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‘I didn’t realise how strong I was’: Ellon woman, 28, survives cancer and losing mum to aneurysm

Kirsty Mortimer has her sights set on the future despite going through a series of tragic events.

Kirsty looks at the camera and smiles in a photo taken outside her Ellon home.
Kirsty Mortimer at her home in Ellon. The 28-year-old is looking to the future after a difficult few years. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

Kirsty Mortimer has some choice words to sum up the past two years.

Unfair is one.

Rubbish is another.

If the P&J wasn’t a family newspaper, she might have more.

In 2021, aged just 26, the Ellon financial analyst was diagnosed with breast cancer.

A month later her mum, whom she was extremely close to, suffered a brain aneurysm that put her in a coma she would never wake up from.

One month after that, and on the day Kirsty started chemotherapy for her cancer, her mum’s life support was switched off.

One of the most supportive people in Kirsty’s life was gone, just when she needed her the most.

Kirsty chats during an interview at her home in Ellon
Kirsty was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 26. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

But that is only part of the story.

With a determinedness partly inspired by the memory of her mum, Kirsty would go on to beat her cancer.

And in May, she will walk down the catwalk at P&J Live in front of a full house as part of Friends of Anchor’s Courage on the Catwalk.

“I didn’t realise I how strong I was,” Kirsty says. “But to get through all of this and not have a complete mental breakdown, you’ve got to be.”

An unexpected discovery and a visit to the doctor

It was the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and Kirsty was working from home when she found a lump.

She is eventually booked in for a mammogram, where the doctor cheerily leaves her in the hands of a student nurse as he exits the room. The doctor says that if Kirsty ever sees him again “then it’s bad news”.

Four hours later, Kirsty is back in the doctor’s room.

“I said, ‘I’m not meant to see you again’,” Kirsty recalls. “And he says, ‘Yes, I know. You’ve got cancer’.”

Did stress of cancer diagnosis contribute to aneurysm?

Kirsty’s first thought was how to tell her parents.

Her mum lived close to the hospital, so she drove straight over.

There was, however, a moment when she considered driving in the opposite direction. Sometimes, she wishes she had.

A selfie of Kirsty with mum Jan in 2018.
Kirsty with mum Jan in 2018. Image: Supplied by Kirsty Mortimer

Kirsty has been assured it is not the case, but she can’t help think that the stress of her breast cancer diagnosis contributed to her mum’s brain aneurysm.

“Everyone tells me it couldn’t have, but that doesn’t stop it being there in my head.”

Switching off Jan’s life support

Jan collapsed a month later on October 16. She had been at work – she worked in the communications centre at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary – and started speaking unintelligible.

A crash team was quickly on the scene but the brain bleed wasn’t stopped in time.

On November 16, 2021 Jan’s life support was switched off. Kirsty and her family were by her side in the morning,

Kirsty and her mum Jan eating dinner at a restaurant in 2019
Kirsty and Jan in 2019. The two were close friends. Image: Supplied by Kirsty Mortimer

Then Kirsty went upstairs in the hospital to the cancer ward to begin her chemotherapy. The following day, her dad sent a text to say her mum had passed away.

‘Oh, this is really bad’

It took time for the situation to sink in.

“It didn’t hit me for a year,” says Kirsty. She couldn’t think much beyond the chemotherapy, radiotherapy and eventually surgery she would have as part of her treatment.

“Eventually when you’ve got five minutes to think for yourself and you’re not feeling really rubbish, you’re like, Oh, this is really bad. You’re never going see her again.”

Still, there was never any doubt that Kirsty would delay her treatment.

“My mum would have not liked that,” she says with a smile.

Chemo sends Kirsty’s tastebuds into overdrive

Kirsty says the chemotherapy was the hardest part of the treatment.

Kirsty lost four stone during the first 12-week round. She eventually endured six, plus 15 rounds of radiotherapy.

She hardly ate anything because her taste buds were heighted. Tomato sauce was too spicy for her. Her boyfriend Liam couldn’t cook food at their home because the smells were too much.

A selfie of Kirsty with no hair and glasses during her chemo treatment
Kirsty during her chemotherapy treatment. Image: Supplied by Kirsty Mortimer

The only thing she could stomach was the soup at the hospital because, she suspects, it was so bland.

It was around this time, however, that Kirsty discovered her inner strength.

She relied heavily on her amazing family, as well as Liam, who she’s been dating since she was 13 when they met at high school.

But a lot of the responsibility was hers to shoulder, especially as her mum wasn’t there to help.

“I really just pushed through it,” she says . “Now, looking back, it seems so unfair and so rubbish.

Kirsty with no hair in the car with boyfriend Liam Duncan.
Kirsty and Liam. The pair have been together since high school. Image: Supplied by Kirsty Mortimer

“But I just kept pushing it to the back of my mind and not really thinking about it.”

There were dark times; moments hidden from many of the people around Kirsty.

To those in her inner circle, however – especially Liam – it was  clear just how much she was suffering.

“You need to have at least a couple people that you tell how you’re actually truly feeling,” Kirsty says.

“Even now I say, chemo wasn’t that bad, but then Liam says to me, ‘Did you go through the same thing I did? Because it was awful.'”

Kirsty says it was her commitment to staying positive that saw her through.

That and making sure she always had something to look forward to – she’d go for coffee with a friend mid-chemo rounds and even took a mini-break to Portmahomack with Liam.

“Nothing big,” she says. “You don’t have the energy for anything big.”

Another devastating blow

If Kirsty thought her life was about to settle down as her treatment ended, she was wrong. Life had more in store.

It had been going so well. She’d got the all clear from her breast cancer after a successful lumpectomy. She was also back working, which was a huge step towards getting back to normal.

But then one year after surgery her dad Andrew had two strokes. It was another devastating blow to Kirsty.

Kirsty sits on the sofa talking to a journalist at home in Ellon
Kirsty says she tried to stay positive during her many low points. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

“I just thought, I can’t lose another parent,” she recalls. “You lose people – nanas and granpas that pass away – and it’s awful. But it’s nothing remotely close to losing a parent. For me, it was something I really couldn’t go through again.”

Kirsty’s dad survived the strokes, and has now recovered.

But Kirsty continues to deal with another effect of her cancer treatment.

The hormone injections she takes to ensure the cancer doesn’t return has made her body go into an early menopause, meaning she doesn’t know whether or not she will be able to have children.

“Getting the choice taken away is not nice,” Kirsty says. “If we knew we could or couldn’t it would be easier to make decisions.”

Kirsty sits on a wall near her home in Ellon.
Kirsty is looking forward to Courage on the Catwalk. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

‘I’m going to be a bag of nerves on the day’

Kirsty is determined to make her walk down the catwalk at Courage on the Catwalk a celebration, a chance to put the past two years behind her.

She and Liam are moving to a new home in Aberdeen later this year, which will help to put a line under the past. But she’s also excited about the prospect of walking out in front of 750 people, under the lights and the stares.

Excited… and terrified.

“I’m going to be a bag of nerves on the day,” she says, laughing. “No one in their life thinks they are going to walk the catwalk.

A selfie of Kirsty at P&J Live before she met her fellow Courage on the Catwalk participants
Kirsty goes to meet up with her fellow Courage participants this year. Image: Supplied by Kirsty Mortimer

“Also, when I applied I didn’t actually think I’d get through.”

But just as she did during her cancer treatment, her operation and through all the other obstacles she’s overcome since her diagnosis two years ago, she will think about her mum, and the advice she would have given.

“If she had been there, she would have told me to be positive,” says Kirsty.  “And I’m sure she was there. She helped me along the way.”

Kirsty is raising money for Friends of Anchor’s Courage on the Catwalk, which takes place on May 18 and 19. You can donate here.

Courage on the Catwalk takes place at the P&J Live in May.