Proof positive of life after cancer

Lisa Bolton - breast cancer sufferer and champion of needy animals - is opening her diaries to Journal readers.

Lisa Bolton - breast cancer sufferer and champion of needy animals - is opening her diaries to Journal readers. Hannah Davies finds out about her wildlife sanctuary and how illness helped her appreciate people as much as her beloved pets.

When an animal doesn't like you, it bites, says Lisa Bolton.

If it does like you, it will let you pet it.

But people are never that simple, she says.

Since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in December, 72-year-old Lisa's life has seen major changes.

But her capacity to see the positive in any situation is amazing.

Despite the trauma of her diagnosis, Lisa refused to give in.

Instead, she turned to the hundreds of animals she has rescued for inspiration.

She says: "It was an horrific time. You always put yourself in your coffin, but then I thought ' `come on, think positive'. What gave me the strength were those animals and birds.

"I've always been involved in treating them and try not to put them down. They can recover, even from the most distressing conditions.

"Some, you can tell have had enough, but others want to do anything to live.

"They go into a strange, almost trance-like state until they get better.

"They will have no communication with anyone or anything until they get better.

"So I thought, `I have to go back into myself and find that inner strength for myself'. Doing that helped me a great deal."

Lisa's love of animals began as a child.

As a three-year-old living in London, she would frequently run away from her distraught parents to see the horses at a nearby stable.

They would drag her back to a house which had enough dogs, cats and rabbits to satisfy most animal lovers.

Neverthless, being in charge of a sanctuary - which at its peak housed more than 200 wild animals including owls, fox cubs and deer - was not quite an intentional move.

Lisa says the animal sanctuary idea had its roots in the 1970s.

Her son Nick, now 45, returned from school with a small bird which they thought was a falcon, but turned out to be a kestrel.

Lisa explains: "He wanted to use it to become a falconer, but I thought it'd be much better if we could train it to go back into the wild."

Nick relented and soon the kestrel became a familiar sight around their home in Chatton, near Alnwick, Northumberland.

"The kestrel used to fly around the area and because of that, word started to get around that I took in abandoned animals and people started to bring them in to us," Lisa says.

"The kestrel did go back into the wild, but it nested in the woods nearby and came back to land on our roof for 12 years.

"I asked experts if it could be the same kestrel and they agreed it could be.

"They had records of them living up to 16.

"The sanctuary grew slowly and then the RSPCA heard about us and got involved in 1984.

"Then it really took off."

Lisa was not intimidated by looking after a large number of animals. As a young woman she cared for nearly 50 of them while working at a stud farm in Sussex. She worked there from the age of 17 and trained as an veterinary nurse.

"But then at the start of my 20s I decided I needed to travel," Lisa recalls.

"I had to re-house all 46 of my animals."

Lisa joined the RAF so she could travel. It was while training that she met her husband-to-be, John Bolton.

Lisa says: "He was on my first placement. There was a group of us who used to spend our time together, but I wasn't interested in any man then. We were just friends."

After reuniting and falling in love, they wed in 1957 in Malaysia, where they lived for 15 months. They then transferred to London for 12 months before moving to Hong Kong for six years. It was here that daughter Gay, 46, and son Nick were born.

In 1965, the couple decided to move back to the UK, but John insisted there was only one place where he would live.

Lisa says: "He said if we wanted to live anywhere in England it had to be Northumberland. It's God's own country."

With Flight Lieutenant John Bolton's successful transfer to RAF Boulmer, the family bought their current home, Shepherd's Cottage, from the Duke of Northumberland and they began to settle in. Lisa trained as a teacher and worked in special needs schools in Alnwick and Berwick, becoming a deputy head.

It was during this time that the animal sanctuary began to take off. "It was hard work," she says. "But you have to understand it was very rewarding. John is a big softie really. He complained when I had over 200 animals. People started bringing all sorts of birds and animals from all over.

"At one point we had 17 aviaries, four paddocks and everywhere was crammed with animals and birds.

"But when, because of my cancer treatment, I had to stop people bringing animals to the sanctuary, John said he missed them."

Lisa retired from teaching in 1991, after John, now 77, suffered a heart attack, and devoted her time to looking after the animals and her husband.

It was last December that their comfortable world was shaken to its core.

Lisa says: "It was three weeks before Christmas and it was just by sheer chance I discovered it.

"I felt a lump and thought what's that? That's not meant to be there."

Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer. She describes it as a "crushing blow".

She underwent a lumpectomy and left hospital on Christmas Eve. Her radiotherapy began in February.

The cancer and subsequent treatment meant she had no choice but to close the sanctuary.

"The shelter has had to wind up," she says.

"I have re-housed anything domestic that can go to a decent home. We haven't put down any animal.

"I'll still take in easy animals, like ducklings, but unfortunately this year already I've had to turn down four fox cubs.

"Because my immune system is virtually non-existent due to my treatment, I won't take in anything that bites.

"We've had to do a reversal.

"My husband is a heart patient and I have been caring for him for the last 15 years. Similarly, he started to care for me and it has been wonderful, because it has given me a lot of strength."

She has wonderful support from medical professionals, as well as those around her.

"The local community have been absolutely fantastic," she says.

"People from the village and friends, people who I didn't think were such good friends, were cooking meals and baking bread saying, `we know you'll be tired'.

"How do you really thank people?

"If ever I haven't loved people before, I have learnt to love them very much. It has shown me never to pass judgment on people, because they show they care in so many ways."

It was friend Christine Harle who suggested she write a diary detailing her illness.

Lisa says: "I was unsure at first. But it became an important thing to do. As the treatment went on it became harder and harder, but the diary really helped me to get my head around things.

"It proved to be very cathartic.

"The treatment was not too horrific and I met some wonderful people.

"It was lovely, because I'd get a taxi to Newcastle General Hospital and I got to know all of the drivers. We would then pick up other people, so we'd get a cross section of society in the taxi and I met so many interesting people.

"The only remaining effect, as far as I can see, is that I now have to rest several times during the day.

"I get seriously drowsy. That's difficult for me, as I like to be doing things."

Although Lisa has pared down the sanctuary, she still houses 33 non-domestic animals and about the same number of domestic ones.

"I have got enough cash in the kitty to keep me going with the animals we have left for some significant time longer," she says.

"I have had a kestrel here since 1987, I have a deer of 11, a sheep that is 15, and grey squirrels that are so old they have lost their front teeth and we have to crack their nuts for them.

"I hope very much most of them will pop their clogs before I do so I can keep caring for them."

* Lisa's column detailing her cancer treatment will appear every other Thursday in The Journal, starting on June 15.

Name: Lisa Bolton.

Age: 72.

Lives: Chatton, near Alnwick, Northumberland.

Family: Husband John, 77; daughter Gay, 46, a journalist, who lives in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, with partner Paul, a musician; son Nick, 45, who lives in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, and is married to Nichola, with whom he has three children - Daniel, 19, a medieval history student at Birmingham University, Hannah, 16, who is studying for GCSEs, and Naomi, 13.

Biography: Lisa began working at a stud farm in Sussex. In 1953, she trained for the RAF and then travelled across the world, meeting her husband, fellow RAF officer, John.

The family moved to Chatton, Northumberland, in 1965. Lisa trained as a teacher in 1968, graduating in 1971.

She worked as a special needs teacher in Barndale House School, Alnwick, progressing to deputy head and then moving to the Grove School, Berwick, where she spent 16 years as deputy head. Lisa retired in 1991.

She began the animal sanctuary in the 1970s and started to work with the RSPCA in 1984, before winding down this year following her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.

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