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‘We had just 12 weeks with our girl’: Strichen family share heart-breaking cancer journey of Emma Smith, 33

There were just three months from "beautiful" Emma's diagnosis to her passing away.

Emma Smith, 33, of Strichen.
Emma Smith, 33, of Strichen.

The heartbroken parents and partner of 33-year-old Emma Smith from Strichen have paid tribute to their “beautiful girl” who died just 12 weeks after being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.

Grateful for the time they were given with the “big-hearted” former Mintlaw Academy pupil they’re now calling for earlier – and more routine scans – for people with cancer in their families.

‘Aye smiling’

Emma Jayne Smith was born on January 31 1990. The elder of Ewen and Caroline Smith’s two girls, Emma and sister Claire went to Strichen Primary School before moving on to Mintlaw Academy.

Sisters Emma and Claire Smith from Strichen.

While she enjoyed football, highland dancing and her part-time job in a Mintlaw Chinese takeaway, Emma lived for her friends and socialising.

“She was desperate just to leave school and get her driving licence so she could spend even more time with her friends,” said Caroline.

Emma, third from the right, with her best friends from school.

“Emma was the type of person who never let go of or forgot a friend. She had the same big group from playschool to leaving school. Still pals with everybody, she had a huge capacity for remembering everybody’s birthday and always asked after everyone.”

“Aye beautiful, always bubbly and smiling,” added Ewen.

Falling in love

On leaving school Emma found work with Duncan and Todd opticians in Ellon.

Happily driving back and forth to work and seeing friends in the evenings, Emma was able to go on holiday with friends and family.

In 2013 – on a girls’ trip to Ibiza – Emma met Jonny Dunbar from Fraserburgh.

Emma Smith and her partner Jonny Dunbar.

“I was at a loons party and she was with the quines. We hadn’t met before but all the way in Ibiza we found each other. I’m from just about eight miles up the road from where she grew up.”

The couple got to know one another on returning home and in 2016 they renovated and moved into their dream house together in Strichen.

‘Something’s not right’

Emma started working for Aberdeenshire Council’s call centre in Fraserburgh and the pair were looking toward their future together.

“Just us and the dogs,” Jonny laughs. “Emma bought all three dogs, our two and her parents’ dog. All impulse buys. She had the biggest heart,” said Jonny.

It was while walking the dogs in autumn last year that Emma noticed she was breathless. She also developed a red rash on her chest and some discomfort around her breast.

Emma and her beloved collie Skye.

Initially given inhalers for suspected asthma, she was denied a chest x-ray and put on a 12-14 week waiting list for a mammogram.

When she was no better she returned to the doctor. On that occasion, she was treated with antibiotics for pleurisy.

She then saw a clinician in Maud who made an appointment for Emma to have an x-ray.

A few days later she returned to Maud again, this time to ask if she could have oxygen to help with her breathing. It was then they sent her to the ARI for more thorough tests.

“She had an idea herself that something wasn’t right,” said Ewen. “She kept going back.”

Devastating news

On October 27 Jonny took Emma to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary where she was assessed.

It was then the couple were given the shocking news that Emma’s symptoms were actually a result of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer.

Affecting around one in five women with breast cancer, triple-negative breast cancer is so-called because it’s not receptive to the three usual ‘keys to treatment’ for breast cancer: oestrogen, progesterone or a protein called human epidermal growth factor (HER2).

In happier times, Jonny Dunbar and his partner Emma Smith.

It is often treatable with chemotherapy, however.

“We were stunned. I think Emma had probably considered a lot of things in her own mind by that point, but even still she just broke down,” Jonny said. “We were devastated.”

Home for Christmas

Emma knew from the point of diagnosis that the cancer wasn’t curable but could be treated with chemotherapy, and controlled with medicine.

“It was the size of a grain of rice, so deep set that there was nothing to feel or to see,” said Jonny. “But she was already stage four. Scans showed that it had spread to her breast, bone and lung area. It was very aggressive.”

Jonny called Ewen and Caroline to break the news, and alongside their other daughter Claire, they did all they could to support Emma through her treatment.

Scheduled for 18 rounds of chemotherapy she completed seven rounds and was able to come home for Christmas.

Precious time together

“We had 21 days with her,” said Ewen. “They came to live with us and it was lovely. Emma was doing well and was even able to have some quality time with Claire’s baby daughter, her niece, Ruby.

“None of us asked ‘how long’, Emma liked to say she was just going with the flow. She showed amazing strength.”

The Smith family: Caroline, Ewan and their girls Emma and Claire.

Enjoying a family Christmas Emma surprised everyone with how well she was coping.

Jonny said: “She was able to get up and get dressed herself. She came out on drives and watched her collies, Jax and Ivy at the dog park in Gardenstown.”

“It was the best we had seen her in a wee while,” said Caroline.

Always upbeat

Emma’s condition quickly deteriorated after receiving a round of chemotherapy as an out-patient. She developed a chest infection and was readmitted to hospital. Antibiotics “couldn’t seem to get a handle on it”.

But no matter what was thrown at her Emma remained upbeat.

Always smiling, Emma Smith and Jonny Dunbar.

“She stayed positive, just taking one day at a time,” said Jonny. “She always listened to the doctors and nurses – who were all brilliant by the way. So, so good with her and all of us.”

Around the last week in January, still hoping she would bounce back to proceed with chemotherapy, the family were given the shattering news that nothing more could be done.

Bedside vigil

Ewen, Caroline and Jonny stayed by her bedside, and Claire spent every minute she could with her big sister too.

“They told us on the 26th that Emma may pass away that night. So we never left her. That was the Friday night,” said Caroline.

“We lost her on the 27th of January, the Saturday. Just 12 weeks on from getting a diagnosis, and four days before her 34th birthday, she passed away peacefully,” said Ewen. “It’s hard to imagine that we haven’t got her any more. She’s a huge miss.”

Final farewell

A celebration of her life took place in Strichen Parish Church on Monday February 5. Surrounded by photos of Emma growing up, hundreds of people turned out to pay their last respects.

Her favourite music was played and friends wrote and read poems in her memory.

“We’re so thankful to everybody who came, and to everybody that’s messaged and supported us,” added Ewen. “We always knew she was special but that showed how special she was to so many.

“We just canna’ believe that she’s no longer with us.”

‘More mammograms needed’

Now, in light of their daughter’s death, Emma’s mum is calling on more to be done for families with a history of breast cancer.

“Emma’s grandmother and aunty both had breast cancer, and when this was discovered they asked Emma and Claire to be tested to see if there was a genetic risk factor,” said Caroline. “But I really feel, just like smear tests, mammograms should be offered to younger people, especially if there’s cancer in the family.

“It was only when Emma finally had a mammogram that the cancer was seen. We’ll never know of course how long it had been there but we just feel if she had been scanned earlier it perhaps it could have been found at a lesser stage and dealt with.”

Jonny Dunbar and Emma Smith, mum Caroline Smith, dad Ewen Smith, Claire Smith and her partner Scott Ramsay.

In Scotland mammograms – x-ray pictures of the breasts – are routinely offered to women between the ages of 50 and 71. Women younger than this may be offered a scan depending on symptoms, or if they have a proven genetic risk factor for breast cancer.

“I even asked her Macmillan nurse if Emma’s cancer is really rare, and she told me it’s becoming more common,” added Caroline. “If that’s the case things need to change to identify it quicker.”

‘We loved her so much’

Ewen agrees. “I’d like to just add that it’s important for anyone with a health issue to keep on until you get the help and the answers you need. We’ve no complaints at all about Emma’s treatment once she was diagnosed, but something was missed with Emma. That’s just how we feel.

“We’re just grateful she knew in herself she had to keep pushing.

“If she hadn’t we wouldn’t have had that time with her.

Aunty Emma and her beloved niece Ruby.

“We told her she was loved every day. Right up until she passed away we were saying we love you. She had time with Claire and wee Ruby, and time with Jonny. We’ll always be grateful for that.”

* You can find out more about triple-negative breast cancer here.