Many Oxford Breast Buddy Group (OBBG) members may not have met our former Chairperson, Elizabeth Toohig, since she moved to Somerset in 2017 (although she still played at active role in the group for some time), so I would like to tell you a bit about her.
Professionally, Elizabeth had been a primary school head teacher in Marlow – a school which she had brought up to an ‘outstanding’ status during her time there. Latterly she coached people in public speaking, giving talks or seminars on the subject, with a particular focus on women in business. Indeed, she herself was the Toastmaster Table Topics Speech Champion, 2014. Elizabeth was an inspiration to many who worked with her, and she always wanted the best for, and from, people.
But there was also Elizabeth’s adventurous side. She was an avid traveller, visiting India, Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands, Australia, and Sri Lanka to name but a few. One of her biggest frustrations after her recent diagnosis was that her oncologist didn’t want her to travel overseas. But she had a queue of people, myself included, offering to smuggle her on to Eurostar if necessary!
She was a keen skier, and she also volunteered to do the London to Paris bike ride with Miss Roy and the team to raise funds for OBBG, despite not having ridden a bike in years! But she tackled that challenge as she did all challenges – with determination and not a little humour.
I first met Elizabeth in 2015 at the second ever OBBG meeting. We eventually became fellow trustees, and so worked closely together. Elizabeth, as our Chair Person, was very good at keeping us on track in our committee meetings which was just as well as they were often held at the Britannia pub in the early days!
When we first met, OBBG wasn’t a registered charity and Elizabeth was tireless in her work to bring us to Charitable status, and she was a driving force behind shaping us to where we are now. She was incredibly organised and she was passionate about trying to address the unmet needs of patients. In particular, she shared Miss Roy’s vision of trying to give psychological and practical support to anyone affected by breast cancer.
Elizabeth firmly believed that research was key for making changes in both psychological and treatment outcomes and she was keen that as a group we explored ways of getting involved in research ourselves, for example through surveys within the group membership, or by inviting speakers involved in cutting edge research.
Education was never far from Elizabeth’s thoughts and she wanted our monthly meetings to offer that – not just through lectures on research, but with talks relating to general breast-cancer information, such as diet or treatment options, and sessions, such as the mindfulness programme that we now offer, that would encourage well-being and address the psychological impact of breast cancer. In essence she envisaged a long-term programme of meetings that would give us all some tools we might need to move forward with.
And so it was incredibly fitting that we had Professor Derakshan to give a fascinating inaugural Elizabeth Toohig Lecture in 2019 on the Pathways to the Resilience in Breast Cancer, which seemed to capture much of what Elizabeth saw as important, and something of who she was as a person.
You might not realise that it was Elizabeth who started making the heart shaped cushion swe use in our post-op recovery bags, using material from her mothers’ old curtains and sheets. Somehow, she also found time to make bags for post-surgical drains. Anyone who has had to contend with these drains (sometimes 3 or 4 at a time) when told they should try to have a shower the next morning will fully appreciate how wonderful those drain bags are! It was her dream to be able to offer every breast surgery patient a ‘welcome’ pack, including the cushions and drain bags, and I’m delighted that that dream is coming to fruition now.
Elizabeth and I were given our secondary diagnoses in the same week 2 years ago. We joked that, as usual, we were on the same page. We had both planned to be in Paris the week before – her triumphantly riding in from London to the Eiffel Tower with Miss Roy and the gang, and me taking the less taxing route by train to cheer them all in. But sadly, neither of us made it due to feeling unwell, only discovering why the following week.
Even in the face of this new challenge, Elizabeth was both positive and humorous – setting up a ‘beat the beasties’ group to update her friends on her treatment. She showed incredible resilience and in my darker days I try to think ‘what would Elizabeth do?’.
I last saw Elizabeth about a month before she died and she was still as positive and determined as ever. I was able to tell her about Helen and Kate who were fund raising for us because their mum had found support with OBBG. This delighted Elizabeth and she said that if we had helped just one person, it would all have been worth it.
Elizabeth died on October 31st, 2018. She was an incredible, caring, driven, women with seemingly limitless resources and energy. I am truly sorry that many of you reading this didn’t get the chance to know her but I hope that, in this, you now have some idea of who she was as a person, how much she achieved in her 57 years, and the incredible legacy she leaves behind.
Dr Anna Sarphie, OBBG Trustee and Founding Member