Like most Cypriot families, mine is large and filled with love. My parents divorced when I was very young and both remarried. So I grew up with four parents, four sisters and one brother. I'm the eldest. In February last year I also welcomed my first niece, Mia Ariana. But sadly six of my relatives have been lost to cancer, which is why I am writing this piece.
The first was my Dada - my dad's brother, Sotiris. He died when he was thirty one years old of colon cancer. He was my Dad's best friend as well as brother and it saddens me that I didn't get to know him or grow up with him in my life as he was a devoted Dada. I was two years old at the time and my only memories are the ones I have on camera.
Next came my Nouna Georgia, who died when she was 29 years old. She hadn't been feeling well since she gave birth to my cousin George just over a year before. She was eventually diagnosed with Ovarian cancer, but it was too late. Soon after her diagnosis she collapsed and she died three weeks later. She left behind my two cousins, Despina and George.
Then came my Auntie Eleni. My Dad's only sister. Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of my aunt. She was also sadly diagnosed with colon cancer and died when she was thirty years old. Meaning my dad lost two siblings within a decade.
My dad's parents have both also died of cancer. My Yiayia Alexandra died ten years ago of thyroid cancer. My Yiayia was devoted to her family. A memory always sticks in my mind of her making me and my sister food when we went to see her when my aunt died. She had just lost her second child, and only daughter, but somehow she had strength to make food for her grandchildren. She was devoted to us all.
I had never seen my Buppou Peter sick before my Yiayia died. But once she left his health began to decline. He would often tell me he was ready to join my Yiayia, he just didn't have strength to live without her. My dad moved him from London to Cyprus and he developed a nice life visting the coffee shop and making friends. Sadly he became very sick and was a shadow of his former self. He died in January 2010 and is buried with my Yiayia, reunited once again.
All of these losses have had a profound effect on me and how I live my life. However, the most significant loss is my cousin George.
George was fourteen months old when his mum died. Then on his second birthday he was diagnosed with cancer himself. At the time my family were assured that it was not linked to his mum and was just a terrible coincidence.
George had treatment and was declared in remission. However, the cancer returned and he was given less then 5% chance of surviving. Somehow, this amazing little boy managed to defy all the odds and for a while the disease went away. There were many scares throughout the years but George grew to be a healthy, strong, fit and lovable young boy. A case of skin cancer was found and treated when he was fifteen years old. Then came the bombshell that changed our world forever. George was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma of the jaw when he was fifteen years old.
It was only then, once George had been diagnosed with his third cancer, that a genetic test was performed and it was revealed that he had Li Fraumeni Syndrome, a gene mutation probably inherited from his mum. My Uncle is a very clever man, a scientist. He had the means to research and gain information. He searched the globe for a way to help George. Our family spent the next two years in hospitals whilst George went through jaw replacements, chemotherapy, surgeries, photo-dynamic therapy, anything and everything that could possibly cure him.
George died on April 25th 2011. My twenty second birthday and just three months before his eighteenth birthday. George was more then a cousin to me, he was my brother. He was the heartbeat of my family. A happy, vibrant, loving boy who provided us all with so much joy. I have never recovered from his loss and never will. There is a huge hole where he should be.
Six months before George died I became a Cancer Campaigns Ambassador for Cancer Research UK. George was deteriorating quickly at the time and I wanted to channel my helplessness into something useful. I wanted to start making sure other families didn't suffer like mine have. My volunteering work helped me during the grieving process and continues to help me to this day. Six years later and I have achieved many things with the charity, and continue to be a dedicated supporter now. Over the years I have written blog posts, taken part in campaigns that have led to law changes, recorded speeches and adverts, volunteered at events, participated in events and lobbied the UK government.
Over the last 6 years volunteering has been the outlet for my grief. It allows me to include the people I have lost into my daily life. I hate going to cemeteries. This is my own way of remembering them. Sometimes it's incredibly hard, I'll come across someone with similar stories to theirs and it will break me for a few days. But that's ok. I still cry about them. I still think it's unfair they were taken. But I see people surviving cancer on a daily basis and it provides me with hope. I play a role in helping and this fills me with pride. I also push myself to try and live life to the full in their honour, especially as most of them died so incredibly young. I left everything I know behind 3 years ago and moved to Cyprus. It was difficult, especially leaving my mum, but I've slowly made a life for myself. They push me whenever I feel like giving up at something because I always remind myself that they didn't have the opportunities I had. Volunteering and living my life as best I can are my two ways of honouring my relatives.
Maybe volunteering isn't for everyone. But everyone has their own outlet for grief. Maybe you run when you feel sad. Maybe you close the curtains, get into bed and cry. Maybe you go to the cemetery. Maybe you find comfort in your religion. Maybe you find comfort in family and friends. We all have our ways of coping and I've learnt that no way is the wrong way. If you're going through something like this now, then please know it won't get better but it will get easier to manage one day.....and I'm sending you love.
(Penny-Sofia, 27 Cyprus/Bromley and Chislehurst)
If you want to share your story like Penny, email firstname.lastname@example.org