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True fighter... how Danika, who died aged 33, used her dad Barry McGuigan as inspiration in childhood cancer battle

Danika McGuigan, who has passed away aged 33
Danika McGuigan, who has passed away aged 33
Danika McGuigan with her brother Shane
Danika at a film premiere
Barry with wife Sandra, sons Shane and Jake, and Danika
Sandra with Danika just after she was born
A family picture from 1996 on the front lawn of their home in Kent
Danika with fellow actress Seana Kerslake filming the RTE series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope
Barry McGuigan with daughter Danika as a child

By Stephanie Bell

It was one of the bravest fights Barry McGuigan had ever witnessed — watching his only daughter Danika battle leukaemia at the age of 11.

The cruel return of cancer, which this time didn’t give Danika even a fighting chance, has left Barry, his wife Sandra and sons Shane, Jake and Blane inconsolable.

Thousands of messages of support have flooded in from the sporting world and beyond as the family privately grieve the loss of their beautiful Danika, who died after a short illness with breast cancer, aged just 33.

Yesterday brother Shane took to Instagram to sum up the family’s devastation.

He posted: “I have memories that I’ll cherish for a lifetime and you will live on forever in spirit. I’m so, so proud of you. Love you forever my older ‘little’ sister. RIP”.

Over the years Barry has talked about the shock of Danika’s first diagnosis and his admiration for her bravery in battling the disease. Danika, too, had spoken about her father and how much of her strength came from him as she came through gruelling treatment as a child.

The former world featherweight boxing champion thought the worst was behind his family when Danika was eventually given the all-clear.

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Watching her grow into a beautiful and independent young woman with a successful career as an actress, he couldn’t have been more proud of his only daughter.

And his gratitude for her recovery soon became obvious to the world as he used his public profile to pour his heart into helping raise millions of pounds for cancer research and the fight to find a cure.

He also endured heartache when he lost his father Patrick to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1987.

To say Danika’s illness at just 11 hit the boxer hard is putting it mildly, and Barry didn’t hit and miss when summing up his feelings: “It was like being hit by a sledgehammer. I felt completely emasculated. It was like our roles were reversed: this time it was my little girl who was the fighter.

“All I could do was sit and watch. And God, did she fight. All the pain, all the suffering. I was so proud of her. And when she started losing her hair, sure she was upset, but she put on a really brave face. Watching her pull through was so humbling.”

Danika’s diagnosis came from nowhere.

Talking about it some years later Barry said there was nothing worse than your child getting sick, adding: “No amount of fighting in the ring could have prepared me for it.

“She was 11 and it came out of the blue.

“At the time I was flying back and forward to Ireland, working with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jim Sheridan on a film called The Boxer. As soon as I heard this, I flew back and met them at St Bart’s, where Danika had been admitted.

“They gave her chemo right away, but she was paranoid about needles and they had to insert a Hickman line into one of her main arteries so they could administer the chemo and the other drugs she needed.”

There was a terrifying period when Danika developed an infection which made her breathing difficult.

And just when her parents thought things couldn’t get any worse, she stopped breathing.

Barry said: “You can imagine the state we were in.

“They had to perform an emergency tracheotomy, which is when they put a hole in your neck.

“I can’t tell you how terrified I was seeing her go through all this.”

Danika was out of school for about a year-and-a-half. Even as she got her health back, Barry continued to worry, drawing strength from his daughter’s positive attitude.

He said: “She wasn’t going to look back, so she didn’t expect the rest of us to either. As soon as she’d been told she could look forward to a long, healthy life, she couldn’t wait to start living life to the full again.

“With Danika, the glass is never half-empty and never half-full.

“It’s completely full. In fact, it’s probably spilling over.

“I’ve never seen such willpower. She’s a real fighter. Through and through.”

Less than two years after her recovery Danika said she wanted to go to a girls’ boarding school, where she found a love of drama and went on to study at an acting school in Dublin.

Her career was beginning to flourish and she had played Danielle in the RTE series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, and recently completed filming Wildfire, a film about two sisters who grew up on the Irish border.

She also starred alongside Rooney Mara in Jim Sheridan’s adaptation of Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture.

Danika was born a year after her dad won his world featherweight title, and by the time she was four her parents had moved to England and Barry had given up boxing and was moving into other things like TV commentary.

It was only when she went to school and the other kids were in awe of her father that she started to realise just how famous he was.

Talking about her dad a few years ago, she said: “Although there were trophies around the house, I didn’t realise how famous he was until I was six or seven and the boys in my class would talk about him being this big champion.

“If he came to pick me up after school, they’d always want to shake his hand or get his autograph.

“There was always talk about boxing in our house, and I’d still sit and watch dad in old videos of his fights.

“It felt weird that he had these big moments in his sporting career before I came along.”

Danika had said what she admired most about her dad was his determination, and when she got the all-clear in 1999 she said: “I know how lucky I am and I know there’s been one figure that, throughout, has been a huge inspiration to me. That’s my dad.”

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