Nurse whose daughter had leukaemia joins fight to keep children’s cancer services at St George’s
A children’s nurse who has cared for hundreds of kids during her decades-long career saw her worst fears realised when her own teenage daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
Megan Whooley was just 16 when she was told she had leukaemia, and was transferred to the very ward at St George’s Hospital where mum Angela worked as a nurse.
Now, as families fight to keep children’s cancer care at St George’s amid a consultation into where regional services should be run in the future, the pair have opened up about their experience at the hospital and the “amazing” teams who work there.
Angela said: “The idea that cancer services could potentially not be here would have a huge impact on families.”
It all started in late 2016 when Meg started to feel unwell, “waking up and just generally feeling rubbish”. She spoke to her mum, who reassured her daughter it was probably nothing to worry about. “I initially thought it was just teenage stuff, and to be honest didn’t really think much about it,” said Angela. “But after a week or so, I noticed that she was pale and had some bruises.”
Fiercely independent, Megan insisted on going by herself to the GP – and it was around then that Angela started to become concerned.
“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,” said Angela.
“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.”
Shortly afterwards, Megan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and eventually transferred from Kingston and Royal Marsden hospitals to St George’s Pinckney Ward, where she stayed for six weeks during chemotherapy.
Both mum and daughter also benefitted from counselling during this time and afterwards, with Megan going to sessions at St George’s and Angela receiving support from occupational health and staff support services provided by the NHS Trust.
“All of the team were amazing,” said Megan. “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.”
Angela took a year off from work and was not involved in Megan’s care while she was in hospital – but she knew her daughter was in the best place.
“I felt relieved she was coming to St George’s,” said Angela. “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. 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.”
During her time at St George’s – which jointly provides children’s cancer care with the Royal Marsden – Megan continued to study for her A-Levels. Despite her illness, she took these as planned in 2018, receiving an A* and two As, and securing a place at the University of Sussex. She finished treatment in April 2019 – a few months before she went off to university.
Megan, now 23, has just a few 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.
“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,” said Angela.
“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.”
Megan, meanwhile, feels like her diagnosis changed her and her mum’s relationship.
“Before I was ill, my mum and I didn’t get on for a long time,” she said. “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 as NHS England is reviewing where a Principal Treatment Centre for these services should be located. 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, visit: https://www.stgeorges.nhs.uk/news/kids-deserve-st-georges/