Your teenage years are hard enough, even when everything is going right. Being a teenager recovering from cancer is another thing entirely.
Hanna Schweppe was on the cusp of adulthood. She enjoyed dancing and being with friends, but just a few weeks before her 15th birthday, on the eve of the last summer holiday before her GCSE year, a seemingly innocuous accident changed her life completely.
Larking about on the dodgems at a theme park, she was thrown into the vehicle's safety bar and injured her ribs. Over the following days the pain got worse. She eventually found herself in hospital hooked up to a morphine drip and having a series of tests.
A biopsy revealed a tumour the size of a rugby ball and she was diagnosed with undifferentiated embryomal sarcoma of the liver – a rare and aggressive form of childhood cancer.
Hanna, of High Heaton, Newcastle, is now in recovery but it has been a long, slow struggle, and one involving the Rainbow Trust Children's Charity, one of three charities benefiting from The Independent's Christmas appeal.
For Hanna, a bubbly, infectiously optimistic 17-year-old, the gravity of her initial diagnosis began to sink in only when she returned to the teenage cancer unit at Newcastle's Royal Victoria Hospital. "I went back to the ward and I saw someone in there with a bald head hooked up on a drip. That's when you realise what the situation is. But I think my mum was more scared than me," she says.
More than five months of treatment followed, with two operations and nine courses of chemotherapy. "Everybody deals with the side-effects slightly differently," Hanna says. "Losing hair for me was a huge deal. I asked for the mirrors to be covered up because I felt like I was changing too much. I lost a lot of weight because you lose your appetite with the chemotherapy. I hadn't seen myself in the mirror for a few weeks and when I looked I didn't look like myself."
The medical treatment has produced a remission of the cancer. But the chemotherapy was only part of Hanna's recovery, and that is where the Rainbow Trust came in. It provides support to more than 1,000 families whose children have life-threatening or terminal illnesses, and it was key to allowing Hanna to return home so that her family could get back to something approaching normality.
For the first few days, she was only allowed out of hospital for a couple of hours at a time – and she did not like it. "I was institutionalised. I felt that if anything went wrong at the hospital there was a team that would rush in and sort it all out. But if I was at home I was on edge," Hanna admits. "I couldn't be on my own. When I was in for 22 weeks a lot of the time I was bed-bound. I had to learn to walk again because my muscles hadn't been used for so long."
Hanna's mother, Sheila, was also exhausted from months of running back and forth to the hospital and looking after her younger daughter, who had to spend time with family and friends. She also needed to return to work but was naturally anxious about leaving Hanna alone. With her treatment, follow-up chemotherapy, tests and check-ups stretching ahead for a further year, the family was referred to the charity which could offer the help it needed.
Two of the Rainbow Trust's family support workers, Vicky and Monica, began visiting Hanna at home to provide vital, independent support. "We used to have a gossip about The X Factor or what was going on in magazines. They used to take me to the cinema," she says. "They wouldn't talk about the illness and I wouldn't really mention it. It was really girly chat – it was great."
It allowed Hanna's mum, a single parent, to get on with her other responsibilities and meant her older sister no longer needed to travel up from university in Bristol during term time. Monica and Vicky would take turns to sit with Hanna on weekdays until her younger sister got back from school.
"I got my independence back. Until the time the Rainbow Trust came, I was around my mum 24 hours a day, says Hanna. "I was becoming too dependent on her. I was going backwards to a younger stage in my life. If she left the house I would be worried."
The next obstacle was getting back to school. Despite her illness, Hanna decided to go ahead with GCSEs and had continued studying at home. Yet when it came to returning to Heaton Manor School she became anxious, a worry the Rainbow Trust workers helped her overcome. They even accompanied her as she resumed lessons.
In a testament to her determination and the support she received, Hanna still passed nine GCSEs, with oneA and eight Bs. Now she is studying for a health science diploma at Newcastle College so she can eventually pursue a degree in paediatric nursing – a vocation inspired by her own experiences.
"If the Rainbow Trust hadn't been there, things would have been a lot worse – they really helped me with the anxiety," Hanna says. "The best thing for taking your mind off the whole thing is a distraction. They were so good at making sure the topic wasn't brought up."
Appeal partners: Who we're supporting
Save the Children
Save the Children works in 120 countries, including the UK. They save children's lives, fight for their rights and help them fulfil their potential. Save the Children's vital work reaches more than 8 million children each year - keeping them alive, getting them into school and protecting them from harm. www.savethechildren.org.uk
The Children's Society
The Children's Society provides vital support to vulnerable children and young people in England, including those who have run away from home. Many have experienced neglect, isolation or abuse, and all they want is a safe and happy home. Their project staff provide essential support to desperate children who have no-one else to turn to.
Rainbow Trust Children's Charity
Rainbow Trust Children's Charity provides emotional and practical support for families who have a child with a life threatening or terminal illness. For families living with a child who is going to die, Rainbow Trust is the support they wished they never had to turn to, but struggle to cope without.
At The Independent we believe that these organisations can make a big difference to changing many children's lives.
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