My sister Kaley took an age to answer the phone.
‘Everything alright?’ I asked when she eventually picked up. I could my four-month-old niece, Gracie, crying in the background.
‘Gracie’s fine,’ she said. ‘Just a bit tired. But my hip is killing me.’
‘What have you done?’ I asked. Kaley, a fitness instructor, had just started exercising again. Keeping fit wasn’t just a job for her, it was her passion.
After suffering kidney failure at the age of 13, Kaley had had a kidney transplant two years later and gone on to represent Britain in the Transplant Games. Winning gold was her proudest moment – or, at least it was before having Gracie.
Although Kaley adored kids and doted on her two nieces, our sister Terell’s girls, because of her medical history I knew she worried if she’d manage to conceive herself. So when her and her partner Jason Cox, 40, had found out she was expecting, I was over the moon for her.
‘You’ll be a brilliant mum,’ I told her. And she was.
Even when Gracie was delivered by emergency C-section nine weeks prematurely weighing just 3lb 3oz after Kaley was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, she took it all in her stride.
Gracie looked so tiny and fragile I was scared to hold her at first. But Kaley wasn’t phased. Even though she needed oxygen and a feeding tube she was adamant that Gracie would pull through.
And of course, she was right. After ten weeks in hospital Gracie was discharged on her due date and Kaley took her home the proudest mum in the world.
‘I can’t wait for us to enjoy being a proper family at last,’ she confided.
We spoke on the phone every day and after a few weeks, I could see Kaley was itching to get back down the gym. Still, she followed all the advice to refrain from exercise for three months after the birth before going back.
But she’d only been back a week or two when she felt a ‘pop’ in her groin.
‘I knew instantly that something wasn’t right,’ she’d told me last time we’d spoken. And now it seemed it was still no better.
‘If anything’s the pain’s getting worse,’ she admitted.
‘What did the doctor say?’ I asked.
‘He insisted it was postnatal and said perhaps I’d “overdone it”,’ she sighed. ‘But I honestly haven’t. I guess I’ll just have to see how it goes.’
But despite resting it, the next time we spoke, the pain in her right hip was even worse.
‘Even pushing the buggy is painful,’ she said. ‘I’m really worried.’
A few days later she was in tears on the phone she was in so much pain. I could tell from her voice she was really scared. The doctor had given her strong painkillers but they just made her sick. She was waiting to see a physiotherapist but it could take weeks for her appointment to come through.
I was so worried, I asked my friend, a physiotherapist, to speak to her.
‘Any advice you could give her would be great,’ I said.
But he was stumped. ‘Her symptoms don’t seem like muscle injury to me,’ he said.
Every week, Kaley was back down the doctors but they kept telling her the same thing: rest up. She requested an MRI scan but was told it wasn’t necessary.
I was angry. Kaley wasn’t one for going to the doctors over nothing and felt she wasn’t being taken seriously.
The next week, when the pain was so bad she hadn’t slept in days, I’d had enough. ‘Demand that MRI scan,’ I told her. ‘We’ll pay privately if we have to.’
Eventually her GP referred her.
The day before Christmas eve, my mobile rang. It was Kaley.
‘They’ve found a mass on my pelvis,’ she said.
‘And?’ I said quietly, not bearing to hear more.
‘They said it could cancerous,’ she said.
‘Oh Kaley,’ I gasped.
‘Don’t worry it’s probably benign but if not there are options,’ she said calmly. ‘They can replace the bone with metal plates.’
I was in shock. I wrote down everything she said word for word then researched it on Google and tried to stay positive.
‘We’re all going to enjoy this Christmas,’ Kaley told us. ‘We’re all just going to carry on as normal. After all, none of us know what’s going to happen. Everything could be fine.’
That was typical Kaley, thinking of everyone else first.
As it was Gracie’s first Christmas and their first as a family we all tried our best to stay upbeat but every time I saw Kaley wince in pain I had an awful knot in my stomach.
Even so, when we got together on Boxing Day we still opened presents and played games and Kaley kept a brave smile on her face.
In January, Kaley had more scans and a biopsy. In took weeks for the results to come back.
The four days after my son Jude was born she went to see her consultant.
She called me later in tears, it was bad news, the worst in fact.
‘It’s cancer,’ she said and I burst into tears.
‘Don’t cry sis,’ Kaley soothed. ‘Everything will be fine.
The 7cm mass was a cancerous tumour – and Kaley had a rare, aggressive bone cancer called osteosarcoma. It can affect any bone in the body but is most common in the arms and legs.
‘So what happens next?’ I asked.
‘The doctors are going to shrink the tumour with chemotherapy and then operate to remove it, rebuilding my leg with steel rods,’ she said matter-of-factly.
I felt angry that it had taken so long for the doctors to take her pain seriously.
But instead of shrinking, the tumour began to grow rapidly.
A month later, it had doubled in size and you could actually see it sticking out of her skin and moving towards her leg and pelvis. We were all beside ourselves with worry.
When Kaley was told full amputation of her right leg and partial amputation of her pelvis was on her only chance of survival, I waited for her to break down but despite everything, she stayed calm. It was more worrying.
‘I guess I won’t be able to do my fitness,’ she reflected after a while.
‘You can teach people in wheelchairs,’ I told her, desperately trying to keep her spirits up.
‘Maybe…’ she mused. When doctors warned there was a 90 per chance her transplanted kidney would not survive the operation she refused to believe them.
‘It’s never let me down before,’ she said.
I worried she was bottling everything up but it was Kaley’s way of coping.
Only thing was, the hospital kept delaying Kaley’s amputation date. It was a complex procedure made even more so by her kidney transplant. They need 10 surgeons on hand in theatre and it seemed almost impossible to co-ordinate.
‘How much longer will they make her wait?’ I fretted to Mum.
Gracie turned one in April and Kaley’s amputation eventually went ahead a month later.
‘I can’t bear to look at myself,’ she admitted to me on the phone afterwards. ‘I’m scared what it’ll look like.’
But a few days later, she was her usual upbeat self, even sending me gory pics on her mobile. I was so relieved to hear her sounding strong again.
‘I peeked in the shower. It doesn’t look so good,’ she said. ‘But I’m just so pleased I’m still here for Gracie.’
‘Where else would you be, you daft cow?’ I said, hugging her close so she wouldn’t see my tears.
Kaley vowed having one leg would not stop her being a good mum and teaching exercise classes and by the time she returned home six weeks later, having done pull ups in her bed at the orthopaedic hospital to build up her strength, myself and Terell had already started fundraising to get her the £40,000 she needed for a top-of-the-range prosthetic limb.
While we organised sponsored triathlons, marathons and even up climb up Snowdon, Kaley enjoyed being at home with Gracie, Jason and her dog.
She was also determined to save any other women being misdiagnosed because they’d given birth.
‘It’s not right, they shouldn’t have put my pain down to postnatal exercise, I want other women to know what happened and ask for a second opinion.’ She declared.
Jason was an incredible Dad and took over 100%. Mum went to help out too, but Kaley refused to rest up. She was soon hobbling around using her crutches and her Zimmer frame, amazing everyone with her progress.
But after suffering terrible stomach cramps, she was readmitted for more tests. I couldn’t help fearing the worst; had the cancer spread to her bowels?
An X-ray to see what was causing the cramps showed up fluid on her lung. To our horror, further tests revealed the devastating news that the cancer had spread to her lungs and was inoperable.
‘Don’t say that,’ I wept. ‘Maybe chemo will help?’
But the immuno-suppressant medication she’d been on for the last 20 years because of her kidney transplant couldn’t cope with the added stress of the chemo. She grew weaker.
We tried alternative therapies but although some days she looked healthy and her eyes lit up when I brought Jude in to see her, I knew things didn’t look good.
‘I hate this life. I feel like such a burden,’ she said to me once. But most of the time she remained positive. It was what she did.
At the beginning of July, the consultant called us in and told us Kaley had two months to live. It was heartbreaking. Watching her cuddle Gracie I wanted to scream at how unfair it all was. She had so much to live for.
‘It’s ok Kaley said,’ but I could tell she was scared. We took it in turns to stay with her night and day.
Our Aunt Rita, Terell and I even transformed her room into a spa, painting her nails and giving her massages. ‘We just need some Pimms and a Jacuzzi,’ giggled Kaley.
But it was Gracie’s visits that really kept her spirits up.
But just days later, on my birthday, Mum called.
‘I’m so sorry but you need to come now, they say Kaley’s only got hours to live,’ she wept.
It was a huge shock. Terrel and I dropped everything and Dad drove us to the hospital. The drive was horrendous.
But when we got to the hospital she was sat up in bed, laughing and joking. She tried on my glasses and even pouted for the camera. It was amazing. Had they got it wrong?
But as the evening wore on, she began to fail. Gradually, she slipped into a coma.
‘She’ll be lucky to get through the night,’ the doctors warned us.
Not that Kaley listened.
Refusing, as ever, to give up, she clung on to life for five more days. Mum, Dad, Terell, myself and my aunty worked shifts around the clock, ensuring she was never on her own as the doctors and nurses looked on, stunned.
Not that I was. I knew what Kaley was like.
I spent hours talking to her about our best memories. Smiling with my family as we recalled all the times that she’d made us laugh.
Jason brought Gracie in to see her and you could see Kaley desperately trying to open her eyes.
‘She knows how much you love her,’ I whispered, squeezing Kaley’s hand.
But at 7.31am on 15th July Kaley’s body couldn’t take any more. She died in Mum and Dad’s arms after putting up one hell of a fight.
She looked instantly at peace. My beautiful brave big sister was no longer suffering. I wept tears of sadness and relief that she was no longer in pain.
At her funeral everyone wore red – her favourite colour.
And we played Dancing Queen – the perfect tribute for Kaley.
Now, six months on, we all still miss her so much every single day.
I feel so angry. As a family we know first-hand how amazing medical care can be in this country – Kaley’s transplant enabled her to have an amazing life and a beautiful little girl. But, because of the way she was dismissed after having her, she won’t be here to see her grow up.
If Kaley had been diagnosed earlier perhaps her treatment would have been a success.
It was too easy for doctors to blame Kaley’s symptoms on the fact that she had started exercising again after having a baby.
Instead she was dismissed and the cancer left to grow for almost seven months.
Kaley didn’t want this to happen to another family. She thought she would be here to warn all new mums not to let their cancer symptoms be put down to having a baby.
So for my sister, I beg all GPs to just consider the alternatives and not put it down to being postnatal symptom every time a new mother presents with unexplained pain. If any good can come out of this it will be that no other women die because their cancer symptoms are dismissed because they have recently had a baby. It’s what my sister would have wanted.
First and last Xmas
My sister Kaley took an age to answer the phone.