Pic © UNP
Every time Iris Billing hands over a cheque, or funds a piece of equipment to help a young person fighting cancer, she thinks of Tanya. There’s no doubt that her daughter – who died almost ten years ago aged 17, from a rare form of leukaemia – would be proud of the work carried out by Iris, and her small but dedicated team of supporters.
One of Tanya’s last wishes was to help others. So in setting up and overseeing Tanya’s Courage Trust – a charity that aids youngsters with cancer in Cornwall, Devon and the Isles of Scilly – Iris knows she’s not only supporting young people and their families during their time of need, she is also honouring her daughter’s memory.
Reflecting on her younger self, Iris admits that she did not expect to one day be running a charity. But then she didn’t expect to lose Tanya either. “You have to take each day as it comes and remember that your children are on loan to you,” she says. “I’ve learned that it’s best not to make too many plans or look too far ahead.”
Before Tanya became ill in 2003, life was pretty normal for Iris (48) and her husband Eddie. They led busy lives and enjoyed spending time at their home in St Austell, with their daughters Nicola, now 29, and Tanya. The family were close and happy, and there’s no doubt that little would have changed had Tanya not been diagnosed with Adult Acute Myeloid Leukaemia aged just 16.
Iris recalls: “Tanya was so full of energy that I never imagined she would get ill. She was artistic, vibrant and loved life. The first sign that anything was wrong with Tanya came when she kept picking up infections.
“A scan on her kidneys came back clear, but as time passed she became so poorly that I had to help bathe her. One day she collapsed and was admitted to hospital. She had tests and was diagnosed with leukaemia.”
Tanya began chemotherapy and told her family, “Don’t you worry, I’ll beat this.” After several months of treatment she went into remission and the following summer was able to go on holiday to Spain. But afterwards she relapsed, and was admitted to hospital where her condition began to deteriorate.
Iris remained at Tanya’s side while she was in hospital, during which time her own father died. When she thought things couldn’t get any worse, she was dismissed from her job for taking too much time off, and the family lost their home. “I’d lost my father, my job, my home and was about to lose my daughter,” says Iris. “But I don’t regret the time I spent with Tanya. I had a choice – work and pay the mortgage, or be with her. It wasn’t difficult to decide which was more important.”
Tanya died at home in April 2005, just weeks before her 18th birthday. “I will never get over losing her. Time doesn’t heal. I’ve just got better at pretending I’m okay.”
‘Tanya was so full of energy I never imagined she would get ill’
Throughout her illness, Tanya showed courage and strength by being more worried about others than herself. She spent time talking to young, newly-diagnosed cancer patients, and even planned her own funeral. “She was so brave,” says Iris. “Not only did she fight hard to beat the disease, she also took the time to think about other people. Before she died she apologised because she knew she wasn’t going to make it. Just thinking about that makes me tearful.”
Remembering Tanya’s wish to help others, along with her own family’s financial struggles, Iris set up Tanya’s Courage Trust to assist with young cancer patients’ physical or financial needs. The charity has now helped numerous young people and their families during very difficult times.
The trust offers assistance to anyone aged 16-25 who has been referred by either a hospital, cancer support doctor, nurse or social worker. “We give them a cheque for £100 each month for three months,” says Iris. “We tell them that we’re here to offer support and if they need more money they can come back. They can spend the money on anything. It helps if they’re struggling to pay a bill, or they might just want to treat themselves. If they need equipment that isn’t available on the NHS we fund that too.”
To raise funds, the charity organises events such as quiz nights and has shops in St Austell and Penzance. “For me it’s about helping to relieve some of the pressure that comes with a cancer diagnosis,” says Iris. “I know the feeling of having a sick child and not being able to pay the bills. I don’t want other families to have to go through that.
“I miss Tanya every day, but I know she would be proud of our work. More than anything she wanted to help other sick youngsters, and I’m glad I can carry out her wishes. Her strength, determination and courage inspire me and always will.”
- For more information on Tanya’s Courage Trust, or to make a donation, call 01726 65364 or visit www.tanyascourage.org.uk
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