Losing a daughter to cancer during the Covid-19 pandemic

3 weeks ago
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Anna was 18 when she passed away in August

With the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown restrictions, 2020 has been a very difficult year for many.

But for Áine Kearns it has been particularly painful, as she lost her 18-year-old-daughter Anna to cancer in August.

With 2020 drawing to a close, Ms Kearns, from Cargan, County Antrim, has been reflecting on the past year.

“This year has been incredibly challenging, but conversely, Covid actually served to allow us to spend precious time as a family with Anna,” she told BBC News NI.

Ms Kearns has fond memories of her daughter – “she was very caring, incredibly witty and she spoke as she found things”.

Anna loved animals “passionately, seeing no difference between them and people”.

She loved Harry Potter too, “and wished she could have married Zac Efron”.

Anna on a day out in Donegal with her older sisters Stephanie and Mary, and their mother

In March 2009, when Anna was seven, she was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, which is the most common type of cancerous brain tumour in children.

She underwent an 11-hour operation, which removed as much of the tumour as was safely possible, but she lost all power down her left side and had to learn how to walk again.

She had six weeks of radiotherapy and a year of chemotherapy and then went into remission for almost 10 years, during which time she needed different medications to sustain a normal life.

Seven-year-old Anna before she was diagnosed with medulloblastoma in 2009

After secondary school, she went to college in Ballymoney, County Antrim, to study performing arts.

But Anna relapsed in June 2019.

The medulloblastoma had returned and it had spread to her bones. There was no cure and her family were told she had about three months to live.

After the diagnosis, Ms Kearns found comfort in her spirituality.

“I firmly believe your soul leaves this planet when it’s been preordained to,” she said.

Anna lived a lot longer than the doctors thought she would.

“I am a shamanic practitioner and we do a thing in shamanic healing where you journey with someone through to the other side. I did that journey with Anna, which was beautiful.”

Anna with her mother (centre) and a family friend shortly before she relapsed in 2019

After her diagnosis, Anna was understandably very scared, but her mother says Anna came to a point of acceptance when she stopped asking her mum to make her better.

“I told Anna that there was nothing to fear from death, that she would be looked after when the time comes,” she said.

“After kind of accepting things, she began buying lots presents for people as she was very thoughtful, so much so that more than a month after she passed I was still getting deliveries.”

In the last year of her life, Anna’s determination shone through, as she continued on with her studies, with her college tutor Mr McMaster proving a great support, went on a trip to London with college, did a tour of the Harry Potter studios, and spent a special day at a donkey sanctuary.

Anna on her 18th birthday with her father Neil

When Northern Ireland was put into lockdown, Ms Kearns saw it as a blessing.

“That might sound strange, but it meant I was able to keep people out,” she said.

“Lockdown meant Anna got to spend so much time with me, her dad Neil and her sisters Stephanie and Mary.”

Thanks to her consultant, oncologist and care workers, Anna was able to stay at home the whole time.

She died at 01:55 local time on 7 August, with her mother holding her hand.

“It was so peaceful,” said her mother.

“I later set up a memorial page for her and one of the things I wrote on it was, ‘I watched you take your first breath, and I listened to your very last heartbeat’.

“We had done everything we could for her, and she wasn’t in pain anymore.”

With everything Anna went through at a young age, her mother describes her as having an “old soul”.

So she tended to gravitate towards older people, including Helen, cancer support specialist at Cancer Fund for Children, who was a great help to her and who Anna was very close to; Joanne, who helped her throughout secondary school; and Kerrie, from Antrim Hospital.

Anna with Helen Patterson, from Cancer Fund for Children, visiting a donkey sanctuary

While 2020 has been hugely difficult, Ms Kearns believes her daughter’s legacy of kindness, love and compassion will continue to help her, and those who loved Anna, going forward.

And if Ms Kearns had one piece of advice, what would it be?

“To live life to the full each and every day despite adversity.”

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BBC News – Europe

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