‘My twin’s love helped me sur­vive cancer’

When cancer put the strong bond be­tween twins Foteini and Sofia An­to­ni­adou to the test, they proved love re­ally can con­quer all. By Elaine McLaren

Friday - - Front Page -

Watch­ing her lit­tle girl Foteini slowly open her eyes through the haze of anaes­the­sia, Sissy An­to­ni­adou reached over and gen­tly re­as­sured her.

‘It’s OK, my dar­ling,’ she whis­pered. ‘We’re here.’

At just six years old, Foteini had been through more than what most peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence in a life­time, in a brave fight against the cancer rav­aging her tiny body.

Orig­i­nally from Greece but now liv­ing in Green­wich, Lon­don, both Sissy, 39, and her hus­band Dim­itris, 51, had kept a con­stant vigil by their daugh­ter’s bed­side as she re­cov­ered from gru­elling surgery to re­move a huge tu­mour from her left kid­ney.

But, as she woke from the op­er­a­tion, it was the sight of some­one else that made Foteini’s face break into a wide smile. Her twin sis­ter Sofia, the one per­son who always made her feel bet­ter.

‘At that mo­ment, as I saw my girls lock eyes and no­ticed the con­nec­tion be­tween them – say­ing more with that one look than they ever could with words – all of my wor­ries and con­cerns about Foteini’s health melted away,’ says Sissy.

‘They were to­gether again – and in that in­stant I knew that if love could cure all ills, Foteini would be just fine.’

The fam­ily’s lives had been turned up­side down just a few months be­fore, in 2012, when Foteini com­plained of feel­ing ill.

‘She’d been to see our GP for a check-up just a few weeks ear­lier and been given a clean bill of health, so I as­sumed it was lit­tle more than a child­hood bug ev­ery fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ences reg­u­larly,’ says Sissy, who is her­self a nurse.

‘But later, as I helped Foteini into the shower, I no­ticed a fairly large lump pro­trud­ing from her tummy. It was so large, it was clearly vis­i­ble, stick­ing out from un­der her ribs.

‘Be­cause of my med­i­cal train­ing, I know lumps like that rarely mean good news,’ she says. ‘In an in­stant, my blood ran cold.

Try­ing her best to main­tain a calm ex­te­rior so as not to frighten Foteini, Sissy went to find Dim­itris.

Work­ing hard to keep her voice from shak­ing so she’d shield her wor­ries from her hus­band as well as her daugh­ters, Sissy told Dim­itris she thought they should take Foteini to the hospi­tal, just to get her checked out.

‘Even though Foteini had shown no symp­toms apart from com­plain­ing of feel­ing a lit­tle sick that same day, I knew the lump was a bad sign, but I didn’t dare tell Dim­itris about my con­cerns.

‘Though I was des­per­ate to tell him how wor­ried I was so he could re­as­sure me ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be OK, I knew that if he had even the slight­est inkling I thought the lump might be a tu­mour on Foteini’s kid­ney, he’d be too shaken to be able to drive us to the hospi­tal – and that was what we needed him to do.

‘For then, at least, I had to keep him in the dark.’

Once at hospi­tal, Foteini was sub­jected to a range of tests to as­cer­tain the na­ture of the lump.

Though Sissy was pray­ing her sus­pi­cions were wrong, the re­sults of those tests con­firmed her worst fears and Foteini was di­ag­nosed the same evening.

She had a type of chil­dren’s kid­ney cancer called Wilms’ tu­mour, and it was al­ready at stage 4 – the most ad­vanced stage pos­si­ble.

‘Not only did our lit­tle girl have cancer, but it was as se­ri­ous as it gets,’ re­calls Sissy with a shud­der. ‘We were dev­as­tated.’

Foteini then had to en­dure nine months of gru­elling treat­ment, start­ing with surgery to re­move her left kid­ney, the tu­mour and lymph nodes at Great Or­mond Street Hospi­tal, in Lon­don, fol­lowed by a course of chemo­ther­apy and ra­dio­ther­apy at The Royal Mars­den spe­cial­ist cancer treat­ment hospi­tal.

‘Those first few weeks were re­ally hard,’ says Sissy. ‘We thought we were los­ing her and we didn’t feel like we could go through it on our own. I don’t mind ad­mit­ting that, in my dark­est mo­ments, I thought we were go­ing to lose her.

‘Though I tried my best to stay pos­i­tive, there were times when the ev­i­dence just pointed to the worst pos­si­ble out­come,’ she says.

‘My nurs­ing back­ground didn’t help, ei­ther, as there was no get­ting away from just how ill she was. I knew ev­ery time I looked at the lat­est set of re­sults just how badly the odds were stacked against her.’

But when­ever Sissy and Dim­itris felt like they couldn’t stay strong for a mo­ment longer, one per­son made sure they stayed pos­i­tive – Sofia, Foteini’s twin sis­ter.

‘When­ever we were down, Sofia picked up on it and re­as­sured us that Foteini would be fine, telling us that Foteini would get bet­ter and ev­ery­thing would soon be back to how it was,’ re­calls Sissy with a smile.

‘Her en­thu­si­asm and un­fal­ter­ing op­ti­mism were con­ta­gious. With Sofia around, we couldn’t stay down for long.

‘She helped Foteini too, in that the two of them be­came in­sep­a­ra­ble in their own lit­tle world where they didn’t talk about cancer. It gave Foteini a means of es­cape that helped her to cope with all the dif­fi­cult times.’

Know­ing that Foteini had a long road ahead and that just the thought of fight­ing cancer was too much for a lit­tle mind and a weak body to take on, Sissy and Dim­itris de­cided the only way to make it bear­able was to dis­tract her with her favourite games.

‘Sofia would see the con­cern on Foteini’s face and the TEARS of fear prick her eyes, and would in­stantly throw her ARMS around her pro­tec­tively and PROM­ISE her she’d be there be­side her the en­tire time’

‘But when­ever we sat down to ex­plain to Foteini what lay ahead, I always made sure we in­cluded Sofia too,’ says Sissy. ‘We were hon­est from the be­gin­ning about what was wrong and the twins went through it to­gether. I knew Foteini wouldn’t find it half as daunt­ing if she knew her twin sis­ter was go­ing to be with her through­out.

‘I’d put on the bravest face I could muster, smile my bright­est pos­si­ble smile and tell the girls to think of it as an ad­ven­ture,’ she adds.

‘They’d never have guessed that in­side my heart was break­ing.’

And no mat­ter how bad the news or how scary the next step seemed, Sofia was always quick with her words of en­cour­age­ment.

‘Sofia would see the look of con­cern on Foteini’s face, or see the tears of fear prick her eyes, and would in­stantly throw her arms around her pro­tec­tively and say brightly, “Don’t worry. I’ll be there be­side you the en­tire time.”

‘For us, it was won­der­ful to know that Foteini had Sofia help­ing her

through,’ Sissy says. ‘Though we as her par­ents would never have left her side ei­ther, it seemed bet­ter some­how that the girls had each other to cling to when times got hard.’

And true to her word, Sofia kept her prom­ise to her sis­ter.

‘We never once told her that she had to look af­ter Foteini or treat her any dif­fer­ently, but she seemed to know in­stinc­tively what to do,’ re­mem­bers Sissy.

‘When­ever Foteini was feel­ing down, Sofia was there to cheer her up with a joke or her favourite game.

‘If she was feel­ing tired, she’d fetch her a blan­ket and a teddy and lay down be­side her, or just leave her to rest un­til she was ready to have fun again. She seemed to have a sixth sense about ex­actly what it was her sis­ter needed at any given time.

‘And if I ever wor­ried that Sofia was some­times giv­ing Foteini too much

When Foteini had to go to hospi­tal for her CHEMO­THER­APY and ra­dio­ther­apy or the end­less tests, Sofia would IN­SIST on go­ing too. So when­ever Foteini WOKE up, Sofia’s FACE was always the first she saw

at­ten­tion, that she needed time to be alone and to rest, I just had to look at them to see Sofia was just the ther­apy she needed,’ Sissy says.

‘I always held back from telling Sofia to leave Foteini be. If she in­stinc­tively thought her sis­ter needed her, then I fig­ured she was prob­a­bly right.’

Even when Foteini had to go to the hospi­tal for her chemo­ther­apy and ra­dio­ther­apy or an­other round of the seem­ingly end­less tests, Sofia would in­sist on go­ing too. ‘We knew no one could help Foteini re­cover faster than her sis­ter, so when­ever we could let Sofia ac­com­pany us, we would.

‘She at­tended ev­ery ap­point­ment with us, as an ex­tra bit of mo­ral sup­port. We were Team Foteini,’ Sissy smiles.

As a re­sult, when­ever Foteini woke up, Sofia’s face was always the first she saw, and it never failed to raise her spir­its.

‘The one thing that always amazed me about Sofia was that, if she knew how des­per­ately ill Foteini was – and we tried to be as hon­est as pos­si­ble and never hid any­thing from her – she never once cried or got up­set,’ re­calls Sissy.

‘It was as if she knew that, as long as she was there to look af­ter her sis­ter, ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be OK.’ And Sofia’s everop­ti­mistic out­look was proved right – to the fam­ily’s de­light, Foteini was given the all-clear in 2013.

The ex­pe­ri­ence, as dread­ful as it was, brought the fam­ily closer to­gether, par­tic­u­larly the twins. ‘The girls are 10 now and Foteini is, thank­fully, in re­mis­sion and do­ing well,’ says Sissy. ‘I’m so proud of them. Foteini was very brave and she had such a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude. Although she felt re­ally poorly, she never lost her smile and courage.

‘But though she didn’t go through the cancer her­self, Sofia was brave too,’ Sissy adds. ‘It must have been scary for her, see­ing her sis­ter like that, but she han­dled it bet­ter than I ever thought a six-year-old could. She re­ally did help us all through it.’

‘Sofia and Foteini were always close, but their bond is now stronger that ever.

‘They each have their own friends, but the re­la­tion­ship be­tween them is so spe­cial.

‘It’s hard to say whether it would have been like that even with­out Foteini’s ill­ness – per­haps it would have. But I’m con­vinced that what they went through to­gether and the things they shared with­out words ce­mented that bond even more.

‘I will be for­ever grate­ful that Sofia was there when Foteini needed her – and that they’ll always have each other.

‘She’s Foteini’s guardian an­gel and I’m sure it would work the other way too. What mother wouldn’t want that for her daugh­ters?’

The An­to­ni­adous live is Green­wich, Lon­don

Foteini had her sis­ter to cling to at all times dur­ing the gru­elling treat­ment pe­riod – Sofia would cheer her up with a joke or game

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