When Natalie Stranger’s nine-year-old daughter, Torri, was diagnosed with leukaemia, she refused to give up on her dream of becoming a dancer despite the gruelling treatment. Here, Natalie describes how she coped with the news that every mother fears hearing...
Some little girls dream of being princesses, others want to become doctors or scientists, and then there are those who are born to perform. Torri, nine, is our little twinkle toes, and she dreams of being a dancer or a dance teacher. It’s the thing that’s kept her spirits high when things have been hard, and, for me, every day that she’s dancing is a blessing.
Torri was two years old when I took her to her first ballet class, in June 2012. Only, the class wasn’t meant to be for her. I’d gone to our local church with the intention of enrolling Torri’s older sister, Alexsi, four, but she couldn’t have been less interested. Meanwhile, Torri would not sit still.
Jumping about with the girls, pointing her toes, she loved prancing about the room, and I enrolled her that same day. When she turned five, we moved her to a new dance school, TLW Dance, which was amazed by her talent.
‘She’s so good for her age,’ one of her teachers told me. In fact, she was so impressed she wanted Torri to take her Primary ballet exams as soon as possible, and it wasn’t long before she’d added more classes to her timetable. By the time she was seven, she was doing seven classes a week, ranging from ballet and jazz through to technique and flexibility sessions. She was always on the move – if she wasn’t dancing, her dad, Simon, 43, was taking her swimming or she’d be playing on the trampoline with Alexsi. She never stopped. But in April 2018, Torri started complaining that she was tired and that her chest hurt.
I just assumed she might be overdoing it, so insisted she rest over the Easter holidays to see if that helped. At her first dance lesson back, her teacher called me to say Torri felt tired and winded again. Picking her up early was so strange, and she did seem paler than usual, so I booked an appointment with our GP for the next day.
Thinking Torri might be anaemic, he sent us to Salisbury hospital for a blood test. We were in and out within minutes, and I assumed it’d take a few weeks for the results to come back. But as I drove home, a call from the doctor asked us to turn around and come back. Walking back into the hospital, my mind was racing. While Torri sat with one of the nurses in the waiting room, I was escorted to a side room. Sitting opposite the doctor, I tried to read her expression, then she broke the silence.
‘What do you know about leukaemia?’ she asked. Tears fell uncontrollably. They believed Torri had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) but, even as I called Simon – who’d been away with friends for the day – it didn’t feel real. His silence on the other end of the phone said it all, we were terrified.
Torri needed a blood transfusion, and consultants wanted to talk about her treatment plan. While we waited for Simon to arrive, the doctor asked me again what I knew about leukaemia. There was only one thing I could think of. ‘It’s curable…’ I said, trying to sound more certain than I was. Thankfully, the doctor nodded.
Simon and I took Torri to Southampton hospital for further tests that same day. As we drove there, I worried how we would tell both Alexsi and Torri what was happening. It was only thanks to pamphlets supplied by Clic Sargent that I felt both girls could really understand why life wouldn’t be quite what they were used to for a little while.
At the start of May 2018, Torri started on intensive chemotherapy and steroids – the plan was to have weekly sessions, but when she got an abscess in her leg we had to stay in hospital permanently. I hated seeing Torri so sick, but we tried to make the most of our time together. We’d always cuddle up on her bed, watch films or just talk – somehow we always found something to laugh over. At weekends, Simon and Alexsi would visit. I treasured the moments where my girls played a board game or binged something on Netflix – a drop of normality in the midst of chaos.
Though she lost her hair and would get frustrated not being able to walk, Torri just got on with it. She rarely asked me or the doctors questions, and took her medication without a fuss.
In July 2018, Torri finally came home, but all she wanted to know was, ‘When can I go back to dance?’ I wasn’t sure if she could. The months of being on bed rest, mixed with her treatment for both the cancer and to treat the abscess, had made her lose muscle.
But Torri’s dance teacher offered to give her private one-to-one lessons to help her get her strength back. That September, Torri was feeling well enough to return to school, and the following January her intensive chemo finished. She started having maintenance therapy, which consisted of daily oral chemotherapy and monthly intravenous chemotherapy. But, every week, our girl was getting stronger and, in April 2019, she rejoined her dance school full time.
Watching as she posed with her classmates as a photographer took photos for the new website, in July last year, I felt so proud. She might have been missing her hair, and had a small tube attached to her nose, but in that moment Torri was just one of the dancers again – from the smile on her face, you could see how much that meant to her.
In time, Torri, nine, was doing nine dance classes a week – more than before she was diagnosed with leukaemia. Now we’re taking every week as it comes. Torri’s treatment won’t officially end until this August, and by that time she’ll have spent almost a third of her life on chemotherapy drugs. That’s why Team Torri – a group of me and eight friends – are training to complete the London Marathon later this year*, to help charities like Children with Cancer UK find kinder treatments for our babies.
I have witnessed more heartache than I ever thought possible and had to be stronger than I ever thought I could be. But nothing can crush Torri’s spirit, and nothing, not even cancer, will stop my little girl dancing.
*The London Marathon was due to take place in April, but has now been rescheduled for October 4th due to coronavirus