The mother of a 13-year-old Hillsborough girl diagnosed with leukaemia is helping Cancer Fund for Children to mark a significant milestone by bravely sharing her family’s experience with cancer.
Nola Harrison says her daughter Zara was able to smile again, thanks to the specialist support of Cancer Fund for Children, and in particular the family’s short breaks at the charity’s therapeutic short break centre, Daisy Lodge.
The charity recently welcomed the news that Daisy Lodge has now provided its 1000th short break to local families affected by cancer, since it opened in April 2014.
As well as providing therapeutic short breaks, the charity also provides a range of practical, financial and emotional support to families at home, on the hospital ward and in the community. Cancer Fund for Children understands that beyond the essential medical care, there is a family life that needs rebuilt.
Speaking about when Zara was first diagnosed, Nola said: “Zara was 11 years old when we found out she had cancer (September 2015). We had just been enjoying the last days of our summer holidays at the caravan park in Kilkeel when we noticed that she was very tired, and not her usual self. She was normally a very strong and athletic young girl so we knew something wasn’t quite right.
“I phoned the doctor as soon as we got home, and he referred us that day to the Royal to get some tests done. It was later that day when Zara’s blood tests came back, that they told us Zara had leukaemia. When I heard that word, I didn’t know much about it, I was very scared and thought surely there must be a mistake.
“The hospital decided to keep us in and start her treatment straight away. The reality of the situation really hit us when here we were sitting in this small grey hospital room, when Zara should have really been starting her first day at school and thinking about putting her uniform on, getting the bus to school, getting her timetable.
“Things started to change for Zara very quickly during that first round of treatment. She became really, really sick. She wasn’t able to eat very much and with the chemotherapy, we knew she was going to lose her hair, so she bravely decided to have it shaved off.
“It was a tough time for all the family. Zara has two brothers, Harrison and Zac, and a sister Juliette, and during those first few weeks, they didn’t get to see Zara or I very much.”
It was during this time that the family were introduced to Cancer Fund for Children.
Mum Nola describes the charity’s short break facility in Newcastle as the family’s “sanctuary” and somewhere where they could relax, after the stresses of Zara’s treatment.
She said: “When we first went to Daisy Lodge, Zara was still in treatment so went there straight from the hospital. Zara still wasn’t very well at that time, so she was in a wheelchair and had a feeding tube, but we were so excited to be out of hospital. When we arrived at Daisy Lodge, we were welcomed with open arms. Zara was no longer a patient, she was just Zara.
“It quickly became our sanctuary, our retreat away from hospital, our resting place, our safe place. In the hospital environment Zara was so sick, she wasn’t talking to anyone, she didn’t make eye contact, she had totally closed down. When she got to Daisy Lodge though, she relaxed immediately and she started to open up and talk to the therapeutic specialist. That first weekend, they did arts and crafts together, and she loved it.
“The food as well was so nourishing, it’s put on the table, there’s no pressure on you as a mummy, you don’t have worry about washing up or doing anything. For Zara as well, because she had been so sick with the treatment, she hadn’t been eating but when this gorgeous food was set down in front of her, I think it opened her eyes, and she started to eat. That was such a relief for me because up until then I felt so much pressure trying to get her to eat something.
“It was great to meet other families as well. We’ve been back to Daisy Lodge a few times, and you become close with other families because you’re going through something similar. The kids always got on with the other children there, they could play and just be free, and be children again. We’ve made lots of friends because of Cancer Fund for Children.
“When we go to Daisy Lodge, we feel a lightness, and we always come away feeling more energised and hopeful. I think my standout memory was seeing Zara laughing with the other children. When Zara was diagnosed, it was like a part of her disappeared. I just remember her sitting in front of the fire at Daisy Lodge and just smiling. She found her spirit again. She remembered who she was.”
Daisy Lodge opened in April 2014, and has now provided 1,000 short breaks to families affected by cancer.
Speaking about the impact of reaching this milestone, Residential Services Manager, Phil Alexander said: “It’s been amazing to see how much our therapeutic services have grown and changed since we first opened in 2014. Here at Daisy Lodge, we have created a safe, positive and nurturing environment that I have not seen anywhere else.
“Families are very much in control of their stay and are supported by a team of professionals who are sensitive, flexible and focused on their needs. As a team we are always moving forward, reflecting on what we are doing and aiming to improve the service we provide.
“It is a privilege to get to know so many families who trust us to support them during their cancer journey.”
Zara started school in September 2016 and is gradually getting back to normality.
Mum Nola added: “Zara is getting back to herself again, she’s just started P.E in school and is pony riding again, she’s so determined. She’s still getting treatment every two weeks until September, but she is doing really well at the minute. It’s made us all closer as a family, we take nothing for granted, we appreciate each other so much more.
“Cancer Fund for Children’s support has helped us stay strong and determined, and together as family.”
To find out more about the support that Cancer Fund for Children offers, call 028 9080 5599 or log on to www.cancerfundforchildren.com/how-we-help