Jo Smith Wareing has a special reason to celebrate this year.
She is rejoicing in the gift of life.
Just weeks ago the mum and health worker was an in-patient in Blackpool’s Victoria Hospital, receiving intensive chemotherapy following a surprise diagnosis of cancer.
But, after a gruelling three-and-a-half months of treatment, she got back home in time for Christmas.
The 44-year-old was diagnosed with the fast moving, but treatable, cancer called Burkitt’s lymphoma after discovering a lump in her throat earlier this year (2017).
The diagnosis hit hard, especially as Jo, a nursery nurse in the midwifery unit at Royal Preston Hospital for 14 years before joining the community team, did not feel at all unwell.
Four cycles of chemotherapy laid her low for days at a time, but she says she ensured her hospital room was a home from home, decorating it with leopard print bunting, mementoes and lots of family photos of fun days out.
She said the photographs kept her strong: “I kept thinking, ‘This is going to come back. This is what I’m aiming for’.”
Family and friends also helped keep her spirits up.
She started a Facebook blog ‘Jo’s Journey Kicking Ass’ to keep everyone up to date.
It has now attracted 2,600 followers and was recently put to good use to promote two causes very dear to Jo – the search for stem cell donors and the ongoing need for blood donors.
Since she left the hospital she has been approached by the blood donation service to ask if she will help promote their work.
Meanwhile, a fellow patient and new friend Barney, whom she met in hospital, is urgently in need of a stem cell transplant.
She said: “I put a link on my blog to the stem cell donation service DKMS (www.dkms.org.uk) and within 24 hours 16 people had signed up.
Barney is quite poorly and we really need to give him a match. The more people that sign up the better. They just send you a swab and you send it back and if it’s a match they’ll contact you.”
She was touched by the kindness of strangers who sent her morale-boosting cards and even small gifts such as foot creams after reading her words: “I had so much support through that blog.”
Jo continued: “Also I had really good relationship with the staff at the hospital. They were amazing.”
She has special praise for her ward cleaner whom, she says, “got me through a lot of my weeping days. She was a very good friend to me”.
In return Jo, with has been a good friend to the hospital - helping make the patients’ relaxation room on her ward even more relaxing by “kitting it out” with thoughtful gifts including a bubble lamp, salt lamps, candles and ornaments.
Jo, from Longridge in the Ribble Valley, explained this was made possible by generous donations thanks to fund-raising by local friends Duncan and Nicki Crosbie at the Tap and Vent micropub and Alex Coward from the Alston Arms.
She said: “All through my blog I’ve been absolutely honest about the treatment and how you can come through it.”
She recalls at one point she lost her sight for five days – a reaction to some of the drugs. She developed mouth sores which were so bad she could not eat and could not swallow, her weight plummeted from 10 stone to eight and she developed jaundice. She also had a blood clot in her chest and a collapsed lung.
The experience has left emotional and psychological scars: “I keep having flashbacks. It’s like post traumatic stress and it’s quite normal to have big meltdowns. I can sit and sob for an hour - then I’m all right.”
Other patients have contacted her seeking help and reassurance and she plans to carry on this work, sharing her experience to help others.
Her hair has started to grow back and soon she will have it styled.
She recalls with humour how, when she had just one eyelash left after the chemo caused hair loss, she posted a message saying she thought she would treat it to a coat of mascara.
If it’s been a year of change physically and emotionally, it’s also been a time for reflection.
Jo said: “I do value things a lot more now and appreciate things a lot. I just think every day is precious.”
She was delighted when she was told she could return home a few weeks earlier than expected.
A favourite new celebration photo shows Jo and family gathering at the top of Blackpool Tower, by kind invitation of the Tower staff, to show Jo on a new “high” after the lows of her treatment.
She, husband Steve and eldest daughter Leah, 16, kept the homecoming a secret from youngest daughter Shana, 13. Joanne recalled: “I surprised Shana. She opened the door and she just burst into tears.”
Jo still has some after effects from the treatment, but above all is thrilled her pledge - to get through the treatment, get home and have a Christmas drink, has come true.
She says she also believes the experience has brought her and Steve, a retired fireman, even closer together. He visited her every day in hospital, bar two.
As for her children, who celebrated their 16th and 13th birthdays while she was having treatment and helped their dad around the house while keeping strong for her, she said: “The kids grew up a lot …. I am so proud of them”.
Jo went back to hospital for a check up recently and she says she got the best message she could wish for: “My doctor said you are lymphoma free – go and enjoy your life.
“I was just elated.
“I couldn’t believe I’d got that all clear.”