Animal magic helps Kirsty fight back

Cows, lambs and a love of the land have helped farm livestock manager Kirsty Down fight back after a nightmare year of lockdown cancer treatment.

Kirsty Down, Livestock manager at National TrustÕs Shugborough Hall with some of the new lambs.
Kirsty Down, Livestock manager at National TrustÕs Shugborough Hall with some of the new lambs.

The 29-year-old, who is from Bridgnorth and works at the farm at National Trust’s Shugborough Estate, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in 2019.

She endured over a year of treatment for a tumour that filled her lung and wrapped around her heart, an experience she says “felt like a bad dream”.

Over the past 18 months Kirsty has had repeated chemotherapy, surgery, a bone marrow transplant, and has lost her hair three times.

Forced into isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic she went through much of her treatment alone with only her two dogs for companionship.

Now in remission and back at the job she loves, Kirsty says the contact with nature and animals is helping to restore her health and spirits.

"I love to be around animals and have enjoyed lambing season and seeing all the new life coming into the world. I have a particular bond with the farm cows – a cow always seems to know when you are having a bad day. They are so calming and really lift your mood, no matter what else is going on,” she says.

Kirsty, who is backing a Cancer Research UK campaign to help save more lives as the charity fights back from the impact of the pandemic, believes she owes her life to research and new treatments, developed in part thanks to the charity's work.

In 2019/20 Cancer Research UK spent nearly £6million on lymphoma research and played a leading role in clinical trials for Rituximab, one of the drugs with which she was treated.

Kirsty’s illness began suddenly in summer 2019 when she was working all hours at her dream job on Shugborough farm. Despite being young and apparently fit, she had an attack of breathlessness so bad that she was admitted to A&E at Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley for tests.

Although her symptoms were initially put down to an inflamed cartilage on her ribs, Kirsty soon developed a persistent cough and was sent for further investigations.

A chest X-ray revealed a 6cm growth in one of her lungs, and more detailed scans showed it had spread to her entire lung and around her heart.

Kirsty said: "My diagnosis was so out of the blue – from a cough to cancer in about a month. Looking back, I had had night sweats, which were a symptom, but it was June so I just thought it was the warm weather.

"I’d also lost a bit of weight but hadn’t thought anything of it. By the time I got the diagnosis I’d had so many tests that I was half expecting it to be cancer, but the shock still hits you. I found myself crying at random times, then trying to put on a brave face for other people.”

Kirsty at work on the farm,

Kirsty had intensive chemotherapy which finished at the end of 2019. But a scan in February 2020 showed a shadow on her lung. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep the UK, she had surgery to remove the suspect area of lung.

With her family based in Essex, Kirsty had to shield at home in Bridgnorth with her then partner and two dogs, Lola and Oscar, while she waited for chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant – treatment that was delayed by the pandemic.

“This meant I was waiting, wondering if my tumour was growing again. Every little unusual symptom or side effect from treatment had me worried my cancer was growing. Having to face all this on your own, while waiting to hear that you are in remission, is challenging; it goes beyond having to put on a brave face,” says Kirsty.

Going through treatment during the pandemic, with no visitors allowed, was an isolating experience for Kirsty. After eventually completing her treatment in September 2020 she has been rebuilding her strength and is now back at work full time.

“It’s been a challenge getting back to normal as I was so lacking in energy, but I love my job and it has helped me find my old self again. Being outside always gives you such a boost, no matter how bad the weather is,” says Kirsty.

Her experience also means that she understands the importance of Cancer Research UK’s work all too clearly.

"This past year has felt like a bad dream and I can hardly believe that I have been through it. At the age of 27, nothing could have prepared me for how much my life would change.

“As a result of the pandemic, cancer is as urgent an issue now as it’s ever been. One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime, so it touches everyone. We can all play our part in beating this disease. Every action – big or small – helps Cancer Research UK to ensure more people like me survive.”

Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, Cancer Research UK’s work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has been at the heart of the progress that has seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.

Jane Redman, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for the West Midlands said: “We are so grateful to Kirsty for her support. COVID-19 has hit us hard, but we are more focussed than ever on our ambition of seeing three in four people survive their cancer by 2034.

“This past year proves, more than any other, the value of research and what can be achieved together. Just as science is our route out of the pandemic, science is our route to beating cancer.

“That’s why we want to harness the ‘people power’ of our incredible supporters, because the progress we make relies on every hour of research, every pound donated and everyone who gets involved.

“So, whether they give £2 a month, sign up to Race for Life, volunteer at our shops or pledge to leave a gift in their Will - with the help of people in Shropshire and the West Midlands we believe that together we will beat cancer.”

Cancer Research UK was able to spend over £10 million in the West Midlands and Shropshire last year on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research.

For more information about the campaign see cruk.org

Sorry, we are not accepting comments on this article.

Top Stories

More from the Express & Star

UK & International News