On Brain Tumour Awareness Month, grieving relatives plead for more research into disease
When Laura Brady’s daughter Hollie began complaining of a sore neck and then an upset tummy, little did she know it was the beginning of a journey that would have the saddest ending imaginable.
Hollie was just five years old when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Her distraught mum Laura and dad Ciaran Duffy were told she had three tumours in her brain.
She spent her sixth birthday at Belfast’s Royal Hospital, undergoing aggressive chemotherapy.
Brave Hollie fought for more than a year, but lost her battle with the illness in November 2019, just over a month before her seventh birthday.
Now, to mark Brain Tumour Awareness Month, Laura is telling her daughter’s story to raise awareness of the need for more research into treatments for brain cancer.
“We really need to raise awareness of brain cancers. We still don’t know what causes them,” she says.
“I didn’t know anybody with cancer before Hollie, so it was a real eye-opener.
“New treatments are desperately needed for children with brain tumours. You hear so many sad stories — it affects so many families.”
Hollie was diagnosed in October 2018 following an MRI scan. Laura (35) and Ciaran (38) were told her biggest tumour was the size of an orange.
She underwent emergency surgery, but doctors warned the family from the offset that her chances of long-term survival were slim.
“She was allowed home for Christmas that year and we made it as special as we could,” remembers Laura, from Derry. “We even arranged for Santa to pay a special visit to the house.
“Three months later, to celebrate the end of her chemo, we threw a big street party called Hollie’s Hullabaloo and Hollie dressed as her favourite Disney princess, Elsa from Frozen. We had a horse and carriage, and all our neighbours lined the streets to wave to her. I think everyone was so touched by her story.
“She’d lost all her hair during chemo and steroids had bloated her pretty face, but she still looked like the most beautiful princess to us.”
By the following September, Hollie’s sparkle had begun to fade. Her family made up a hospital bed in their living room so she could pass away at home.
“We sang Disney songs to her and George Ezra’s Shotgun,” says Laura. “She died in my arms and we were absolutely broken-hearted, but we had to stay strong for the sake of her big sister Chelsea (13).
“She’s still broken-hearted after losing her sister. She misses Hollie so much. She still thinks about her every day.”
Since Hollie’s death, Laura has started an access course at North West Regional College to allow her to apply to study for a nursing degree, with the dream of specialising in children’s nursing in Hollie’s memory.
According to the national charity Brain Tumour Research, brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer, yet only around 1% of the spend on cancer research is allocated to them.
There are more than 120 different types of brain tumours, including glioblastoma, and the cause of them is unclear, so more research is desperately needed.
The symptoms of a brain tumour will depend on which part of the brain is affected but can include headaches, changes to vision, nausea, seizures, confusion, loss of balance, problems with speech and interrupted sleep.
Jade Wilson (28), from Enniskillen, lost her husband Alex to glioblastoma in February last year, aged just 31. The couple have a little boy, Ryan (8), who is now growing up without his daddy. Jade says: “I believe that in Northern Ireland there is very little emphasis on brain tumour research, which I find very shocking. A lot more people are diagnosed with brain tumours than you realise.”
Jade met Alex at a pub in Lemington Spa, her home town, before moving to Northern Ireland with him to settle in Co Fermanagh.
He proposed four years later during a romantic walk, but as the couple began planning their wedding, Alex started getting pins and needles in his left arm.
“One evening, we were sitting at the kitchen table eating bowls of soup and he dropped his spoon, then he couldn’t figure out how to pick it back up again,” she says.
Alex was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma and underwent surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
The medical team managed to get it all, but the pair were warned there was a high chance of it returning.
“Our oncologist told us not to go home and Google — we would scare the lives out of ourselves,” explains Jade.
“The average lifespan with Alex’s type of cancer was just eight months — it didn’t bear thinking about.
“Our specialist told us that there are statistics and there are real human beings. He said, ‘Don’t give up hope’.”
Jade and Alex tied the knot on October 19, 2018, when Alex was midway through chemotherapy.
Jade remembers it as the best day of their lives, but by spring 2019, Alex’s tumour was growing back and he underwent a second operation.
Two years after their wedding, the couple were told there was nothing more that could be done.
“I had to prepare Ryan. I told him his daddy was going to heaven,” says Jade.
“We set up a hospital bed at his mum’s house so the whole family could be with him.”
Alex enjoyed a last supper of chicken nuggets and Jaffa Cakes before passing away peacefully surrounded by his loved ones.
“Brain cancer made me a widow at 27,” says Jade.
“I don’t think people realise how quickly brain tumours can change a life. The symptoms aren’t always that obvious either.
“A brain tumour diagnosis can be so devastating. Imagine watching a young loved one deteriorate like that. We desperately need more research into treatment and cures for this cruel disease.”
For more information and to support research into brain cancer, visit www.braintumourresearch.org