Health & Lifestyle

Paediatric nurse recalls how she feared the worst when her teenage daughter presented symptoms she recognised in her own patients – before being diagnosed with cancer

A paediatric nurse whose daughter was diagnosed with cancer and admitted to the ward she worked on has revealed how she feared the worst when the teenager began to show symptoms she recognised in her own patients.

Megan Whooley, now 23, from London, was just 16 when she started to feel unwell and ‘generally feeling rubbish’.

She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and eventually transferred from Kingston and Royal Marsden hospitals to St George Hospital Pinckney Ward in London.

It was the very ward where her mother Angela worked as a paediatric nurse – and she stayed there for six weeks during chemotherapy.

During her hospital stay she continued to study for her A-Levels and received an A* and two As, securing her a place at the University of Sussex.

Megan Whooley (pictured right), 23, was treated for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in the hospital ward where her mother, Angela (pictured left) works

Megan Whooley (pictured right), 23, was treated for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in the hospital ward where her mother, Angela (pictured left) works

The 23-year-old completed treatment in April 2019, just a few months before she went off to university.

Megan has just a couple more follow-up appointments at the Royal Marsden and will then be discharged from its services.

She currently has a job in the education sector, while Angela still works on Pinckney Ward as junior sister.

Angela said: ‘I initially thought it was just teenage stuff, and to be honest didn’t really think much about it.

‘But after a week or so, I noticed that she was pale and had some bruises.

‘I confided in friends and colleagues my fears that this was something more sinister, as all her symptoms were what we saw in children with a leukaemia diagnosis.

‘I was reassured that she was fine, and I was being overcautious because of the nature of the work I do.

‘But the day the GP rang and said there was something amiss in her bloods and that he wanted to see her urgently, I knew we were dealing with something serious.’

Megan Whooley , 23, experienced a number of symptoms and felt 'generally rubbish' before being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Megan Whooley , 23, experienced a number of symptoms and felt ‘generally rubbish’ before being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Angela took a year off work while her daughter was undergoing treatment. Megan is pictured above in hospital during her cancer treatment in 2017

Angela took a year off work while her daughter was undergoing treatment. Megan is pictured above in hospital during her cancer treatment in 2017

Both mother and daughter benefitted from counselling and received support from occupational health and staff support services provided by the NHS Trust.

Megan said the team were ‘amazing’.

She explained: ‘I was the oldest person on the ward, but I wasn’t made to feel like a kid.

‘I asked the staff to talk to me as if I was there – not to talk about me in front of me, and they did exactly that.’

Now the pair have opened up about their experience amid a fight to keep children’s cancer care at St George’s amid a consultation.

Megan said that undergoing cancer treatment has created a closer bond between herself and her mother

Megan said that undergoing cancer treatment has created a closer bond between herself and her mother

Megan was cared for at the Royal Marsden hospitals to St George Hospital Pinckney Ward in south London

Megan was cared for at the Royal Marsden hospitals to St George Hospital Pinckney Ward in south London 

Angela took a year off work and was not involved in Megan’s care while she was in hospital – but she knew her daughter was in the best place.

Angela said: ‘I felt relieved she was coming to St George’s.

‘Meg was treated as an individual, was listened to, and allowed to make her own decisions.

‘My family finally could see what I did for work, as opposed to what they thought I did!

‘The nurses were amazing, and I was given space when I needed it.

Megan continued to study for her A Level's while being treated for cancer, and achieved A*AA. She now works in the education sector

Megan continued to study for her A Level’s while being treated for cancer, and achieved A*AA. She now works in the education sector 

The mother and daughter duo have opened up about the high level of hospital care they received during Megan's treatment

The mother and daughter duo have opened up about the high level of hospital care they received during Megan’s treatment 

‘My husband and I would stay alternate nights, allowing me to go home safe in the knowledge she would be very well looked after, not just because she was my daughter, but because that’s what we do for all of our patients.

‘As a paediatric nurse and as a mother I’ve always shown empathy to our patients, but since Meg’s diagnosis it has, to a degree, changed things..

‘Initially, when I came back to work, it was really difficult listening to patients’ stories and I avoided the diagnostic conversations as it just took me back to when we were having the exact same discussions.

‘As time has gone on, I very occasionally disclose to families that I have been in their shoes and can completely understand what they are going through.

‘It’s so nice to see the relief on their faces, that although times are rubbish right now, there are success stories and children do get better.’

WHAT IS LEUKAEMIA? 

Leukaemia is a cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue. 

It leads to the over-production of abnormal white blood cells, which fight off infections. 

But a higher number of white blood cells means there is ‘less room’ for other cells, including red blood cells – which transport oxygen around the body – and platelets – which cause blood to clot when the skin is cut.

There are many different types of leukaemia, which are defined according to the immune cells they affect and how the disease progresses.

Most cases have no obvious cause, with the cancer not being inherited.

Symptoms are generally vague and worsen over time. These can include:

  • Tiredness
  • Frequent infections
  • Sweats
  • Bruising
  • Heavy periods, nose bleeds or bleeding gums
  • Palpitations 

Source: Leukaemia Care

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Megan admitted she feels like her diagnosis changed her and her mother’s relationship for the better.

She said: ‘Before I was ill, my mum and I didn’t get on for a long time.

‘I was a tricky 15, 16-year-old. I went out a lot, and we didn’t see eye to eye.

‘But when I was diagnosed, we had to spend a lot of time together, and from then we just got along better.

‘And having her there to explain things and to understand helped me and my dad.’

St George’s has been providing specialist children’s cancer care for more than 25 years.

But the future of children’s cancer services is changing in the area.

NHS England is reviewing where a Principal Treatment Centre for these services should be located- and St George’s is one of two options.

Angela said: ‘I can’t imagine travelling to Central London for cancer care with a vulnerable child is in anyone’s best interest.

‘Luckily, we were able to drive to St George’s when Meg was here, and for our family it was invaluable.

‘We were able to keep some semblance of normality.’

She added: ‘As a cancer parent, I don’t think you ever get over what your child and family has been through, but as times go on you learn to live with it and realise life is for living.

‘That’s what Meg is certainly doing!’

To find out more about the consultation and have a say on proposals for the future location of very specialist cancer treatment services for children living in south London and much of south east England, click here.

The team at the hospital have recently launched a hashtag to spread their message across the country – #kidsdeserveStGeorges 


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