A heartfelt tribute

You might or might not know that Rosie was a Facebook fiend. In fact without her maniacal love of it I would never have returned to use it again after a six-year absence. It is all too often derided by many (me included) as a place for fake friendships and innumerable and pointless photos of cats (sorry to all those cat lovers out there). But in Facebook Rosie found an outlet. A number of years ago she started the Wonderful Working Mums group – to date is has 2,601 members. The name says it all. It is a group for working mums to get together and to swap tips on everything from child care to career advancement.

And then there are the various cancer support groups which she took inspiration from and participated in. One of these, the Younger Breast Cancer Network (UK), founded by Victoria Yates, was so very important to her in the year since her diagnosis. It was here that she met and made so many true friends; friends who since her death have been in regular contact with me. Almost every message I receive begins with the words “I never met Rosie, but…”. To me it is a sign of her strength and powerful personality that friendships forged online have lasted beyond her life in a way that friendships do in the real world.

Throughout the month of October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, YBCN has been telling the stories of young women who have survived and succumbed to breast cancer. Their campaign is named #nottooyoung. In the words of one of their members the campaign is “trying to counter the pink and fluffy side of Breast Cancer Awareness month, so that women understand it’s not as straightforward as buying a pink pair of pants or showing your bra strap to make a genuine difference to research and development of a cure for the disease. We want to try to encourage women to look, check and get changes investigated early, and to understand most of all that breast cancer is not an older womens’ disease.”

I was asked if I’d be willing to allow Rosie’s story to be told. There was no debate, of course they could use her story. Below are the elegant words which were written about Rosie. For those of you on Facebook you can check out this campaign for yourselves here.

I want to endorse the sentiments of the campaign and reinforce its message. Rosie’s charity will be aiming to do a great deal of this too and I hope we can make a small but significant contribution to eradicating this appalling killer.

Elliot

Rosie, 38, ‪#‎nottooyoung‬

This is Rosie. Rosie lived in North West London. Rosie was a wife, mother of two, Oxford graduate and partner in a City law firm. She was diagnosed in June 2014 with primary breast cancer. Then in December 2014, just as she had finished her course of chemotherapy, Rosie found a new lump. The cancer had returned and spread to her liver. This meant that the cancer was now incurable. Rosie died in June 2015, just one year after her initial diagnosis. She was 38 years old.

Throughout her illness, Rosie blogged about her experiences as a breast cancer patient, winning international acclaim and awards for her blog, Fighting Ghengis. Though originally written as a private journal, her final message was covered by the English and Irish media and The Huffington Post, which gives you an indication of how far and wide she managed to spread her message.

Rosie provided many members of YBCN with comforting words, advice and support often on a personal, one to one level. She was an active member of our online community, leading discussions about symptoms and side effects, chipping in with advice on how to manage some of the problems we all encounter as breast cancer patients, and making many of us howl with laughter with her wicked sense of humour, despite the personal challenges she was facing.

Rosie was incredibly motivated and organised, arranging a YBCN social event whilst in the midst of her treatment. She mobilised dozens of our members from across the country to meet up in central London for afternoon tea and, later that evening, a meal, vodka shots and dancing!

Her enthusiasm for life shone through in her posts, and her wisdom and kindness were almost palpable to those who ‘met’ her through YBCN. Her warmth and sincerity came through the screen and into people’s lives.

So who was Rosie? She read jurisprudence at Brasenose College Oxford, attaining a double first with a prize in European law. While at Oxford she developed many close friendships, which endured with her. After law school, she networked hard to secure a rare internship in competition law at the European Commission.

She was a partner at her second firm by the age of 33 and from there, moved to a significant partnership role at Bristow’s, where she flourished.

Within five weeks of meeting Rosie, her husband Elliot had determined that he had found the one. As a mother, Rosie was peerless. She was a hard-working, highly successful city lawyer and a fully engaged parent. She never did anything by halves. She started the very successful “Wonderful Working Mums” network on Facebook.

Rosie loved her two children, Natalie and Joseph, for all their individuality. She saw so many of her own good traits in Natalie; the bookworm and the natural born leader, whilst Joey would be there to defend Natalie. He was a protector of the family and she loved that in him. She loved his sheer joy of life and his force of personality.

Rosie was a brilliant, accomplished young woman of tenacity, resilience, strength and determination. Yet on being called ‘inspirational’ we’re told she had retorted that she was simply “doing the very best she could in a shitty situation.”

And yet Rosie gave inspiration. She championed everybody to be the best person they could be. She gave life a massive ‘yes’.
Rosie never let go of her wish for life and was determined to do the best she could. Her instruction to her loved ones? “Life’s too short. Do the right thing.”

We miss you Rosie. You’ll always shine brightly as one of the YBCN family.

Younger Breast Cancer Network (UK)'s photo.
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Everything changes and the guilt of living

Today I received a beautiful message from Caroline, one of the ladies on the YBCN (Younger Breast Cancer Network) Facebook group. Last year Rosie had organised a YBCN get together in London. It’s where Caroline and she met. I remember the day. Going off to meet the group of women all carrying the same internal scars and scares. I never properly understood the fear that breast cancer instills in a woman living with it. My appreciation of this disease has grown since Rosie’s death. But how can a person who has never had cancer ever really understand the impact it has on the sufferer?

Through her blog, Rosie found great comfort in being able to express her innermost thoughts. And being a vibrant part of a number of online cancer communities she also found a way to deal with this most appalling of diseases. But I think it was through the YBCN event in London that she found real comfort from the certainty of understanding of her fellow victims.

Caroline talked about two aspects of this disease. For those who successfully live through and beyond their cancer treatment they suffer the pain of “survivor’s guilt”. Until I’d experienced Rosie’s cancer to its bitter end this really wasn’t something which had occurred to me. I’d heard this phrase used with respect to survivors of the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Most famously the great Italian chemist, Primo Levi, who wrote movingly about his experiences. But survivor’s guilt and cancer? Caroline wrote about this. Even though Rosie’s treatment had failed last year she still maintained her connection with those who were living healthily after theirs. Rosie was happy for those who, unlike her, had escaped the secondary diagnosis. Somehow her humanity allowed her to continue to support those whose luck hadn’t run out. But then that was Rosie.

Survivor’s guilt can, I imagine, become an appalling, all-consuming beast. But that can’t be allowed. For those who survive, they must take the gift of life and do something special with it, whatever that is. Rosie would have been furious if her death meant others couldn’t make the most of their lives.

Caroline also talked about change. Her experience of cancer has changed her for good. Her words, “I’m not the person I was before this all started” are something I can identify with. As I sat alone in synagogue this morning I thought about my place in this world – and my children. It occurred to me that for the last year our lives have been odd, different, changed. Rosie and I had tried so very hard since June 2014 to keep things “normal” in the Choueka household. Despite the inner turmoil created by this disease Rosie and I both knew that we couldn’t bring this into the children’s lives. Of course we needed them to understand something of what was going on but it was not right or fair to expose them to the awfulness of the situation, or at least not until almost the very end.

The most obvious change, with the benefit of hindsight, was the creeping sadness. Rosie and I experienced a happiness together that I only dreamed of in my earlier years. And with the arrival of the children that simply multiplied. Yes there were bouts of illness, health scares and the like but nothing we couldn’t deal with; that’s life. Cancer was the game changer. Looking back on it I’d say it felt like a storm rolling in from afar. The winds rising up, the sky darkening and the rain, thunder and lightning tearing across the horizon at breakneck speed towards an unsuspecting town. That’s the way it’s felt.

Now the storm is calming. It’s still raining. It’s still dark. But far out on the horizon I can see daylight. The sadness is most firmly still with me, with Natalie and with Joey. I know at some point the storm will pass, the skies will brighten. But what will it leave behind? I don’t know. Most certainly everything has changed forever but it’s far too early to see exactly how. In that awful journalistic cliché, only time will tell.

Elliot