Willow blog

Anna’s Journey: Diagnosis

February 19, 2017

This week, as part of our Radio 4 Appeal, we are sharing Anna’s story. Bob and Megs’ Wilson’s daughter, and her own ‘special days’ were the inspiration for Willow. Today we are sharing the beginning of their journey with cancer, adapted from Bob’s autobiography. 

I think we are lucky if, at some time in our lives, we are taught what is really important and what isn’t.  My special lesson didn’t begin in earnest until February 1994. That was the month and year that my daughter, Anna, was told she had cancer.  She taught me until 1 December 1998, which is the date she died.

During the five years that her cancer visited her, Anna recognised what should be enjoyed in life and the futility of chasing the irrelevant.  Her illness allowed me to spend more time with her than would have been normal in a father-daughter relationship.  She inspired me, regularly put me in my place, made me laugh and helped me to cry.  Most dads think their little girls are special. Anna was special.  I adored her and I miss her. In the five years of her dying, she taught us all how to live.

Anna was born at 2am on 7 December 1966.  England were world champions.  She was 6lbs 12oz and we named her Anna Louise.  She was always a fun-loving girl.  She loved the Beatles’ music, Marilyn Monroe and her two brothers.

Anna had several boyfriends but none made as big an impact up on us as Mitchell Carey. She did marry Mitchell Carey and for that we will be forever grateful.

Anna had been married for twelve months when the earliest signs of a health problem materialised.  She developed a cough that wouldn’t go away. Swallowing became a problem and she would drink water constantly in order to help relieve the restriction in her throat.

A CT scan revealed a large round shadow across the right central part of Anna’s chest.  The diagnosis was that she had a cyst emanating from somewhere near the trachea region and that it had grown to the size of an orange.  After more tests, it was discovered that the cyst was in fact a malignant tumour.

‘Mum, Dad, I’ll be OK.  Of all the family, I’m the one who can cope with cancer best.  You’re not going to let this thing destroy you, whatever lays ahead.’

It was surreal, like being in a film or a dream.

And what would be going through Anna’s mind?  Only five years later did we learn the truth of Anna’s struggle within herself.  She’d started a diary on 18 February 1994.  The first entry we read:

Today I was told I had cancer – how weird.  We’ve cried, laughed, cried and cried.  I thought I already knew, but kept a little dream alive that they’d got it wrong.  I was wrong.  I’m not scared, it’s just unreal.  I can’t believe it’s happening to me.  I wonder how people will react to me now?

Anna’s surgeon decided that he wanted to operate, even cancelling his skiing holiday to do so.  He got the tumour out and it was sent for testing.

‘Malignant schwannoma.  Soft tissue sarcoma.  A malignant growth of the nerve sheath.’ The histology reports from Mount Vernon and the Marsden concurred.

Anna, at just twenty-seven years of age, managed to face her own mortality head on.  Megs and I put on a public face full of optimism and hope, but privately we harboured differing thoughts about what lay ahead.  Megs refused to believe that Anna wouldn’t beat the cancer that had invaded her daughter’s body.  I never adopted a negative stance, but once Anna’s form of cancer had been identified, I felt that one of us had to be a touch realistic.

Anna underwent a six-week course of radiotherapy sessions aimed at destroying any stray tissue left after surgery.

During radiotherapy I chant in my head ‘kill it, kill it, kill it’ constantly.  Probably as scared as I’ve ever been right now.  Thought totally on ’will I die?  How long have I got?’  I just know I don’t want to die yet.  Is it really happening to me?  Sometimes I think it’s not fair.

Outwardly she convinced us that she was coping.  Whenever Anna felt good, she lived life to the full and when she was given the news that she was in remission, she came straight over to Highbury to share the news.

Apparently it’s gone.  WOW!  Went straight to Highbury and found Dad then got wrecked for rest of day.  I’ll write when I’m sober but I feel good.

She returned to her community nursing and immersed herself in the job she loved.  However, just nine months later she was in trouble again as scans revealed more areas of concern.  She gave up writing in her diary. Her journey still had three years and five months to go.  In that precious period of time we all enjoyed marvelous moments together, memories that will sustain us always.  The fact that there were more bad days than good was an irrelevance simply because we still had Anna with us. 

Our supporters make such a difference to the quality of life of those living with serious illness. Willow needs your help to make more Special Days possible. Please donate to our Radio 4 Appeal. 

Read the second part of Anna’s story: Cancer Returns

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

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