Dawn Marie Wilson could be described in many ways – as a mother, a wife, a teacher, a fighter, a campaigner.
But no words can truly describe just how wonderful and inspirational she was.
Dawn first shared her story with WalesOnline back in 2017. When she was just 34 she was told she had terminal cancer.
In 2014 the mum-of-two, from Hengoed, Caerphilly, found a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer which eventually spread to her lymph nodes. The loving mum received treatment and had a double mastectomy. She also underwent a hysterectomy after being told she carried the BRCA 1 cancer gene.
Dawn was eventually given the all-clear in August 2015 and she married her partner, Stephen Wilson, in 2016.
But by March 2017 Dawn found a new lump and an oncologist confirmed the cancer had returned with a tumour below her collar bone – this time it was incurable. On October 1 Dawn died at the age of 38. It was the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Talking about Dawn, her widower Stephen, 38, said: “She was a very likeable person. She was magnetic – people seemed to gravitate towards her. She absolutely loved teaching and she absolutely lived for teaching.
“In the period between leaving her teaching post and going back she missed it terribly. Her kids were her life.
“I have had so many pupils who she taught who would come up to us and say hello when we were shopping in town.
“They all loved her and wanted to say hello and that was something to be proud of.”
As a former pupil of Dawn’s I can resonate with how true Stephen’s words are. My memories of seeing Dawn in a classroom are happy ones – she would always be smiling, making people laugh, and would bring so much energy to a room.
Around a year ago she spoke to me with such joy when she told me she was able to return to teaching again. It was such a happy time for her in among the tough times she had been through and was still facing.
Over the last few years I have also read some of the messages former pupils have written to Dawn on social media. She would sometimes share these with friends. All of them showed nothing other than how much she was loved by those whose lives she touched and how her constant belief in her pupils’ dreams in her role as a teacher helped to shape so many young people’s lives.
Some of her former students would also say how glad they were that she met Stephen as it was evident that he made her so happy in recent years.
When Dawn was told her diagnosis was terminal her role as an educator proved even more vital and diverse as she went on to campaign to help more women in Wales learn about how to spot signs of breast cancer.
Dawn became known for the work she did with the Know Your Lemons Foundation that was founded by Corrine Beaumont.
The campaign centres around a visual aid that shows 12 lemons in an egg box – each egg shows what the visual indicators of breast cancer can look like.
Dawn didn’t come across the campaign until after she was diagnosed. This led to her to debate if her life could have turned out differently if she had seen it sooner and was more aware of what the symptoms looked like.
She wanted to further the campaign and after a lot of hard work eventually managed to get the Know Your Lemons campaign officially endorsed by NHS Wales.
The lemon posters were distributed to more than 400 GP practices across the country and schools also began to educate students about how vital it is to self-check for symptoms.
Stephen explained that a fund has now been set up by the charity to help train people in Wales to go out and support women and teach them more about how they can spot the signs of breast cancer.
“Even on her lowest days when she would be straight out of chemotherapy she would still be on the phone or on the laptop and getting things sorted,” Stephen added.
“She was determined that other people wouldn’t suffer the same fate as her. She was unbelievable like that. She would want people to have the confidence to check themselves, diagnose themselves, and go to the GP and say: ‘Something is not right with my body – I want you to have a look’.
“Any delay can do so much damage. Teenagers like Dawn’s daughters shouldn’t have to lose a mother at any age.”
Dawn’s daughters Imogen, 15, and Madeleine, 12, are now in the care of Stephen at their home in Wenvoe. Stephen also has a daughter called Yvie who is nine.
Even though 2020 has been a tough year for so many different reasons the family were able to spend some time together before Dawn passed away.
During August they managed to escape to enjoy the holiday Dawn had always dreamed of them sharing in Italy.
Stephen said: “We travelled through France and Italy. Sulmona was one of Dawn’s favourite places in the world and she had always wanted me to go there.
“In January I decided we would go out there. I didn’t realise it would be the last thing we did together. It was one of the best things we did.”
When they returned from their holiday they came back to an unpleasant shock. Dawn had been expecting some results but nothing prepared the family for what they were about to be told. They were informed the cancer had spread to Dawn’s brain and her lungs. Stephen said: “They didn’t say it but it was apparent her time was limited. “
In late September Dawn had to be taken into hospital. The tumours on the brain had become worse and she was moved to a hospice shortly afterwards. “She basically had a stroke,” added Stephen.
“Covid made it a lot worse because, initially, they were strict about visitors. They were trying to restrict visitors being there. Eventually they saw sense and they were really accommodating in the end. Dawn’s worst nightmare was dying in a hospital on her own so the staff allowed us to come in and do shifts.”
Stephen, Dawn’s brother, and Dawn’s mother would take it in turns to sit with Dawn during her final moments. The children were also able to visit whenever they wanted to.
Stephen said: “When she passed away her brother was next to her. I had literally just left. I was just getting ready to go to bed when I had the phone call. It was tough but it was reassuring to know that her brother was there for her. Her worst-case scenario was being alone. It was a massive comfort to know that someone was there when she passed.”
As Stephen talked about Dawn he lit up when asked to describe what some his favourite things about her were. He explained that he is quite quiet and introverted whereas Dawn was a big personality whose energy would fill a room. This is one of the many things he loved about her.
Stephen said: “Dawn was very loud and very brash. I am very quiet, but we had the same sense of humour. She said what she thought.
“My favourite thing about her was we never left anything unsaid – no matter what it was. If there was a problem we would say it and work it out. That’s rare these days. She had a remarkable amount of energy and would make me go out to places I didn’t want to go and we would have a lovely time.”
When asked how the girls have been coping Stephen added: “They are up and down but they are nowhere near as bad as we expected them to be. They are really leaning a lot on family, which is lovely.
“They have had a massive amount of support from school and they are doing as well as they can.
“We are all hoping this Christmas will be a family one. We are hoping Covid restrictions will allow us to have a family Christmas.
“That’s what Dawn would have wanted – all of us sat around having a lovely time.”
As well as restricting our lives this year the coronavirus pandemic has also led to stretching of NHS resources, including screenings for cancer.
Stephen said Dawn felt very strongly that any patient’s concern about cancer should not be delayed so the importance of self-checking has perhaps become more important than ever.
“It’s something we are frustrated about but at the same time we understand they are stretched to their limits,” added Stephen.
Whether you knew Dawn, followed her story, or have only just been introduced to her in the last few minutes the best way you can support her campaign is by learning from her experience.
Dawn managed to educate so many women about breast cancer during the precious time she had left and her legacy will ensure many more women continue to learn more about the importance of self-checking for symptoms for many years to come.
She will be missed by so many people in so many ways but she will never be forgotten.
Please honour Dawn’s memory in the best way you possibly can by simply getting to know your lemons.
For more information about the campaign visit the Know Your Lemons website.