Donia Youssef, 43, refused to let a family tragedy and a cancer diagnosis ruin her life.
Instead, she set about creating something very special…
When her sister Sara committed suicide, Donia Youssef didn’t think she would ever get over it. But, in the midst of deep grief, she made a promise that would have a profound impact on the rest of her life.
Donia – who lives in Grays, Essex – says, “Losing Sara was my first real trauma. We were incredibly close. I am one of five siblings, but Sara and I were as thick as thieves. We did everything together. “She was a qualified nurse and loved helping people. But, after giving birth to her daughter in 1999, her mental health started to deteriorate, and she suffered with postnatal depression. She was in and out of hospital and, shortly after having a second child in 2003, she took her own life.” Donia, then 25, admits her sister’s loss left her “broken.” She says, “My sister’s children went to live with their grandma and grandad. I didn’t know who I could lean on and instead I tried to self-medicate with alcohol. I started drinking too much to deal with the pain, binge drinking with friends every weekend. I felt numb inside and didn’t care about my own life. “Then, two years after her death, I had a vivid dream about Sara. She told me she was fine and gave me a hug. It all felt so real. She told me she wanted me to make her proud. And, from that moment onwards, I promised myself I would.” Donia quickly set about turning her life around, starting her own business and meeting her long-time partner, Thomas. She says, “It was like a switch had been turned on inside of me – I’d never felt so determined. I met my partner, Thomas, 42, who is a safety manager. It was a whirl wind romance and he was incredibly supportive.
“After six months of dating, I fell pregnant with my daughter, Aaliyah, now nine. It was the most amazing moment – I’d always wanted to be a mum and it felt like I was starting a new chapter. I gave up drinking and smoking, started taking care of my body and we bought our first house, ready to be a family. “I also founded a modelling and acting agency for children, called Tiny Angels. To help me deal with the grief of losing my sister, I started an online counselling course and read self-help books. “In June 2015, I gave birth a second time to our daughter, Tiana, who’s now six. As soon as she was placed in my arms, I was smitten. Thomas and I had never been so happy.” When she started losing her pregnancy weight quickly, Donia wasn’t concerned. She says, “I assumed it was down to being on my feet with two young children. However, as time went on, tiredness kicked in. I was always sleepy, and my energy levels were all over the place.” The day after her 39th birthday, Donia discovered a golf-ball sized lump in her left armpit. She says, “I went to my GP, who told me she could feel two lumps and made me an emergency referral.” A few weeks later, Donia was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer and told she had a 40 per cent chance of survival. She says, “I couldn’t speak a word as I tried to process it. My first thought was, how would I tell my daughters? Tears filled my eyes as I struggled to find the answer. And I didn’t want my parents to have to deal with the pain of losing another child. I knew they would never survive.” To help her stay strong and focused, Donia decided to keep a diary of her cancer journey. “I channelled all my energy into staying positive for my girls and my parents. Some days were harder than others. But, when I got home from my chemotherapy sessions, Aaliyah, then aged five, and Tiana, then two, would sometimes rebel and cause arguments. I knew it was because they were angry and didn’t know what was happening. My heart broke for them and I knew I needed to explain,” she says.
“So I started taking snippets from my diary and made them positive. I wrote about my ‘naughty lump’ that was not supposed to be in my body and that I needed treatment to get better. “I called my story The Monster In Mummy and, once I was happy with it, I read it to the girls. After I’d finished, Aaliyah asked, ‘Are you going to be OK?’ and I replied, ‘I hope so’.Itwas such an emotional moment.” After that, the family grew closer than ever. Realising her little book might be able to help other parents, Donia decided to try to get it published – and was amazed by the response. She says, “I received tons of support from people who were struggling to find the words to have the tough conversation with their children. It was such an incredible feeling knowing I’ve helped make a difference to people’s lives.
FEELING GRATEFUL Donia’s now been in remission for nearly three years and makes sure she enjoys every day. She’s written and published 19 books in the Monster series range, all aimed at helping children understand a cancer diagnosis or other serious illnesses, with proceeds going to The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and Taylor Made Dreams, which enables children with life limiting illnesses to achieve their dreams. She is also behind six children’s TV series, plus an animated movie and a full-length feature film, which are due to start shooting next year. She says, “I’ve learned to accept the possibility that my cancer could come back, but I’ve achieved so much and I’ve never been happier. None of us know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so it’s important to live each day as if it is my last. I just want my kids to know that I stayed strong for them. “My cancer helped me not take each day for granted. I’ve achieved more than I thought was possible and it’s helped me see there is always a rainbow after the storm.” ● To find out more about Donia and her The Monster book series, visit monsterseries.co.uk