It’s November 2018, and parents Andrew Nixon and Gemma Haswell have just received some heartbreaking news. Their two-year-old daughter Lana has a life-threatening condition. As a consequence, medical professionals must prepare the little girl for treatment to extend her life. And she needs it now.
The Nixons – who live in Hetton-le-Hole in Sunderland, England – saw their lives completely change after hearing the news. Their bubbly daughter had been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. And the discovery naturally came as a shock to Lana’s older siblings Ellie, Neve and Jonah, too.
Gemma and Andrew were engaged to be married at this time. And following their daughter’s diagnosis, the parents decided to quit their jobs. Evidently, the two wanted to make the most of every day that they would have with their daughter.
Andrew and Gemma learned that little Lana had a rare form of brain cancer. As a result, her family began to wonder about all the things that their little daughter might never get to celebrate. But they were determined that she get to experience a rite of passage enjoyed by millions of girls.
Before her illness, Lana was just like any other girl her age – energetic and full of life. But in September 2018 she experienced a spell of bad health that had caused her parents some consternation. Lana had started vomiting multiple times in a week, and her condition only worsened over time.
Initially, medical experts attending Lana couldn’t pin down the cause of her sickness and attributed it to various different sources. Stomach issues, water infections and a common virus were all considered suspects. But the illness continued; Lana soon lost around seven pounds and was having difficulty walking.
Soon, Gemma and Andrew had made a total of six hospital visits, but health professionals were no closer to diagnosing little Lana. So, with no other explanation as to why the girl’s health was declining, her doctors arranged an MRI scan in November 2018. Lana’s parents received the results 20 minutes later, and immediate action was required.
The scan revealed that Lana had what’s known as an Atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT). This is a rare and fast-growing cancer of the spinal cord and brain. According to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, around half of these tumors start in the brain stem or the cerebellum. The latter vertebrate controls things like posture, movement and balance.
The brain stem – which is the other place this tumor can begin – controls a multitude of bodily functions. These include heart rate, breathing and the muscles we use to eat, talk, walk, see and hear. According to the hospital, AT/RT tends to emerge from a gene that usually creates proteins to prevent tumor growth. And over 90 percent of cases of the condition come largely from this gene not functioning properly. Furthermore, AT/RT is most common among kids under the age of three.
In some cases, surgery is enough to extract a tumor, especially if it’s in a localized area. But in Lana’s case, she needed fluid which had massed around her brain to be drained out. As a result, doctors concluded that this needed to be done as quickly as possible and they pushed for emergency surgery.
A team at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne began major brain surgery the day after her diagnosis. The doctors managed to remove a lot of the fluid around her brain and extract some of the tumor. They also inserted a surgical drain to draw out excess liquid.
But this first bout of surgery was just the beginning. The brave little girl faced several other procedures in a short space of time. The next one occurred only a few days later when Lana entered the operating room once more.
Doctors performed a follow-up procedure to remove what was left of the growth in Lana’s brain. However, in order to treat the cancer they needed to do a third operation to place what is known as a “reservoir” in her head. This allowed medical teams to administer chemotherapy drugs, but it came at a price.
Although chemotherapy is effective in fighting cancer, it can be very harsh on the rest of the body. The treatment involves using medicine to kill cancer cells. Essentially, it stops them reproducing – preventing the cells from spreading and growing throughout the body. But chemotherapy comes with some serious side effects.
Though chemotherapy can kill cancer cells, it also sometimes damages blood, skin and stomach cells. This can lead to a number of ailments: such as tiredness, hair loss, nausea and an increased risk of infection.
Fatigue, in particular, is something which many patients of chemotherapy experience. And little Lana will have sadly faced some of these side effects as a result of her sessions undergoing the treatment.
Speaking to Newcastle newspaper The Chronicle in July 2019, Lana’s mom Gemma recounted how the chemo experience had been for her daughter. The mother said, “It was so harsh, and she suffered every possible side effect. She vomited blood, [had] horrendous nose bleeds, her mouth broke down and bled, [and] she was so poorly. We spent a lot of time in isolation.”
Friends of the family also witnessed what the Nixons were going through. For example, Gemma and Andrew’s good friend Trudi Burnside was so moved by Lana’s difficult experience that she created a crowdfunding page for the little girl that year. She wrote on the JustGiving website, “What her little body has endured is just impossible to imagine unless you have seen it for yourself.”
Trudi went on, “[Lana] has nose bleeds so horrific that it has ended up with blood transfusions, [she’s been] vomiting non-stop [and had] blistered skin so sore [that] every touch was excruciating for her. [It’s] so very hard for her mommy and daddy to comfort her. Even through all the pain, she doesn’t cry or moan about it.”
And Lana’s family are equally amazed at how she has coped, as they explained to MailOnline in July 2019. Gemma said, “We cannot believe her strength and bravery. She is a happy, loving and funny little character. She deserves the world for all she has endured.”
Gemma continued, “Throughout it all [Lana] was so resilient and so tough, she would just accept it all. She still found time to smile, laugh, play and love.” And thankfully, the parents could rely on the support of their friend Trudi, who pulled out all the stops to help them.
“The idea of the page is to help support them so they can focus every second on making those memories with their beautiful daughter,” Trudi wrote on the JustGiving page. “The money will be used to reduce [the] financial burden on Andrew and Gemma, who are unable to work at this time, and [the funds] will be used for anything Lana needs.”
Amazingly, the public rallied around Lana’s cause and generously donated to the crowdfunding effort. And by the time the campaign had closed in late September, Trudi’s page had raised nearly $22,000. Every penny counted of course, because Lana’s illness had hospitalized her for six months while she’d undergone treatment.
“[Lana] has had six cycles of high dose chemo and six cycles of intraventricular chemo – directly into her brain,” Trudi explained on the JustGiving page. “This has been full-on since December and [it’s] still ongoing.” The friend then elaborated on Lana’s experience in hospital.
Trudi wrote, “[Lana] has lived in hospital for the best part of the last six months apart from the occasional home visits. [But she] has amazed everyone with how much she has fought and how well the tumour has responded to the chemo. [Nevertheless,] the consultants have told Gemma and Andrew that the next 18 months is a time to make every day count and build precious memories with Lana, as the chances of the cancer returning within that time [are] pretty high.”
According to the Sunderland Echo, Lana had lost a quarter of her body weight during the treatment. And doctors had initially told the parents that there was only a 10 percent chance that she would survive the next year to 18 months.
So the Nixons decided that they would spend as much time with Lana as possible. And they also wanted to give her some life experiences a little earlier than usual. One milestone that millions of girls look forward to is their prom night. As a result, Andrew, Gemma and the family decided to give Lana the chance to experience the event with her older sister Neve.
Neve was attending her high school prom and was happy for Lana to go, too. The Nixons dressed the little girl in a beautiful pink dress covered in sequins and accessorized it with a matching bow. In addition, a chauffeur company called Autograph Prestige took the girls to the prom in a Rolls Royce so that they could travel in style.
Gemma told The Chronicle that watching Neve and Lana go to prom together meant the world to the family. And it was a memorable event for the little girl. Her mom said, “She loved the car and said her and Neve were princesses that day. It was very emotional to see Lana looking so well and in a lovely dress after months of [hospital] gowns and pajamas.”
But how had the girls ended up being chauffeur-driven to the event in a Rolls Royce? Well, Autograph Prestige director Sheb Ahktar had learned about Lana’s story prior to the prom night. And he decided to give the little girl a gift, so he took the two along to the event himself.
“On the day, Lana was so happy, smiling and active just like any other three-year-old,” Sheb told The Chronicle. “It’s just heartbreaking. I can’t imagine what the family are going through, and I’ll make sure that I will help in anyway so the family get what they need for Lana.”
But the prom wasn’t the only time that Lana got the opportunity to experience life as a princess. In late 2019 the team behind Disney On Ice heard of her situation and prepared a special surprise. So they sent an invitation for the Nixon family to join them in Newcastle for an evening that they’ll never forget.
The event in question was Disney On Ice: 100 Years of Magic at the Utilita Arena Newcastle, and Lana was the guest of honor. She got the chance to meet the characters backstage with her siblings and enjoyed some other perks, too.
“We all had a fantastic night, especially Lana,” Gemma told The Chronicle. “She insisted on wearing her Elsa princess dress from Frozen, she adores Disney movies. She was over the moon to meet Mickey and Minnie and have her photo taken with them.”
Gemma went on, “[Lana] loved the VIP area, especially having her face painted for the first time ever. It was a welcomed distraction for the whole family from all the stress and worry of the scan we were facing the following day. Things are going as good as they can be so far.”
Regional vice president of Feld Entertainment, Europe, Middle East and Africa Steven Armstrong, whose company produces the Disney event, said that he was honored to be able to offer Lana such a magical night. He spoke about how lovely the little girl had been and described some of the benefits that she’d enjoyed as a VIP. He also had nothing but wonderful words for her supportive family giving their all in a trying time.
Steven told The Chronicle, “When the Disney On Ice team heard about everything Lana has been through, and how her devoted family were doing their utmost to ensure she now can enjoy very special experiences, we didn’t hesitate to invite them to be our special VIP guests.” So what did that entail?
Steven added, “… We were able to offer Lana the money-can’t-buy opportunity to take part in an on-ice ride that meant she was a bona fide princess appearing in the show. Lana – who is a delightful little girl – had an amazing night, and we wish her all the very best for her future health and happiness.”
But how is Lana doing now? Well, as of January 2020 her cancer was in remission, but she could relapse at any time. According to the Sunderland Echo, she is having scans every three months, and doctors have sadly told the family that there may not be much that they can do if the cancer returns. Nevertheless, that month Lana started her first day at Hetton Lyons nursery in Houghton le Spring. And she was even nominated for a Best of Wearside Award – an event which will take place in September that year.
Lana’s mother also gave an update about the situation on Facebook in March 2020. She said that her daughter was due another scan in the following weeks, adding, “Even scarier [is] that we are running close to [when] her relapse [could] occur…” But the mom remains fiercely proud of her charming young daughter. And as a quote on her Facebook page attests, “Sometimes, real superheroes live in the hearts of small children fighting big battles.”