I'll make you better!

Little Amber vowed to nurse her cancer-striken twin back to health...

Published by: Johanna Burrows and Jean Jollands
Published on: 5 July 2012

My twin girls were perched side by side on kitchen stools while they were having their hair cut.
‘I want mine just like Jessie J,' Amber insisted.
‘And I want mine black like Jessie's!' Emma begged. They were both mad about the singer, but I thought they were a bit young to start dyeing their hair!
‘I think we'll stick to just a trim, girls,' I grinned, staring at their thick mops of brown, shoulder-length hair.
Non-identical twins, Amber never let Emma forget that she was the eldest by two minutes! But even as babies, they had different personalities. Amber was fussy and wanted to be carried everywhere, while Emma was quieter, independent. Yet they'd always been inseparable and even now would spend hours together playing ‘princess dress-up', or on their matching toy laptops.
But, a sisterly spat was never too far way! And just a few weeks after their haircut, I was wary of causing World War III when I scooped Emma out of their bath first.
‘Amber's getting to play longer than me!' she moaned. I was barely listening, though.
My stomach had tightened as I started drying her and saw a lump under her skin - the size of a golf ball - just beneath her right ribcage.
‘It definitely wasn't there yesterday,' I fretted to my hubby Rob, 45, later.
Our GP insisted it was probably a blocked bowel and gave her laxatives, but a few days later, there was more stress when the twins caught chicken pox.
‘Look, we've got matching spots!' Amber breezed proudly. But while she seemed to recover quickly, later that week Emma started vomiting violently.
Rob rushed her to an out-of-hours clinic. When the doctor saw the lump on her tummy, he told him to get her to hospital.
Our oldest Justin, 20, had already left home, so Anita, the twins' godmother, looked after Jess, 12, and Amber, as I rushed to the hospital. After hours of scans and tests, doctors ushered us into a side room.
‘Emma has kidney cancer. There's a tumour on her right kidney,' the consultant began. ‘It's called a Wilms Tumour.' Tumour? Cancer? The room swam as I tried to focus on exactly what the consultant was saying.
‘It's already spread to her lungs,' he continued.
With those words, the bottom fell out of my world.
‘No, please no,' I sobbed. ‘She's only four.' He explained that only 70 children a year suffered the same type of cancer. We couldn't bring ourselves to ask what our girl's chances were - instead, we took comfort in the consultant's plan of attack.
‘She'll need chemotherapy first, then surgery to remove the tumour and kidney,' the consultant explained. They seemed so hopeful, so we clung to that as we told the kids of the battle their sister faced.
We were terrified of using the word cancer. Rob's mum May had died of breast cancer just five months before, aged 77. For our kids, cancer meant death.
My eldest two stayed strong. But then there was Amber. How would she handle this? Emma was her twin, her best buddy.
‘Emma's got a lump on her tummy,' I began. ‘But she's going to take lots of medicine to make it better.'
‘That's good,' she nodded, going back to her colouring book. Bless her, she'd no idea!
We took the kids to visit Emma in hospital. Instinctively, Amber curled up beside her on the hospital bed. Tears choked me. It reminded me of when they were newborns, sharing the same Moses basket, curled up nose-to-nose, as if kissing each other goodnight.
‘You two girls need each other,' I'd whispered to them. But I'd never realised how true that was until now.
As young as she was, Amber somehow knew how much her twin needed her. As soon as Emma returned home, weak after the first session of chemo, her twin was at her beck and call.
‘I'll be your slave!' she announced confidently.
‘Okay,' Emma agreed, weakly.
And she was true to her word. When her sister was thirsty, she'd run into the kitchen. ‘Here's some water,' she beamed..
When Emma hesitated to take her medicine, Amber was there. ‘Come on, Ems,' she pushed. ‘It'll help make you better.'
Still, Emma wasn't beyond milking her sister's generosity! ‘Can you get me my Barbie doll, please!' she sighed dramatically. Amber didn't bat an eyelid, running to fetch it. But when her sis had good days, flickers of energy returning, then the tiny nurse's cheeky streak was quick to return, too.
‘Get your own Barbie,' she'd huff. We couldn't help laughing - they kept us all strong.
A couple of weeks later, Emma got up one day. ‘Mummy, my hair's falling out,' she said sadly, holding out a handful of strands.
‘Oh darling,' I whispered, hugging her tight. The chemo was taking its toll. It was heartbreaking. Sensing her sister's pain, Amber would quietly go around the rooms collecting it up and throwing it away in the bin before she spotted it.
Then the Little Princess Trust made Emma a Jessie J-style black, bobbed wig. Amber stared at it in awe. ‘You look just like her!' she grinned.
Still, she did have a pop at Emma whenever she got too grumpy or frustrated. ‘Keep your wig on,' she'd tease.
With her twin to spur her on, Emma fought hard. After just a couple of sessions of chemo, we could already see the lump on her tummy was shrinking. And 10 weeks on, scans showed the cancer lesions on her lungs had almost disappeared. Doctors decided it was time to operate to remove the tumour.
A week before her op, the girls started big school. It was heartbreaking to see the difference in them at the school gates - Emma, bald and slight, Amber taller and healthy. But Amber watched out for her. ‘Make sure you're careful around her,' she'd warned the other kids.
Cancer had made my girls grow up beyond their years.
A week later, Emma underwent a five-hour operation to remove the tumour and her right kidney.
‘The tumour was 4in long and had wrapped itself around two-thirds of her stomach,' doctors admitted. ‘But we got it.'
‘Thank God,' I sobbed.
My daughter needed eight sessions of radiotherapy, plus a 28-week plan of chemo to mop up any remaining cancer cells.
Then a new nurse started at the hospital. ‘How am I going to tell you girls apart?' she teased.
‘It's easy... I've got hair and she hasn't!' Amber grinned cheekily. Her ability to just get on with things kept us all strong.
In May this year, we finally got the news we'd been praying for. Emma is free of the cancer. She'll need regular tests for the next few years but, with nurse Amber and family by her side, she'll be fine, I just know it.
Marie Toms, 31, Gillingham, Kent