'I told her it was okay to close her eyes' - Four-year-old Jessica Whelan dies after losing cancer battle

By Alice Mcintyre, Gareth Davies, Martha Cliff, Steph Cockroft

A four-year-old British girl who captured hearts all over the world has died after losing her battle with cancer.

Jessica Whelan's plight came to the public attention when her father Andy Whelan published a distressing black and white image showing the little girl grimacing in pain as she battles her terminal condition.

The four-year-old, from Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma in September last year and was no longer receiving treatment.

Strangers raised £76,000 (NZ$133,977) to give the little girl the chance to enjoy the last few weeks that she has to live, but she tragically died at 7am this morning, the Daily Mail reported.

Jessica (pictured with her father) was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma in September last year. Photo: Facebook/Andy Whelan
Jessica (pictured with her father) was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma in September last year. Photo: Facebook/Andy Whelan

Her father, who has been documenting her struggle online to raise awareness of children's cancer, took to Facebook this morning to announce the devastating news.

He wrote: "I feel both sadness and relief in informing you all that Jessica finally found peace at seven o'clock this morning.

"No longer does she suffer, no longer does she feel the pain of the physical constraints of her body.

"Now my princess has grown her angel wings and has gone up to play with her friends and loved ones.

"She will now watch down over her little brother and ourselves until one day we are reunited again.

"Last night she finally allowed me to hold her in my arms and we had a big cuddle as I told her how much I loved her.

"I told her again that it was okay for her to close her eyes and go to sleep and I kissed her forehead and her lips numerous times.

"It seems like this is what she needed to finally allow her to find comfort in her passing as within eight hours of this cuddle she finally took her final breath.

"She was a daddy's girl from the start and even right up to the end.

Jessica spent so much time in hospital, she made friends with other children on the ward, and formed strong bonds with the nurses. Photo / Facebook
Jessica spent so much time in hospital, she made friends with other children on the ward, and formed strong bonds with the nurses. Photo / Facebook

"I feel like a massive part of me has just been torn away but I am so glad that I could give her that comfort in her final hours.

"She passed peacefully and calmly with not even a murmur.

"Thank you to everyone of you who has shared and has been a part of our journey.

"I ask now for privacy for us and our family as we mourn the loss of our beautiful princess.

"From a heartbroken daddy of the most amazing and beautiful girl."

Jessica's family had aimed to raise £20,000 (NZ$35,257) through the GoFundMe site, but the target was smashed in a matter of hours after the photograph - which her father described as the 'true face of cancer' - was published on Jessica's blog.

More than 3,300 people have pledged money to the cause in the past two days, leaving heartfelt messages of support for the family.

Andy said the family had been 'humbled' by the response.

He said they "flew through" their savings when Jessica was diagnosed and that the money raised was a "massive help" in covering the likes of transport and food costs.

He told MailOnline: "It has been absolutely overwhelming. It is quite hard for us to comprehend what is being donated.

"We will now be able to buy her things to give her enjoyment during the time she has left and will also help us give her the send off she deserves.

"We don't feel comfortable about asking for money and we weren't even going to do it until people asked us to. Now, we can't believe how far it has gone. It seems to have reached most corners of the world."

Mr Whelan said he has received more than 3,000 emails - along with Facebook messages and texts - from all over the world since the photograph was published.

Well-wishers have got in touch from the like of Colombia and Russia as Jessica's story has spread on the internet.

Among those who have been moved by the cause is Harry Styles, who got in touch with Mr Whelan.

Jessica pictured going to see Disney's Frozen on Ice. Photo / Facebook
Jessica pictured going to see Disney's Frozen on Ice. Photo / Facebook

It came after the host of a local radio station in the Wirral, Beverley Macca, contacted Harry's management company and arranged for him to phone.

Mr Whelan posted the candid photograph of his daughter earlier this month.

Speaking about his decision to post the photo, Mr Whelan said: "I took that photo - not to share with the public - but as more of a momento.

"To remind us, when we look back and worry about everything, that we had done the right thing by stopping her treatment.

"That image just shows how bad it was, if we ever questioned our decision.

"But, once I uploaded that onto the computer, I instantly realised how powerful that image actually was.

"We speak about photos that change people's perceptions - and I knew this one would."

He said that, even those who have gone through the experience of child cancer, had been shocked by the image.

"The face of cancer isn't the bald-headed smiling child surrounded by celebrities, it's just not. That's what I was trying to show," he said.

"I've had many people saying they took photos like this but couldn't look at them. I've had people saying 'yes, that's what I went through too'. And for those that haven't, it highlights just how awful child cancer is.

"It's opening people's eyes up to what is going on in the world."

Mr Whelan said he and his partner Nicki - Jessica's mother - have decided to give Jessica's organs and tissues to scientific research when she dies.

"If this situation can provide a bit more advancement in medicine - if some positive could come out of this - then we want to do it," he said.

"If we can make a difference so fewer families have to go through this, then at least that will be some comfort to us."

Posting the photo Andy wrote: "This is the hardest photograph I have ever made.

"A few days ago she was given what is most likely a few weeks to live. This was taken at a moment where we as parents could offer no comfort - Jessica pushing us away as she rode out her searing pain in solitude."

Jessica, who had been fighting stage four neuroblastoma for 13 months, but was given just weeks to live after Andy and his partner Nicki Prendergast decided to stop treatment in a bid to allow her to enjoy whatever time she has got left.

"This is the true face of cancer," says Andy, who documents his daughter's battle on Facebook.

"My baby girls blood vessels protruding from beneath her skin, a solitary tear running down her cheek, her body stiffened and her face contorted in pain."

"With this photo I don't mean to offend or upset anyone. Perhaps by seeing this photo people will be made aware of the darkness that is childhood cancer, and perhaps the same people will be able to do something in the future so that no child has to suffer this pain, and so that no parent has to bear witness to their own flesh and blood deteriorating daily."

Jessica was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma on September 23 last year.

Initially, after suffering pains in her arms and shoulders, doctors diagnosed Jessica with a bone infection.

But just as she was about to be discharged, after ten weeks in hospital, doctors decided to examine her one more time.

"Jessica had been crying out in pain during the night," Mr Whelan explains.

"One of the nurses told the doctor so he decided to check her tummy to make sure it was nothing more than constipation."

It was during the examination that the doctor found a mass in her tummy.

"It was devastating," Mr Whelan explains.

"Jessica was all ready to come home. She was even in her coat. Then we were told she'd need to stay in hospital for more tests."

An ultrasound showed there was a mass around Jessica's liver, but it was after an MRI the following day that doctors broke the news that Jessica had cancer.

"I asked the doctor how long she had left, and he said he couldn't give a figure but it was likely to be a couple of years," explains Mr Whelan.

Jessica started chemotherapy and then doctors started her on a clinical drug trial. When her hair started falling out they cut it into a bob, then shaved it all off.

After three months, Jessica went into hospital for tests. But there was bad news.

"The consultant told us the tumour was the same size, they hadn't budged it at all," says Andy. "But he said there was another trial we could try, and not to lose hope."

Jessica spent so much time in hospital, she started making friends with the other children on the ward, and formed strong bonds with the nurses.

"On the rare nights she'd spend at home, she'd sometimes cry as she missed the ward," Mr Whelan says.

Months passed and Jessica seemed to improve.

Her hair grew back and she had more energy than ever.

She spent more time at home as Mr Whelan and his partner Nicki were taught to administer Jessica's drugs themselves.

"Every single moment was so precious. I kept my camera around my neck, ready to snap away, capturing every smile, every laugh, every time she cuddled her baby brother James. I didn't want to miss a thing," says Andy.

"One morning, Jessica was watching TV when a programme about hospitals came on.

"Looking at the patients Jessica turned to us and said, 'I don't want to die'.

"I knew she didn't understand how poorly she was, but still, it was heartbreaking to hear," recalls Andy.

When the trial came to an end, Mr Whelan was told that the tumour hadn't shrunk, but it hadn't grown either.

"The consultant told us that there was more treatment they could try, but they were now looking at prolonging Jessica's life - not curing the cancer."

"It was a shock," says Mr Whelan. "On the outside Jessica looked so well, it was hard to believe she wasn't getting better."

In August, Jessica underwent MIBG - targeted radiation therapy - in the hope that the family would have another two years with their daughter.

But in October, during an examination Jessica's oncologist found that although her existing tumours didn't seem to have grown, the cancer had progressed to other areas of her body.

"We knew something was wrong straight after his examination as he asked for a nurse to take Jessica away while he spoke to us," says Mr Whelan.

"Despite Jessica appearing to do well after the radiation treatment, her cancer had spread. There were little, or no treatment options left."

"We asked our oncologist what the likely timeframe we had to work with, and he told us we were looking at months."

"There are other clinical trials, but nothing that would make a difference for Jessica," says Andy. "So we had to decide whether we wanted to continue treatment, or let her enjoy a 'normal' life in the time she has left."

"Those studies would be pumping her full of chemicals to keep her alive for our sake, but it's Jessica that matters, not us," says Andy.

On October 12, Mr Whelan and Nicki made the decision to end treatment and were then told Jessica only had weeks to live.

"The news felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest while someone sucked the air from my lungs," he said.

Mr Whelan wanted to raise awareness of childhood cancer, which is why he documented his daughter's final weeks.

"I understand this photo is hard to see and even harder to absorb, but this is what cancer does to a child in their final weeks and days. Before her diagnosis I was one of those ignorant to the darkness of childhood cancer. Now I give childhood cancer the respect it deserves, seeing too many children suffering this same fate and seeing families torn apart.

"If this photograph makes people think twice about this evil then it's achieved its purpose. Research needs to be done, cures need to be found.

"This, sadly, isn't a sight we see rarely. This is a sight we see every day and night. I could try and use a thousand words to describe what it's like to see our beautiful daughter suffering like this, but these words would fall short of depicting the truth."

ANDY WHELAN'S FACEBOOK POST IN FULL

"I feel both sadness and relief in informing you all that Jessica finally found peace at seven o'clock this morning.

No longer does she suffer, no longer does she feel the pain of the physical constraints of her body.

Now my princess has grown her angel wings and has gone up to play with her friends and loved ones.

She will now watch down over her little brother and ourselves until one day we are reunited again.

Last night she finally allowed me to hold her in my arms and we had a big cuddle as I told her how much I loved her.

I told her again that it was okay for her to close her eyes and go to sleep and I kissed her forehead and her lips numerous times.

It seems like this is what she needed to finally allow her to find comfort in her passing as within eight hours of this cuddle she finally took her final breath.

She was a daddy's girl from the start and even right up to the end.

I feel like a massive part of me has just been torn away but I am so glad that I could give her that comfort in her final hours.

She passed peacefully and calmly with not even a murmur.

Thank you to everyone of you who has shared and has been a part of our journey. I ask now for privacy for us and our family as we mourn the loss of our beautiful princess.

From a heartbroken daddy of the most amazing and beautiful girl."

- Daily Mail

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