain that I could manage with paracetamol. But it didn’t go away for about two weeks, and then one morning it was suddenly so severe I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get out of bed.

Sara at Noah's birthday party - themed black and white for NUFC.
Sara at Noah’s birthday party – themed black and white for NUFC.

“I had an MRI on January 4 and it showed multiple tumors, one in particular that had caused a huge fracture in my spine. To me that was a huge, huge shock

“I am a positive person, one of these people that just gets up and gets on, and I had had that doctor’s appointment before Christmas and we spent a week in Newcastle over New Year. At that point I knew I had the MRI coming up but not once over that time did I expect the news that I was going to get.

“I really did just think it was a bit of muscle pain, because I did exercise, I was running, if you looked at me I was the picture of health, I was working full-time, I had regular checks showing the all- clear. It really was a huge shock. Hearing the words ‘it is not curable’, that is the really hard part.”

Sara McKenzie in the RVI.
Sara McKenzie in the RVI.

Whilst reeling from the news, Sara and Ross knew they’d have to find a way to talk about it with Willow and Noah, now five and seven, who would now be more aware of their mum’s illness than they’d been when she was first diagnosed. Their conversation resulted in a number of steps to help the children understand and cope – and a plan to make the most of all the time they have together.

She said: “The advice we got was if they ask if I’m going to die we say, ‘that’s not the plan for now, the plan is for the doctors to give Mummy medicine to keep the cancer still for as long as possible ‘. One night Noah got upset when he was going to bed and he asked me ‘Mummy, what happens when you die, do you get a second life?’ – he must have been thinking about a computer game where you get to go again.

“I had to say unfortunately no, and he hugged me and said ‘Mummy I don’t want to ever leave you’. That conversation was extremely hard, but I kept it together to be strong for him, and we started writing down all the things we wanted to do together as a family while we’re here.

“The first thing he said was ‘I want to go to Florida’ – so aiming high! So that was where the living list came from, and now when things come up we write them down.

“I’m focusing on making the most of what time I have with my family and the list really does help with that, it makes me determined to fulfill as much of it as I can, to make as many happy memories as I can. Obviously there are some big things on there that do cost money but it’s also little things that I would probably take for granted before, like going to the children’s sports day, these memories just mean so much to me now.”

Sara enjoying a McDonald's with her children the first time they were able to visit her in hospital.
Sara enjoying a McDonald’s with her children the first time they were able to visit her in hospital.

There are some once-in-a-lifetime experiences on the list, such as the trip to Florida, which Sara remembers visiting when she was young and has always hoped to give her children similar memories. But there are also more everyday experiences that are just as special, like a family stay in a campervan, as well as a hiking trip just for Sara and Ross.

In a bid to help the family fulfill as much of the list as possible, friends have started raising money to make their dreams a reality, and they’ve already raised thousands of pounds. The money has helped build a dream treehouse, which was ready in time for Willow’s fifth birthday.

Sara said: “The support has been really overwhelming but in such a lovely way. I have been blown away by everybody’s support, from Newcastle, from Belfast, it’s just been incredible. It’s so comforting to have so many people around us who are giving us that love and support and I honestly couldn’t do this without our friends and family.”

Sara’s friends are raising money for her at

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