We'll be putting our 'Breast Foot Forward' for mum, and also remembering dad, on cancer fundraiser

After a Covid-19 pause last year, the annual Action Cancer fundraising walk returns in October, with a new date as well as a new name. Eileen McConnell tells Mairead Holland why she and her family will be taking part in Breast Foot Forward

Mairead Holland

Eileen McConnell and her family will be walking as 'Team Alice & Billy', in memory of her mother and father, in next month's Action Cancer 'Breast Foot Forward' event. Picture by Hugh Russell

WHEN Alice Hunter was ill with cancer, a steady stream of visitors called to visit at her Belfast home, including none less than footballing legend and honorary Irishman Jack Charlton.

Her daughter Eileen McConnell isn't exactly sure how the one-time Republic of Ireland manager came to be 'dropping in' but she recalls it may have had something to do with former Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, another of the 79-year-old's many visitors.

For her family, it sums up just how special the Co Tyrone-born mother-of-five was.

Alice, who worked as a cook, was known for her kindness and her ever 'open door' and, adds her daughter, would have "fed a busload" had they turned up.

Although Alice passed away in June 2010, not long after being diagnosed with primary breast cancer, her family celebrates her life every year in the annual Action Cancer walk in Belfast.

Originally called the Moonlight Walk, it later became the Bra Walk and from this year will be known as Breast Foot Forward, with a new date in October to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The walk is not only an opportunity to remember and support friends and loved ones but to raise money for Action Cancer, the only charity which provides a free breast screening service to women aged 40-49 and over the age of 70, who fall outside the NHS screening age bracket.

Last year's event, along with so much else, was cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions, resulting in the charity losing more than £70,000 of fundraising income.

However, it is going ahead this year on Saturday October 9, much to the delight of supporters, including Alice's family.

Since her death, they have donned their pink T-shirts as 'Team Alice', raising more than £6,000 to date for the charity.

"When the walk couldn't happen in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions, we were devastated, as it was the 10th year anniversary of mum's passing," says Eileen (56).

"We wanted to acknowledge it in our usual way, so we took to the streets and completed our own socially-distanced 10K challenge with mum at the forefront of our minds."

This year, the family are all set to put on their walking shoes again and it will be even more poignant as Eileen's dad Billy died in May this year after being diagnosed with a bowel tumour.

"So, in October we will walk as 'Team Alice & Billy', remembering them both. They were both very gracious in their ways, very giving of everything they had," adds Eileen.

Eileen McConnell's mother Alice died in June 2010 following a breast cancer diagnosis, and her father Billy died in May after a bowel tumour was diagnosed. 'In October we will walk as 'Team Alice & Billy', remembering them both,' she says.

Explaining her original decision to take part in the walk, she says: "Mummy got very ill very quickly. When she died I was thinking about what I could do.

"Coming round to her first anniversary it was horrible, so I thought, 'Instead of sitting with my head in my hands, everything doom and gloom, let's make this a positive thing every year'.

"It was a way of celebrating mummy's life and this year even more so because it's celebrating both my parents' lives.

"Daddy was 93 when he died but a very young 93 – he loved life, loved people, and was very engaging.

"He would have given of himself very freely to people and to charities, and he was very, very proud of 'Team Alice'."

Eileen, a school nurse at Fort Hill Integrated College in Lisburn, who also volunteered at weekends administering Covid vaccines at the SSE Arena, is keenly aware of the importance of early detection.

"Mummy was diagnosed and had surgery very quickly but we think the breast cancer had been there for a wee while before diagnosis," she says.

"They did the mastectomy but when they went to do the surgery they realised the cancer had spread to other parts of the body. We brought mummy home to nurse her after that.

"She would have been breast aware but I'm not sure how soon she acted. The older age group has a tendency to maybe not want to go forward when they find a wee lump.

"People in their 40s and 50s are more aware but it's encouraging the younger people and the older age groups to go and get checked out if they have any worries."

Eileen is hoping the walk will attract as many people this year as it did in the past.

"Action Cancer is very close to our hearts. It is the only charity that offers breast screening to certain age groups but it also provides other therapies and very good support to families as well," she says.

"The atmosphere on the walk is fantastic and you see people who go every year. You also hear people's stories and it's very humbling and inspiring.

"Everyone is there for the same purpose - to give of themselves for a great charity."

Action Cancer consultant radiographer Joanna Currie says that despite losing out on 40 per cent of its fundraising income since the beginning of the pandemic, the charity continues to provide its life-saving breast screening service.

"We reopened our doors in August 2020 following the first lockdown and we have provided over 4,000 breast screening appointments... detecting around 20 cancers and providing peace of mind to thousands of others," she says.

"Breast screening from 40 is proven to reduce deaths from breast cancer as cancers are found early."

In fact, preventing cancer and early detection are among the key themes identified in the Department of Health's 10-Year Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland, which went out to public consultation just last week.

Action Cancer's fundraising walk, Breast Foot Forward, is supported by SuperValu. Patricia McIlroy from the company said taking part 'is a great way to spread the message to all women to be breast aware as well as an opportunity to get fit, walk in memory of a loved one or support someone going through breast cancer'

Every year, Action Cancer helps to save and support 25,000 people across Northern Ireland, including the provision of 8,000 breast screening appointments at Action Cancer House and on board the Big Bus, supported by SuperValu and Centra.

While each breast screening appointment is free to the user, the cost to the charity is £120, which is why all participants are encouraged to raise a minimum of the same amount in sponsorship.

The walk, sponsored by SuperValu, is open to all ages, including children, and participants can choose from a 5K or a 10K route, starting off from Belfast City Hall at 2pm.

This year, Eileen, who will be completing the walk with daughters Zoe and Kerrie and other family members, is hoping to meet her first grandchild at the finishing line as daughter Kirsten is expecting a baby this month.

And, inspired by her work with the Covid vaccination team, which was very much in keeping with the 'giving' ethos espoused by her parents, Eileen is taking on a new career challenge this week.

Having previously worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital's A&E department for 22 years and for the past 14 years as a school nurse, she is about to embark on a new Covid-related post with the Public Health Agency, working with more complex contact tracing cases.

"I actually felt very emotional last week when the main hall at the SSE Arena closed because I had worked with such a great team," she says.

"I met people I wouldn't have met otherwise, all with one aim, to try and make people's lives safer. It's something I am very proud of."

As well as encouraging people to support the Action Cancer walk, Eileen has another important message concerning Covid-19 - "I would encourage people to make themselves safe and stay safe because this virus is still out there."

Register for the Breast Foot Forward walk at or by telephoning 028 9080 3344.

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