As my girl died in my arms I kept thinking I could've stopped her skin cancer
Flicking through family albums of her kids playing happily in the sun, Jennifer Nicholson strives to remember the carefree days before her eldest daughter was cruelly taken from her.
They should be precious snapshots of a life that ended all too soon.
But instead of relishing happy memories, the single mum is overcome with grief and guilt.
She can’t help but wonder which of the sun-drenched pictures shows the day her daughter Freja received her life sentence.
Last November, aged 18, the beautiful, intelligent student died from skin cancercaused by sun damage.
Now Jennifer, 50, blames herself for not religiously applying sun cream on Freja’s fair skin in the hot British summers of her childhood. Doctors say that if she had, Freja might still be alive.
In a desperate plea, Jennifer urges other parents to safeguard their children.
She says: “There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t wish I could go back and just take five minutes to put suncream on her delicate young skin when I mistakenly thought there was no danger.
“No mother should see her child die. I cradled mine in my arms as she took her last breaths and with her a part of me died too.
“You never think it’ll be your child and you never think the sun in Britain could be fierce enough to kill, but Freja’s story is proof that it is.
“I feel I failed her. I could have stopped it. Don’t make the same mistake because you will never ever forgive yourself.”
Her plea came as Cancer Research UK said skin cancer is the third most common form of the disease in people aged 15-39. The charity’s Sarah Williams said the risks are “very real” in Britain – “even in cloudy weather”.
Jennifer, like most parents, slathered suncream on Freja and sister Lily, now 16, on holidays abroad. But the thought of protecting them in the UK didn’t dawn on her.
The Leeds mum says: “In Thailand, Turkey and other places I was ultra-careful. I’d make the girls wear factor 50 and full-body swimsuits. But it was sunny or even cloudy summer days in England when perhaps I wasn’t quite so diligent. You think the sun isn’t strong enough to do any damage. I was so foolish.”
Jennifer had identified a growing mole on her daughter’s back four years before she died. She explains: “Since she was born Freja had a small mole in the middle of her back, no bigger than a press-stud. But as she got bigger, it grew too and in 2012 we noticed it had gone lumpy and black.
“Our GP referred us to the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough. It was cut off and sent for biopsy. The doctor described it as “benign” and “atypical”. No treatment was needed, we were told, so it was panic over.”
Freja continued to enjoy trips to the beach and playing outdoors. But two years later she started getting crushing headaches. One day she found a small lump under her left arm.
A scan showed that beneath the skin the lump actually measured 5cm.
Biopsy results revealed melanoma cancer – the same kind you get from sun-damaged skin. Jennifer says: “It was only then I remembered that mole on her back. I asked if they were related and doctors gently told me I should in no way have let our guard down. During these last few years cancer had rampaged through Freja while we carried on, blissfully unaware.
“If I’d known I would have had her covered from head to toe – even in the UK sun – but I never dreamt it could lead to cancer.”
Freja was on a Teenage Cancer Trust ward at St James’s Hospital, Leeds, when a scan showed she also had a 2.5cm brain tumour.
Jennifer adds: “We both broke down crying. Under that scan I’d seen a note saying “Stage 3 – poor prognosis” and I knew it was bad. But Freja refused to wallow in self-pity and passed the time taking a series of selfies of me and her lying in bed pulling silly faces. Meanwhile, inside, I was shattered into a million pieces.
“Even while she was ill, Freja raised over £20,000 for Teenage Cancer Trust by throwing a garden party.”
Surgeons removed the tumour but when Freja went back to college the headaches and vomiting returned. The cancer came back – in her arm, her left breast, her lung and brain. Incredibly she still managed two As and a B in her A-levels. She started a Masters course in Geological Science but after a few weeks was back in hospital and deteriorated rapidly.
Jennifer recalls: “In September I got a text from Freja saying she didn’t want to live any more. At hospital she told me I had to take her home, screaming with pain, scratching her head like she was possessed.
“Next afternoon the doctor sat me down and told me ‘this was it’. I knew then I wanted her to spend her last days at home. Our house was packed with family, friends and nurses. We made sure she was never alone, playing games, her favourite songs, just chatting to her.
“Sometimes she’d purse her lips for a kiss... I realised this was her way of saying goodbye. She knew her time was up.
“On November 8 she was screaming with pain. I kept saying sorry, how I’d always love her. I lay with Freja all night, holding her hand, and next afternoon she was taken to the funeral directors.”
Freja was carried in an open woven casket at her funeral, wearing the dress she chose for her 18th birthday. Jennifer says: “We buried her ashes under a copper beech tree at Swinton Park. At the base a plaque says: ‘The sun shone brighter from the day you were born, we love you we miss you, we long for you, our hearts are broken but our love for you is not. Forever young and beautiful’.
“As Lily and I poured the ashes into the hole, at the same time the sun came out and it started to snow. It was so incredibly beautiful.”
Now Jennifer is desperate to leave a legacy for other young people. She adds: “I tell any parent to keep an eye on any moles on their children, to do everything they can to protect the whole family from the sun, wherever you are.”