Five-year-old Joshua Collins from Sheffield was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in June – just days after his grandad died from cancer. The condition is caused by a genetic mutation which releases immature white blood cells into the blood stream.
It affects around 325 children in the UK every year and progresses with speed and aggression, requiring immediate treatment. Josh has since been undergoing treatment on the Cancer and Leukaemia ward at Sheffield Children’s.
Josh’s mum Harriet recalls the diagnosis: “We were staying in Poole in Dorset, where my father lived. He had cancer and sadly it had very quickly spread so we were saying goodbye. Josh had been poorly for around a week while we were there.
“We thought it was a virus. He had a sore throat, runny eyes, he said his leg hurt. We arranged a Covid test, which was negative and then he said he couldn’t put weight on his leg. We rang 111 and they advised us to take him to A&E. Once we were there, they took some blood and advised us they believed it was leukaemia.”
Just hours after Harriet’s father passed away from cancer, Josh’s diagnosis was confirmed.
“It was all a bit of a blur, everything happened so quickly. We couldn’t go to my dad’s funeral and I just had to temporarily hit pause on all that emotion,” says Harriet.
“We felt instinctively at that point that we should be at Sheffield Children’s – not only to get home, but because we know how good the care is and how lucky we are to have it here. They were incredibly supportive, took control of the situation and that’s what you need as a parent – it allowed us to focus on Josh. We arrived at Sheffield Children’s at around 11pm, and the nurses ensured we were comfortable and looked after. They even found a bed for me so I could be by his side.”
Supporting from afar was Harriet’s best friend Lucy Seymour-Kellehers The pair have known each other since they were three years old and formed a close friendship growing up together in south London.
Lucy says: “Though we now live in different places, we’ve always been close and I was absolutely devastated at the news. It was the last thing anyone was expecting and not being able to be there to comfort your oldest friend when they need it most was just heartbreaking.
“Not being able to help with childcare when Josh has been in hospital or just be there with a cup of tea and a hug has been frustrating, so I felt like I needed to do something to show them that they are not alone, and to make a genuine difference.”
In that effort, Lucy will be walking 190 miles along the Coast-to-Coast path from one side of the UK to the other.
Lucy expects the walk to take two weeks to complete, covering an average of 13 miles a day.
“I’ve never attempted anything like this before. I’ve always enjoyed walking, especially during lockdown, but I’ve never completed a long-distance walk like this.”
Harriet added: “I was massively touched, but not surprised because Lucy is always doing lovely things like this. When Josh was first diagnosed, she sent me a blanket for nights in the hospital and games for the boys to play with.”
Lucy will start on the beach at St Bees on the shores of the Irish Sea, collecting a pebble which she will then carry all the way across the UK to Robin Hood’s Bay, where she will drop the pebble into the sea.
“As children, Harriet and I were very mischievous and would always relish any opportunity to mess about in water, and so the idea of carrying a pebble across the whole of the UK to throw into the North Sea at the other side was irresistible. Our five-year-old selves would have found it hilarious,” says Lucy.
“For my 40-year-old self, the idea of covering the distance from one side of the country to the other on foot after a year of separation from loved ones, particularly Harriet and her boys, is especially meaningful. Josh is a little young to fully grasp the nature of the challenge himself, but he has said thank you.
“Harriet, Josh, his dad Ben and brother Finley are planning to meet me for the last few hundred yards of the walk to Robin Hood’s Bay, should restrictions allow.
“When we get to the beach, we’ll throw the pebble into the North Sea together.”
Following six months of intensive treatment, Josh is now into the maintenance phase, continuing to have chemotherapy orally for at least the next two and a half years.
Lucy’s challenge, set to take place between June 27 and July 10, will also be particularly poignant in its timing, as it will coincide with the first anniversary of Josh’s diagnosis – and of his granddad’s death.
“The support people have shown so far is incredible,” says Lucy.
“All the messages of support along with the donations have been great, but most of all its wonderful knowing that we will be making a difference to the patients on the ward and their families.”
Harriet adds: “We have stayed on some of the new wards during treatment and they are so much brighter, with closer access to facilities.
“It makes a huge difference to your wellbeing at such a challenging time to have an environment like that.
“I feel safe and at home on the Cancer and Leukaemia ward, it is always where I would choose to go because the care is wonderful, but such a leading centre with a brilliant reputation really does deserve improved facilities.”
You can support Lucy’s challenge here: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=WalkingForJosh&pageUrl=1