Willow blog

Anna’s Journey: Cancer Returns

February 20, 2017

During our Radio 4 Appeal week we are sharing excerpts from Bob Wilson’s autobiography. Today we feature the second part of Anna’s story as her cancer returns and she battles on. 

Anna’s cancer had returned in her ribs, back and neck area and the only alternative on offer was surgery in December 1995, since treatment by chemotherapy was not thought to be an option. After surgery, we all faced 1996 with fresh hope.

On 25 January, Anna was admitted to the Brompton and underwent her second thoracotomy. The surgeon told us, ‘I cannot give any guarantees.  Recurrence is very possible.’ 

Cancer is not just a battle to be won by the patient.  It tries to destroy all those who surround the person it invades.  Mitchell and Anna’s marriage had already been challenged and survived.  Megs and I faced a similar test.  Normal married life together became difficult from the day of her initial diagnosis.  Megs’ priority was understandably to care for her sick daughter.  It was a full-time occupation and infinitely more demanding and tiring than the work in which I was involved at Arsenal and ITV.

Spring turned into summer and Euro ’96 gave joy to Anna and I. But by the summer, scans revealed the reason for a cough and growing difficulties in breathing that she had been experiencing.  The tumour in her neck had returned, but it was not going to be easy to remove, due to the scar tissue surrounding that area.

Surgeons operated on Anna again but this time found that the tumour had perforated the trachea and had been growing across the breathing tube.  The larger it grew, the less room there was for air to pass to and from the lungs.

Between August ’96 and November ’98 Anna was to return to the Brompton every few weeks as the tumour kept up its relentless determination to block her trachea, despite a stent inserted to hold it open.

However, doctors couldn’t stop the cancer advancing in its unyielding charge to all parts of her body.  There were secondaries throughout her bones, particularly in her spine and hips, making everyday tasks difficult and walking an impossibility. 

Even though malignant schwannoma was ostensibly a non-chemo sensitive cancer, it was decided to see if chemotherapy could stunt the growths and assist the work of the surgery.  Three days after her thirty-first birthday came a moment that Anna dreaded.  The beautiful blonde curly hair that framed her face and singled her out in a crowded room, began falling out in chunks so she rang her mum and asked her to go over with her scissors.

Megs complied with Anna’s request reluctantly, cutting off the bulk of her daughter’s hair in one swift movement.  Anna handed over a razor and demanded she shave close to her scalp. As Megs collected Anna’s curls, Mitchell sat down and asked his mother-in-law to repeat the task on him.  Once more Megs obeyed instructions and shaved Mitchell’s hair to match.  Husband and wife stood in front of the mirror looking like two boiled eggs.  Both laughed.  Megs tried to do the same.

In May ’98, David Seaman dedicated the second double in Arsenal’s history to Anna while being interviewed on ‘Match of the Day’ and a month later she was looking forward to watching the World Cup finals in France.  She insisted I go ahead with ITV’s plans for me to present their coverage, which would mean my being away from home for almost six weeks.  At the end of an emotional family dinner party on the eve of my departure to Paris, I told Anna it wasn’t too late for me to tell ITV I couldn’t present the tournament.  She told me not to be so stupid and impishly added, ‘I promise I won’t be too ill, Dad.’  As she left with Mitchell, Anna gave me a good-luck card with the message, ‘Dad, you’re the best!’

Within four days, and without my knowledge, the level of Anna’s platelets had dropped to 18, the component that is vital in the clotting of blood, and she needed another operation on her trachea, then another one.

Coughing up blood became a daily occurrence, and her struggle for breath, her struggle to move and her struggle to eat had all become a way of life.

It was mid-October that Anna called her mum and told her she needed to get to the Brompton.  Tests undertaken revealed that she was very poorly with a bad infection, a low platelet count and a very high temperature. She needed more surgery, this time performed by a different doctor and with complications.

‘I’m afraid there’s little chance of her surviving the night.  I’m sorry I need to ask you this question.  In the event of a cardiac arrest, how vigorously do you want us to resuscitate?’

It was so unreal, even though we thought we were prepared.  We agreed there should be no resuscitation and were told we could see Anna in intensive care very soon. 

Anna the invincible was now hanging on to life by the finest of threads but she defied all odds one more time and was soon sat up in bed surrounded by family and friends.

Anna continued to assure her mum that she would be OK and added, ‘By the way, we are still going ahead with “This is Your Life” aren’t we?’

Did you know that 90% of our Special Days are created for people aged 16 to 40 living with a cancer diagnosis? Please donate to our Radio 4 appeal so we can continue to create precious memories for those with an uncertain future.

Read the first part of Anna’s story: Diagnosis

Read the third part of Anna’s story: This is your life

Read the fourth part of Anna’s story: Anna’s Legacy