‘Sue always said she was grateful for everything she had been through, because if it wasn’t for the cancer, she wouldn’t have achieved so many amazing things.’
That’s how Sue Cogley’s husband Peter says his beloved wife handled her 18-year battle with breast cancer. In that time, the inspirational mum and grandma set up a charity, spent months travelling the world raising awareness about the cause, and put plans in place for her ‘celebration of life’ – even writing her own eulogy.
Sue, a retired community fire safety practitioner from Brinscall who was previously in the navy, received ongoing care and support from St Catherine’s Hospice over a 10-year period, and spent her final days in the hospice’s inpatient unit in February this year.
Sue and her daughter Jane, from Coppull, took part in the charity’s Moonlight and Memories a number of times, and her family and friends have promised to continue supporting the charity in her honour.
“She didn’t want sympathy, she just wanted to do something positive and show her strength and determination,” Jane said. “People can become insular and angry when they’re going through something like cancer, but she took something negative and turned it into so many positives. That was her way of handling it, and it was good for us too.”
Sue, a keen swimmer who was a member of Brinscall Swimming Club and the Marlins as a child, achieved many things in her life, including founding the Girls Nautical Training Contingent at Chorley Seacadets.
She also worked as a lifeguard, and even after undergoing a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, continued to enjoy swimming and water sports. She never let the gruelling treatments stop her from setting new challenges and reaching her goals.
One of her biggest achievements was co-founding an innovative charity for breast cancer survivors. Paddlers for Life UK is a dragon boat team set up by Sue and friend Louisa Balderson in 2007, after they met through a dragon boat club in Liverpool.
The group meets weekly in the Lake District and is made up of breast cancer survivors, their families, friends and supporters. The team reaps both the physical benefits – with the paddling motion helping people to overcome the effects of cancer treatments and build up their strength – and the emotional support from the friendships which are formed within the team, who are experiencing similar circumstances.
The movement started in Canada after a sports physician found the activity prevented or helped improve the symptoms of lymphoedema – a condition which causes swelling in the body’s tissues that can be caused by cancer treatments such as surgery or radiotherapy. There are now breast cancer dragon boat teams all over the world, including America and Australia, and Sue made it her mission to reach out to people across the globe to spread the word about Paddlers for Life UK.
Co-founder Louisa, who has also faced breast cancer, said: “Sue’s dream was to have dragon boat teams all over the UK, and we now have four groups; Windermere, Wigan, Scotland, and Manchester. She loved telling people about it and it never took much for her to convince people to give it a go. She just loved encouraging people to get involved.
“Sue was so proud of what she had achieved, and what she would be remembered for. She was very insightful and had a lot of courage, and inspired a lot of people. She really was very special.”
Sue, a mother-of-three and grandma-of-one, was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, aged 40, and experienced six re-occurrences of the disease over the following 18 years. It eventually spread to her nervous system in 2010, which is when she began receiving regular care and support from St Catherine’s Hospice.
Sue’s husband Peter said: “Sue originally started coming to St Catherine’s to see the lymphoedema nurses to reduce the swelling in her arms with massage techniques. Then when the cancer spread to her nervous system, she went to the hospice every three or four months to see a palliative consultant to help manage the pain.
“She also received counselling from the St Catherine’s Family Support Team, which she really appreciated as I think it helped her to have someone to speak with who wasn’t directly affected or upset by what she was going through. She spoke very openly with her family, but she knew we found it hard, so it was helpful for her to have someone else to talk to. Our daughter Jane is also receiving bereavement support from the team now, which she is very grateful for.”
He added: “Towards the end, she was referred to the hospice’s inpatient unit where she was very comfortable and so well looked after. The doctors spoke to her about potentially returning home and having the St Catherine’s Clinical Nurse Specialists visit her at home to continue her care and treatment, but I think she knew she didn’t have long left, and she was happy at the hospice.
“Sue always said that she felt grateful for those extra 18 years she got after being diagnosed – she achieved and experienced more in that time than most do in a lifetime. We both retired early from the fire service and spent three months in Hawaii last year, where we’d visited a few times throughout our 35-year marriage. She made friends there and even set up a canoe team! We made some wonderful memories.
“She said that in some ways, she was glad she’d had cancer and been through everything she had, because it changed her life in so many positive ways. She never would have imagined that she’d travel to Canada to meet members of their dragon boat team, or set up a charity like Paddlers for Life UK, successfully apply for the dragon boat team to take part in the Queen’s diamond jubilee flotilla, or carry an Olympic Torch!”
Sue’s palliative care consultant at St Catherine’s Hospice, Dr Claire Capewell, said: “It was a pleasure to get to know Sue. Her positive approach to life was evident throughout her illness. I was always pleased to do what I could to help her live life to the full, like adjusting medication so she had as much energy as possible for her daughter’s wedding or writing a letter to ensure her trip to Hawaii went as smoothly as possible.
“When I think of Sue I think of her smile, her pink hair and the fact she did everything she could to make a situation better. We often say, ‘hope for the best and plan for the worst’. Sue faced conversations about the future with bravery.
“I must mention Peter, who was always at her side. It seemed to me that they faced challenges together and Peter supported Sue in practical ways so they could make that last trip to Hawaii despite the fact she was very ill.”
Sue died aged 58, after spending just over two weeks at St Catherine’s Hospice, on February 25. Jane said it was a comfort now knowing that her mum’s funeral was just as she would have wished.
“Mum would speak so openly about things like funeral arrangements, which I really struggled with at first. But in hindsight, it was the best thing she could have done for us,” she said. ”She knew exactly what she wanted, and she organised it all herself, from meeting the celebrant and the funeral directors, to choosing the music, readings, and what coffin she wanted.
“What could have been an incredibly difficult and emotional task for us became easier because we knew we were doing what she wanted.
“She even wrote her own eulogy which was all about celebrating life and making the most of opportunities; living life to the full. It didn’t feel like a funeral, it was so positive and uplifting, and I think people left feeling like they should just go and do everything they’d been putting off – which is exactly what she would have hoped for.”
Music at the celebration included Take That’s ‘Never Forget’ and friends from all over the world attended wearing the dress-code of Hawaiian shirts she’d requested, before Sue left them with her parting words: “Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do it; enjoy life, enjoy the experience of life.”