FIRST PERSON: Ebbw Vale gran's MBE for raising £1m for cancer cause
Grandmother Liz Sullivan MBE is one of the founders of a Valleys charity that has raised more than £1million for breast cancer research.
She talks to Kath Skellon about her own battle with the disease and being honoured by the Queen.
“WHEN the letter arrived to say I had been chosen to receive an MBE I thought it was a mistake.
It was a terrific surprise but also a total shock – it just seemed crazy to get an honour for something I have tremendous fun doing.
I’m not one for awards and I was so embarrassed I nearly said thanks, but no thanks.Myhusband John, 60, talked me round and when I told the rest of my family they were jumping.
My uncle Ivor ‘Chick’ Evans got an MBE in 1960 for all the work he did teaching gymnastics. It feels special to follow in his footsteps.
But I haven’t done this on my own, thousands of people have raised the money for the In The Pink charity and when I go to Buckingham Palace to collect the medal I’ll be certain to tell the Queen that it’s for everyone who has ever donated a penny or their time. Of course, I’ll make a special mention for the other five co-founders of the charity.
The funds we raise go towards breast cancer research at Velindre Hospital, Cardiff University and Tenovus. The funding goes to an independent research programme called the In The Pink Fellowship to help find a cure for cancer.
The work the researchers and doctors are doing is phenomenal.
Last year we hit the £1million mark through our annual walks along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal and other fundraising events.
We started off with a bungee jump event, expecting to raise £200 and raised £10,000 and continue to be astonished at how much we have raised.
This year we held a smaller event because of the amount of organisation needed, but still had more than 800 people take part in a fun-run and walk between Brynmawr and Llanfoist, raising more than £44,000.
All us co-founders of the charity have daughters. Breast cancer seems to be an epidemic these days. There’s got to be a cure and I’m convinced it will be during my lifetime.
In the same year we founded the charity I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I saw eight doctors before I was sent for a mammogram at Nevill Hall Hospital, Abergavenny where I underwent tests.
When I found out it was cancer I didn’t want to know how advanced it was, I just wanted to know if I was going to live.
The staff were brilliant. In days I was in hospital to have a lumpectomy, returning to work at my beauty salon the following week.
A fortnight later I was in Velindre Hospital starting six sessions of chemotherapy over six months.
I lost my hair but was lucky I wasn’t sick.
John said it was just a blip and that’s exactly how we treated it. I carried on working while having radiotherapy then continued to go for check-ups. In 2004 I was told the cancer had returned.
My consultant took no risks, operating within days to remove a small tumour and performed a mastectomy. Another course of chemotherapy caused my hair to fall out. I never a thought about it because I knew it would influence how I pictured things.
I remember going for chemotherapy and seeing a dozen elderly women just sitting there having treatment and not saying a word. They showed so much courage and I vowed never to complain about having cancer.
I recovered quickly, it’s important to believe in recovery when you have an illness.
Now I support other people who are going through similar experiences and give practical advice.
The charity’s annual walk came about because my niece did a charity walk in London and gave us the idea.
When we first started there was no funding for research.
Now Velindre is carrying out pioneering research.
I’m not someone who can sit down and do nothing. My involvement with the charity is a huge part of my life.
We’re constantly coming up with fundraising ideas and are now putting together a humorous calendar featuring people from Blaenau Gwent and beyond.
As well as bringing up my children, Kate Jordan, now 35, and James, 34, and spending time with my grandchildren, Nuala, three, and 18-month-old Plum Jordan, I’ve run a successful beauty salon in Ebbw Vale for 30 years.
Beauty therapy wasn’t something I took up straight away. I grew up in the 50s in Pennant Street, Ebbw Vale, the youngest of four. My parents had the corner shop.
I was educated at Pontypool Convent and at 15 did everything from hairdressing to window cleaning and even started my own library to earn some pocket money.
I joined a band called The Ladybirds, we had the moves but couldn’t really sing and we went down a storm in the Workingmen’s Clubs.
My first proper job was as a nanny in Wimbledon, London, for the children of Stanley Baker, the actor and star of Zulu. I was 17 and that glamorous world was so exciting.
I stayed in London until I was 22. I was a real-life Mary Poppins. They were a lovely family – always having parties with famous people.
One time, people were stacking furniture for a party.
There was one man who was a bit drunk and, as I sidestepped away from him I tripped over backwards.
Michael Caine swept me away from the fire.
I also met Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe, Elizabeth Taylor and even cooked sausages for Richard Burton.
Their children went to the cinema with the Bakers’ children. I remember the chauffeur taking us to see The Sound of Music in a Rolls and a Bentley. It was fabulous.
After my time at the Bakers I signed up with an agency and went to work as an au pair in France. The families I would stay with were lovely and always begged me to stay longer.
One particular family I worked for lived in Montpelier. It was idyllic, we had the Pyrenees behind us and the sea in front.
We would cut blossom off the tree in the garden and put it in the tea to make lime blossom tea – I’ve never tasted tea that good since. After a few months I came back to London with a friend who had been working in Paris and returned to Ebbw Vale to work in a children’s home.
I started Pennant Street football club for the boys there and it was then I met John, a welder, in 1973. He was one of the club’s players. We decided to get married within a few weeks and the wedding the following year was at Brynmawr Catholic Church.
After Kate was born in 1976 we moved to a bigger house on Tredegar Road which previously belonged to a doctor.
We gutted the surgery, turning it into a playgroup, which I did for about a year but soon realised you can’t make money out of it. Two girls eventually took it over and it’s still running today in new premises.
While looking around for a way to make a living I did a massage course in Cardiff.
Not long later I started my own beauty salon called Highfield at the house.
I had a pair of tweezers to do eyebrows and charged £4 for a full body massage and the business grew from there.
Sunbeds were the new thing so I bought one for £1,600. There was nothing like it in Ebbw Vale at the time and the queues would go all the way down the street.
People would come from as far as Hereford and Abergavenny to get a tan or beauty treatment.
The TV series Fame was popular and aerobics had taken off. I saw Jane Fonda doing a fitness video so took a course in keep-fit and set up a studio. We had a mirrored gym in which people brought their own exercise video in to do during their lunch break.
After eight years I tried something different by working in the events department of the garden festival. I enjoyed it.
After that came to a close my friend, hairdresser Phillip McCarthy, offered me the chance to open a salon above one of his salons in Libanus Road.
All I had was a massage bed and few bits and pieces but I was soon up and running and I’m still there today. My daughter says it’s more like Steel Magnolias because people don’t always just come for the treatment, they also come for the chat.
I’ve done all the beauty courses, probably hundreds, and asked myself ‘What now?’ I started the first line-dancing class in the Valleys just before it got a head of steam – that was a huge phenomenon.
Now I’m learning tai chi and studying for a Higher Diploma in Creative Writing in Tredegar. I might also learn the guitar.
At 66 I am getting my head around next year’s charity event.
I certainly won’t be retiring any time soon.