27th May 2022

Remembering Katie Willcox

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Losing a child at any age is every parent’s worst nightmare. Sadly, for Lorna Leaver, this nightmare became a reality when her daughter Katie died of lung cancer earlier this year. Still faced with a wave of emotions, Lorna shares Katie’s story with Inspire to try and help others spot the signs sooner than they could.

“I want something positive to come out of Katie’s death. Because that’s the kind of person she was.

Katie was determined and she was caring so I want someone to benefit from our hindsight because looking back now, I can see there were signs. We just didn’t know what they were all pointing to – but why would we?

Katie was a 42-year-old woman. She loved her job as a Forest School Manager in a day nursery. She worked hard and had a wonderful social life. She was in the prime of her life and lung cancer wasn’t even a passing thought.

The first ‘sign’ came back in August 2021. I remember Katie mentioning she had backache. Later, she said that she was feeling extra tired and was sometimes breathless when going upstairs.

We now know these are all symptoms of lung cancer but at the time, we went for the more logical explanation; Katie’s bad back was because of her mattress so she bought a new one and the fatigue and breathlessness were the aftereffects of Covid which she’d had the previous summer.

The next ‘sign’ came a few months later. Katie had a cough and a cold which she couldn’t shift. She had several telephone conversations with various GPs resulting in 3 courses of antibiotics (one extra strong) and two courses of steroids. She then insisted on an x-ray. The x-ray showed a shadow. Even then lung cancer wasn’t considered.

Then on 15th November, she arrived at work and was very short of breath. She took herself to the local Outpatients Department who sent her by ambulance straight to the Emergency Department of another local hospital where she was eventually admitted after 14 hours and put on intravenous antibiotics.

She was released three days later and felt much better. However, it was during the follow up investigations – various scans and a bronchoscopy and then the referral to the lung nurses – that we realised it was something serious.

Katie was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She had a 9.2cm tumour in her lung. It was inoperable and aggressive, and she deteriorated quickly. An infection delayed her treatment. She did manage to have one cycle of chemo and immunotherapy at the beginning of January but suffered more complications so couldn’t continue. We lost her 24th January.

In the short time since her death, I have gone through so many emotions – anger and sadness being top of the list.

Then, just a few weeks after Katie died, I saw Cathy Brokenshire, the wife of the late MP James Brokenshire, calling for early detection and screening. Katie had had one of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation’s booklets which she found helpful, so we were aware of the charity and decided we wanted to try and help.

And this brings be back to where I started, wanting to highlight Katie’s experience to try and prevent someone like her going through something as awful as we did.

Early diagnosis can make a world of difference but there are still some real hurdles preventing people like Katie from being diagnosed sooner.

The belief that lung cancer only happens to older people who were heavy smokers is totally untrue, but it took Katie’s diagnosis for me to know this. I want people to know lung cancer can happen to anyone before it tears their family apart, because that knowledge can make all the difference.”