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.’
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.
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. ‘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 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 ever-optimistic 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