Scores of strangers joined in with Rhiann Breen’s hybrid holiday, posting under the hashtag #chreastmaswiththebreens
A terminally ill mum who won the hearts of the nation when she told how she is ticking off her bucket list in lockdown with her young family celebrated Christmas early over the Easter weekend – with scores of strangers following suit in her honour.
Diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in August 2019, doctors were confident that Rhiann Breen, 31, would survive for many years but, despite aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the disease spread to her lungs, brain and bones – meaning she has just three to four months left to live.
Self-isolating to protect herself from the coronavirus outbreak, at the weekend, former retail worker Rhiann ticked off one of the biggest items on her bucket list by combining Christmas with Easter – decorating a tree, filling stockings for her children Max, three, and Isobel, 11 months, enjoying a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, staging an egg hunt and being visited by the Easter Bunny.
Calling it ‘Chreastmas’, the mum, from Newport, South Wales, urged other people to join in under the hashtag #chreastmaswiththebreens – triggering a wave of support on social media from families tucking into turkey dinners, singing carols and decorating their festive firs in the blazing Bank Holiday sun.
Painfully aware that she will probably not see the actual Christmas Day this year, Rhiann, whose husband Gavin, 32, is a youth worker, said: “Some of the people who joined in were total strangers, or I’d met them online through things like Facebook mums’ groups, but never in real life.
“People were putting up trees, or doing little drawings and making messages of solidarity to stick in their windows. It was so touching to know people were thinking of me, and really lovely to see them all happy and celebrating at a time where a lot of them will be feeling down over being stuck in lockdown.”
Usually perfectly healthy, everything changed in an instant for Rhiann when she was examining a bruise on her left breast left by Max, who had accidentally bashed her during play, and she felt a 3cm lump.
Tests followed, and on 16 August last year, medics broke the news that she had cancer.
“Isobel was just a few months old at the time,” she said. “It sounds silly, but one of the hardest parts was knowing I’d have to stop breastfeeding her.”
A biopsy then confirmed that she had triple negative breast cancer which, according to Cancer Research, occurs when the cancerous cells do not have receptors for the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, or the protein Her2, and accounts for around 15 in every 100 cases of the disease in the UK.
Symptoms include a change in the size, shape or feel of the breast, dimpling of the skin, a change in the nipple – such as it becoming inverted or irregular in shape – blood-stained discharge from the nipple, a rash or swelling in the armpit.
“It’s such a shame that research into triple negative doesn’t seem to be as far along as other breast cancers,” she said. “That desperately needs to change so other families don’t go through what we are experiencing.”
In the months that followed, Rhiann had gruelling chemotherapy, which saw her lose her long dark hair – although her husband Gavin shaved his head in solidarity.
She also had radiotherapy, but an MRI scan in March found that the cancer had spread to her brain, bones and lungs, leaving her with only months to live.
“I can’t get my head around the fact that my children will grow up without me,” she said. “Isobel is so little that she won’t even remember me, and Max may ask for me at first, but he’s still so small too, so one day, he’ll stop.”
And her bombshell news coincided with the country being ordered into lockdown to fight the spread of covid-19, with her being considered a vulnerable person who, according to Public Health England guidance, must self-isolate for 12 weeks – which is tantamount to the rest of her life.
With no time to waste, she has been making precious memories and ticking off her bucket list with her husband and their young children – creating keepsakes and writing letters to her son and daughter and birthday cards to open when she is no longer here.
And they made Easter unforgettable by celebrating Christmas, too – an occasion made all the more memorable by new NHS guidance announced only days earlier, stating that terminally ill people with less than six months to live should, if they wish to, be exempt from the stringent self-isolation guidelines for at-risk people.
A letter to GPs found on the coronavirus guidance section of the NHS England website says: “We also suggest that anybody with a terminal diagnosis who is thought to be in their last 6 months of life should be excluded from this group (unless they wish to be included), to allow them to maintain contact with their loved ones during the last phase of their illness.”
So Rhiann was delighted to be able to invite her parents, John and Christine, and brother Ryan, who she has not seen in person for a month because of the lockdown, to visit and join in.
“My mum and dad only live a street away, so it’s been tortuous knowing they have been so close, but I couldn’t see them in person,” she said. “I still had to keep my distance a little, but it was so emotional seeing them and actually being able to talk face to face.”
It all came as a massive surprise to Max and Isobel, as Rhiann had kept the celebration secret, so they were ecstatic to wake up on Easter morning with a stocking full of presents waiting for them in the lounge.
She continued: “I also got out our Christmas tree, which is one of those 7ft artificial ones you can reuse, and decorated it with baubles and chocolate eggs.
“The kids were absolutely beside themselves. They were shocked, but couldn’t stop smiling.”
“Gavin and I only got them about five presents each, and the rest were donated. They got things like toy cars, little dinosaurs, which Max loves, and some puzzles,” she continued.
“People have been so unbelievably generous after hearing about what we’re going through. In the two weeks leading up to the weekend, we got about 30 cards through our letterbox – ‘Cheastmas’ ones people had ordered specially from websites that can personalise cards.
“I’m hoping to get them all bound as a special keepsake.”
After hearing about her plight, Rhiann’s local community also rallied round to make her day as laughter-filled as possible.
A local supermarket donated an Easter hamper filled with chocolate goodies for the children, and her butcher gave them a huge turkey to be enjoyed as a special dinner.
A relative even arranged for a special visit from the Easter Bunny – who stood at a safe two metre distance.
Rhiann continued: “That was hilarious. Max went very quiet and shy, bless him. The amount of chocolate eggs people sent us was insane. We’re all looking forward to eating them over the next few days.
“My auntie and cousins managed to get all the food, going to the supermarket first thing in the morning when the shelves were full, so they could buy everything from Yorkshire puddings to pigs in blankets. They got us all the veg in the days before, too.
“Somebody donated some crackers to us which they had left over from Christmas, so we even had them.”
She added: “Loads of family had made us food, like homemade stuffing and an Easter cake, which they were dropping off across the weekend, leaving it on the doorstep for us to pick up.”
And it was not just the Breen household celebrating Christmas in April.
After building up an online following by opening up about her cancer battle in her blog, Rhiann was touched by the scores of virtual friends following suit.
Her Facebook and Instagram pages were flooded with snaps from families all over the UK celebrating their very own Cheastmasses in her honour.
Not only has she been buoyed by the incredible kindness of the pals she has bonded with over Instagram – never meeting in real life – but a GoFundMe page launched by the network of ladies to pay for her to make as many special memories as possible, and to ease her family’s financial burden when she passes, has raised more than £20,000.
“I’ve never even met these women, who are from across the UK, in person. I’ve been so blown away by them,” she said.
“The money will really help with things like memory boxes that I want to put together for the children, with cards and presents from me for the birthdays I am going to miss,” she added.
“I’m thinking about getting them something engraved for their 18th birthdays.
“It would also help if Gavin and the children want a break when they are allowed to travel again, to take their mind off everything.”
Adding that she is not only sharing her story to thank those who have helped her through her darkest hour, but also to raise awareness of triple negative breast cancer, she concluded: “I can’t change my own story – but maybe I can change somebody else’s.”
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