Co Down teen's fight in the face of major surgery and severe illness
When this talented, music-mad Co Down teen was diagnosed with a brain tumour, her world fell apart. But buoyed by the support of her friends from stage school, who recorded an album in her honour, she's on the road to recovery.
The wonderful enthusiasm in 14-year-old Anna Guest's voice as she answers the telephone from her sick bed at home in Newtownards takes me by surprise.
This is a child who, just a couple of weeks ago, underwent major surgery to have a brain tumour removed and has, since Christmas, coped with severe sickness no one her age should ever have to face.
Yet as she talks about how her friends in NI Stars stage school have been her rock during her illness - recently releasing an album Songs for Anna in her honour for charity - she is so upbeat that it is hard to believe she is coming through a major health trauma.
The music-mad teen, who became the youngest person ever to win the Northern Ireland-wide Citybeat Young Star of the Year competition when she was only eight years old, has been buoyed by the support she has received from her co-performers.
Her mum Lynn charts what her daughter has been through in the last six months and it makes for horrific reading as doctors were forced to resort to a series of aggressive treatments to try and avoid the risks of operating on such a young girl.
For Anna though, it meant bravely enduring what were truly horrendous side-effects during what became a gruelling battle to shrink her tumour. Tragically, after so much sickness, all three medicines failed and doctors had no choice last month but to remove the still growing tumour.
It is all very raw and fresh for the family - mum Lynn (42), a cruise consultant, dad Gordon (48), an account manager, and older brother Matthew (17) - but their overwhelming feeling today is one of relief that the suffering is over and the tumour is now out. Anna's first words when she came round from surgery were: "Is it out mum, is it out?"
It was just a day after her 14th birthday and two days before Christmas that the family was given the crushing news that Anna had a brain tumour.
From the very start and through all the difficult months that have followed, plucky Anna has amazed everyone with her ability to cope and keep smiling despite being so ill.
"She has taught me a lot as a mum in the past six months," Lynn says.
"She has never complained or felt sorry for herself, she just coped with everything and didn't moan at all.
"She couldn't even say the word tumour for months and referred to it as 'Engelbert'. She actually had a wee cry the other night and that took us by surprise because it is the first time she has shown any emotion."
Anna's tumour was on her pituitary gland which is a tiny organ, the size of a pea, found at the base of the brain but known as the "master gland" of the body as it produces many hormones.
Blood tests taken after Anna had complained of severe headaches revealed that one of these hormones Prolactin, was coursing through her body at a volume more than six times higher than the normal rate. Normal range is 0-500 and Anna had it at 3000.
This immediately alerted doctors who quickly arranged for an MRI scan and the news which no one was expecting was delivered to the astonished family two days before Christmas.
"I'd honestly put the headaches down to school and her age and being a teenager. A tumour was the last thing on our minds," Lynn says.
"We were absolutely gutted and it was a tough Christmas. We went through all the usual Christmas traditions but it wasn't easy and although Anna had just got the most terrible news, she was the life and soul.
"She had asked for a selfie stick for Christmas and she had all the family laughing as she took selfies of everyone.
"She was amazing even then and still is."
The prognosis was good as doctors said they were almost certain the tumour was benign and of all tumours in the brain this was the most treatable.
However they were reluctant to operate because of the risks associated with Anna's age. Surgery could stop her growing and impact on the hormone production in her body possibly affecting her ability to have children when she grows up.
It was decided instead to try and shrink it with medication and there were three different types available.
All three however took a tremendous toll on the child's body.
"Her wee body just couldn't take it and she was so sick. She went from 8st 3lb to six stone eight," Lynn says.
"She was violently vomiting, she had palpitations, the headaches were always there and we couldn't shift them. Even light hurt her.
"To watch your child go through that for six months is just awful. She is such a bubbly wee character and a lovely child and her whole wee personality seemed to change.
"The first treatment didn't work and then the second one didn't work and we just kept persevering because we didn't want her to have surgery because of the risks so it was a bit of a catch 22.
"The first MRI did show some shrinkage and we got very excited about that and that kept us going to try and get through it.
"The third treatment was the most horrendous of them all. Her blood pressure dropped and she had more heart palpitations and I noticed that her left eye had started drooping.
"I took her to a local ophthalmologist who I knew had quite advanced equipment.
"He did tests which showed that she had developed ptosis of the eye which was a nerve pressing on the optic nerve caused by the tumour. There was also slight damage to her superior vision.
"That same week the doctors sat down to discuss her case and she was also due results of an MRI."
The condition picked up by the eye specialist could have ultimately cost Anna her sight. The MRI results showed that the tumour had grown again despite all the aggressive treatment. Doctors had no option but to arrange for surgery.
Anna underwent the surgery on May 27 when doctors were able to remove the tumour without having to open her up, using a pioneering technique which allowed them to go into the brain through her nostrils.
Her mum says: "That was the longest day of our lives although we were really relieved they didn't have to open her up which means she has no scars.
"The consultants were really happy with how the surgery went and we now have to wait 12 weeks for another MRI scan to confirm that the entire tumour is gone.
"We are very hopeful that her eye will rectify itself over time and when we look at Anna every day we see a little part of her coming back. That's what keeps us all going; we just cling to the fact that the surgery was a success.
"She is doing really well and we just look on it as an episode in her life which is now behind us."
Lynn is indebted to NI Stars for how much they helped Anna to get through the past six months.
Anna lives and breathes dance and music. She was one of the first members of NI Stars when it was launched in east Belfast six years ago.
The performing arts school was set up by well known local drama star and TV presenter Ande Gray who now also runs schools in Lisburn and Antrim.
Ande is currently hosting Big Brothers bit on the side on Ireland AM.
News of Anna's brain tumour hit both Ande and her fellow students hard. Together they went to extraordinary lengths to keep their friend's spirits up.
Each week, during class, they linked up with Anna via Facetime to help her feel like she wasn't missing out.
They were constant visitors to her bedside and even recorded a CD called Songs for Anna, which they have released to raise funds for her favourite charity Brainwaves NI.
Anna is delighted that they have come up with such a wonderful gesture in her honour.
She says: "It feels really good that they have made the CD for me. I can relate to Brainwaves. I understand what people are going through and I know it was really hard for my family and hopefully this can help other families."
Asked about how she has coped with the last six months Anna doesn't hesitate for a second as she says: "I just had to keep going and keep smiling.
"My dance teacher Ande Gray and my friends at NI Stars have been brilliant through the whole thing, coming to the hospital and they put a smile on my face even when I was going through the roughest of days."
Her mum also lifted her spirits during the worst of her treatment with a huge surprise.
An avid fan of the hit US TV series Dance Moms, Anna was gutted when the cast were due to visit Northern Ireland for a performance in March and she was too ill to attend.
Set in Pittsburgh's in what is the renowned Abby Lee Dance Company, Dance Moms is a series which follows children's early steps on the road to stardom as well as the dance mums who are there for their children's for every rehearsal, performance and show.
Lynn says: "I had emailed them when Anna was in hospital explaining how she would not be able to get to see them when they visited the Titanic and asking if she could even meet them for 10 minutes to help cheer her up.
"I was so thrilled when they emailed back to say yes but I didn't tell Anna. On the day they were here I told her I would ask the doctors if we could take her out just to go and buy some merchandise and then come back to the hospital.
"When we arrived at the Titanic and she saw all the other girls queuing up for the show I could tell by her wee face how gutted she was that she was going to miss it.
"We took her inside and up the lift and into a room and all the cast were there including Abby Lee Miller who owns the dance company.
"Anna was so overwhelmed, she just burst out crying, it meant everything to her and they all sat with her for about 10 - 15 minutes and talked with her and had their pictures taken and they gave her a big pile of merchandise to take home."
The cast also arranged for Anna to have a front row seat to watch the first half hour of the show before having to return to hospital. She calls it "the best day of my life."
For the first time the bubbly teen is stuck for words when asked what the day meant to her. Eventually she says: "Amazing. I can't even explain how amazing it was. I had no idea whatsoever and I will never ever forget it."
Anna, who is a pupil of Regents House College, had no idea what she wanted to do for a career but the past six months have given her a new sense of purpose and she now plans to study for a career in the medical profession.
She adds: "I really want to be a nurse or doctor and help people they way the doctors and nurses have helped me. I am looking forward to going back to school in September."
- A Songs for Anna Facebook page has also been set up and already has a few thousand members - www.facebook.com/SongForAnna. The CD in aid of Brainwaves NI can be bought at www.nistars.com.
Are you a singing, man-eating venus flytrap?
NI stars has launched the search for the voice of a man-eating plant.
The company, together with Strand Arts Centre, will present an amateur youth production of hit musical Little Shop of Horrors in August and are on the lookout for the voice of the show's all-singing all-devouring man-eating venus flytrap.
The principal parts have already been cast, but Lisburn-born director Ande Gray is also still on the lookout for dancers aged 12 to 20.
Little Shop of Horrors is a monstrously entertaining musical about a weedy florist shop worker who becomes an overnight celebrity when he inadvertently raises an unusually strange and interesting plant - Audrey II.
The stage show is based on the low-budget black comedy directed by Roger Corman. The music is in the style of early 1960s rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown with a score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, multi-Oscar winners for their collaborations on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
Director Ande knows the show well - Little Shop's nerdy hero Seymour was his first lead role for Ulster Operatic Company nearly 10 years ago.
He says: "I absolutely love working with the next generation of talent at NI Stars - and this is a wonderful opportunity for young people aged 11 to 20, and especially for anyone male or female with a strong rock voice who wants to audition for the role of Audrey II.
"They won't actually be seen on stage, but will provide the voice of the plant. It's not just important to have a good singing voice. The person will also have to convey, through both song and some dialogue, the unique character of this mean, green, wise-talking plant with a big ego and a massive appetite... for human flesh and blood! "
To register for auditions which are being held on Saturday, July 4, e-mail info@NiStars.com or for more information visit www.NiStars.com