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POPPY'S PEOPLE: “To see my child like that was far worse than cancer”

POPPY'S PEOPLE: “To see my child like that was far worse than cancer”

Wednesday 01 June 2022

POPPY'S PEOPLE: “To see my child like that was far worse than cancer”

Wednesday 01 June 2022


Lisa Smart acknowledges that she was “very lucky” to have enjoyed an almost picture perfect life where “everything just flowed smoothly” until physical and mental health issues saw the course of her family life hit rough waters.

I have always remembered Lisa as one of my best teachers and, with a career spanning 27 years, I am sure I am not alone. It was surprising to learn that she was pushed into the profession.

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Pictured: Lisa has been married to her "best friend", Rob, since 2001.

“I had never thought about being a teacher. I had always wanted to be a police officer,” said Lisa. 

“When it came time to think about career choices, the headteacher of the Grammar School told me that I really should consider teaching instead because I was so good with younger pupils.

“I did a bit of work experience and then went to study in Plymouth, but after the first year I didn’t want to go back.” 

Lisa had chosen to study at the College of St Mark and St John “purely because it was the closest place to Guernsey with an airport”. 

“I had a very close family in Guernsey. I love it here. I found it extremely hard being away from home,” she said. 

“After my first year, the Headteacher from Grammar School spoke to me again and said that I should give it another go. 

“In my first year, I had been staying with a family I didn’t know, they cooked awful food for me and I spent all the time in my room. I had made friends with some mature students, who are still friends now, and I spent my second year living with a friend and her new husband. 

“In my third and fourth years, I stayed with another friend in Tavistock, on the outskirts of Dartmoor, so I used to have a lovely scenic drive into Plymouth from there.”

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Pictured: An accomplished cyclist, Rob was chosen to carry the Olympic torch in 2012. 

Lisa returned to the island to teach at Hautes Capelles Primary School and has since taught at Granville House, Les Voies, La Houguette, La Mare de Carteret, Beechwood and, most recently, Vauvert, where she has been for six years. 

“My favourite thing about teaching and, in my opinion, the most important thing is building relationships with the children,” she said. 

“If you can’t build good relationships, then you have no chance with the teaching and learning. I really love it. I love the good kids. I love the naughty kids. I love the challenge.”

Lisa married her “soulmate”, Rob, in 2001 and they later welcomed two daughters, Phoebe (15) and Zara (10). 

“Rob and I waited quite a long time before we had children because we wanted to make sure we had enough money to be able to afford them opportunities. 

“Rob was very sporty as a child and did a lot of activities. I was from a single-parent family, so money was always tight, and I didn’t have the same opportunities, although I did go to Brownies. 

“Both our girls have always done a lot of activities and they never want to drop anything, so their schedules have become a bit chaotic. I never wanted them to just be sat inside on iPads, so it’s nice that they have so many interests.” 

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Pictured: The Smart family take part in craft events for the North Show and are making a float for this year's Battle of Flowers. 

Lisa took the “minimum amount” of maternity leave after each of her daughters was born. 

“I returned to work full-time and Rob reduced his hours to part-time, so he’s done a lot of the childcare.

“Rob is a Godsend. He does all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, washing, ironing. I really don’t know what I would do without him.”

From the outside looking in, Lisa’s life is picture perfect.

“We do feel very lucky. We have a nice house, a lovely family and extended family and everything fits really well. Everything just flowed - until, in the blink of an eye, it didn’t."

Lisa recalls how her life changed on Boxing Day in 2019. 

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Pictured: Lisa encourages her daughters to be active and take up the opportunities available to them. 

“I was going for a shower and I caught my reflection in the mirror. I noticed that I had dimpling down the side of my chest and I thought it was odd.

“I couldn’t feel any lumps, but the dimpling was certainly not something I had noticed before. 

“Trying to get a doctor’s appointment over Christmas was a nightmare, but I managed to get one on New Year’s Eve and was referred to a specialist straight away. The doctor told me that he would be 'very surprised if it was not something sinister'.

“I went back to work and the Headteacher, who knew I had been for the appointment, called me into his office and I just cried and cried.”

Within a couple of days, Lisa had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. 

“I was given the news that it was definitely cancer. I had a six-centimetre lobular tumour, which is a soft or squishy kind of tumour, which is why I couldn’t feel it.

“I was told that lobular tumours usually aren’t found until it is too late. I had lost a lot of weight around the time. I think because of that the tumour was pulling on the skin and I was able to notice the dimpling.”

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Pictured: Lisa's hair was shaved by her sister, a hairdresser, when it started falling out from chemotherapy treatment. 

Within two weeks of her diagnosis, Lisa had to give up her job and started the first of six rounds of chemotherapy. 

“Within a week of starting chemotherapy, my hair was falling out. My sister, who is a hairdresser, cut my hair into a short bob. But, within another week, it was still falling out, so much that she had to shave it completely.

“For me, chemotherapy was horrendous. I had so much pain in my head and neck and I would be in bed for days on end because I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. Rob said that I would stare into space for hours not saying anything or I would cry for no reason. 

“By the time you start coming out the other side of the chemotherapy, it’s time for the next round. I was given painkillers to try and relieve the pain in my head and neck, which worked but also ‘zombified’ me.” 

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Pictured: Lisa said that the challenges her family have faced have left them with a mentality to make the most of every opportunity and think "what do we have to lose?"

Lisa said that having to tell her children about her diagnosis was the hardest thing she had ever had to do. 

“Rob tried to keep the girls away as much as possible, so they didn’t see me in that state from the chemotherapy.

“I felt awful that I wasn’t with them, but we tried to keep everything as normal as possible for them. Rob continued to take them to school and dancing and, initially, they both seemed to be handling it very well considering.

“The thing that was the biggest problem initially was that we said we had to cancel our holiday to Disney World, which would have been the following July. As it turned out, the travel restrictions came in and we wouldn’t have been able to go in any event.” 

Lisa recalled that her youngest daughter was “the first to suffer from anxiety”. 

“Zara would continually say that she felt sick and wouldn’t want to go to school in case she was sick.

“On days where I was feeling up to taking her to school, she would cry and say she felt sick. She then learned to make herself sick, so that she was able to come back home. I would drop her at Capelles and, before I had even reached the traffic lights, I would get a call to say that she had been sick, and I needed to go back and collect her.” 

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Pictured: Lisa underwent chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery following her cancer diagnosis. 

Lisa said that her teaching experience helped her to handle the situation. 

“The staff at Capelles were great, but when they would take her off me and she was crying it was really hard.

“I have had to do that many times as a teacher and I know that, once the kid is in school, they are always fine, but as a parent it wrenches at your heart to leave them like that. 

“I can see why parents would take their children back home in those circumstances. Zara’s teacher was great and would message me to let me know that she had calmed down and was completely fine, so that I wouldn’t have to worry.” 

Lisa said that her oldest daughter, Phoebe, “initially sailed through” dealing with Lisa’s diagnosis and treatment. 

As Lisa’s treatment continued, covid restrictions had an impact on time with her family.

“Initially, my mum and Rob would take it in turns to come with me to my chemotherapy, but I had to start going on my own when the restrictions were introduced.

“It was ok because I would take a book and read for the three or four hours and the nurses were so good and would sit and chat."

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Pictured: Lisa has been teaching in local schools for the past 27 years. 

“What was more difficult was that we had to shield so we couldn’t see family or go out the whole time I was having treatment.

“We became really obsessed with making sure everything was clean, so we would clean food that was delivered and, if any post arrived, we would leave it in the garage for a couple of days. My immune system was so compromised by the chemotherapy that we couldn’t risk anything coming into the house.”

Lisa’s husband was made redundant in June 2020.

“We had known since October that he would be made redundant. It turned out to be a blessing because it meant that he was home when I had to go to Southampton.

“I had surgery at the beginning of June and had to isolate a week before that. Rob was able to take me to the door of the hospital, but wasn’t allowed to come in. 

“One of the parents of a child from my school was a nurse and she supported me when I was crying because I couldn’t have him with me. Another parent was a nurse on the ward and she was fantastic. There was another parent who was a good friend of mine, Karen Buck-Archenoul, who ended up also receiving a cancer diagnosis within months of me.”

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Pictured: Lisa had to travel to Southampton Hospital alone due to covid restrictions.

Two days after her surgery, Lisa was called back to the hospital. 

“I was told that they had removed the cancer, but that the margin had been too small, so they needed to operate again.

“Three days after my original surgery, they had to remove the 30-plus staples and operated again to remove more. It turned out that they had removed all the cancer the first time and they also took some lymph nodes to check that the cancer hadn’t spread any further.”

A scan revealed that the surgery had been successful. Lisa then attended Southampton for radiotherapy.

“The radiotherapy was to blast any rogue cells. I was told it was like picking a dandelion where some of the seeds might go astray. The radiotherapy was to ensure that any stray cancer cells were destroyed.” 

While Lisa was recovering, her daughter Phoebe started to struggle with increasingly severe anxiety. 

“Phoebe went back to school in the June after the lockdown. Within a day of returning to school, I was getting daily phone calls to say that she was sick and needed to come home,” said Lisa. 

“It reached the point where Phoebe wouldn’t go to school at all. She would sit in the car and cry and not go in.

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Pictured: Lisa called Rob her "absolute rock, soulmate and my best friend".

“She had been so confident and outgoing, but her anxiety reached a stage where she wouldn’t go in the car, she wouldn’t go to dancing and then she wouldn’t leave the house.”

Lisa took Phoebe to the doctor, who referred her to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

“Throughout this, I was still isolating, so Rob would take Phoebe out every day and she would just cry and cry. It was awful.

“CAMHS linked Phoebe with a mental health nurse called Jess, who was amazing. Initially, Phoebe wouldn’t talk to Jess and wouldn’t go into the CAMHS building, so Jess would come to the house and then eventually started to take Phoebe out in the car and slowly build her back up.

“She seems fine now and everyone thinks she’s fine, but every so often it will kick in. She can recognise her triggers now and can rationalise that she isn’t going to be sick even if she feels as though she might be." 

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Pictured: Lisa said she feels "very lucky" to have a close-knit family. 

Lisa said that when Phoebe was at her worst they thought she would never return to her former self. 

“We didn’t think there would ever be a turning point. To see my child like that was far worse than the cancer. To see her being a quivering mess and unable to do anything at all and all her confidence gone was awful.

“Having her come back has been such a joy. Her goal was to do a solo at the 2021 dance festival. She was amazing on the stage and everyone was so proud of her that she’d done it. Rob and I were in tears and so proud of her.”

Lisa believes that the lockdown, rather than her diagnosis, was the main cause of Phoebe’s anxiety. 

“Phoebe had been handling my cancer well. It wasn’t until after the lockdown that things changed. She loved doing her work at home and didn’t see the point in going back to school.

“I think it’s the same for a lot of children. There are far more children dealing with anxiety since the lockdown than I have ever seen in my career. It’s another reason why building relationships with them is so important.”

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Pictured: Lisa said that she was "very lucky" to have spotted the cancer early enough to receive treatment and that it has changed her outlook on life. 

Lisa credits her husband for seeing their family through not only her diagnosis but their daughter’s anxiety issues. 

“Rob is my absolute rock, my soulmate and my best friend. He and the girls are my whole world.

“I did worry that there was no one for him. He said that when I was in bed at night he would sit in the lounge and cry. It was lockdown and there was no one that could be there for him. I don’t know how he coped. 

“I couldn’t have coped without Rob. He has done everything for us. Everyone needs a Rob.”

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