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‘Absolutely shattering’: Aberdeen family on daughter’s 8-year leukaemia fight

The Wood family from Aberdeen are testament to the strength of the human spirit, having faced down daughter Olivia's leukaemia, which hasn't left her alone since her 4th birthday.

Survivors: Nothing seems impossible anymore to the Wood family. Image: Jill Wood
Survivors: Nothing seems impossible anymore to the Wood family. Image: Jill Wood

How do you juggle work, running a household, and looking after your cancer-sick child?

That has been the daily reality for the Wood family of Aberdeen for the past eight years.

Jill and Kevin live in Mastrick with 11-year-old daughter Olivia, a pupil at Kingsford Primary School.

Everything was going swimmingly for the Woods, until just before Olivia’s 4th birthday.

She started complaining of a sore leg.

Olivia the day before her diagnosis. Image: Jill Wood

“We never thought anything of it,” said mum Jill. “We just put it down to growing pains.”

Better safe than sorry, thought Jill and Kevin, who took Olivia to see her GP, Dr Iqbal, at Northfield Medical Practice.

When Dr Iqbal checked Olivia over, something told him he should send her for some blood tests.

A week later, the results came back.

Olivia had leukaemia.

It was May 13, 2016.

“Friday the 13th, the worst day of my life,” said Jill.

First day of treatment in May 2016. Image: Jill Wood

Leukaemia diagnosis ‘devastated’ Aberdeen family

So began years of at times remorseless treatment, hospital stays, and cruel setbacks as the Wood family’s lives were turned upside down overnight.

“We were just processing the fact that she had leukaemia when she started chemotherapy,” said Jill.

“It took a long while to get our heads around it all.

“Finding out she had leukaemia just devasted the entire family – grandparents, everyone. No-one could believe it.”

Olivia spent three months in the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital after her diagnosis.

After the first round of chemotherapy she lost her hair, and even had to learn to walk again. Jill had to give up work to care for her daughter.

“She was struggling with the treatment, she couldn’t walk very well,” said Jill.

Back home after completing the first round of treatment. Image: Jill Wood

“It felt like going back to the beginning. She had to go to physio to learn how to move again.

“She was struggling to eat so she ended up with a nasogastric tube.

“I became her full-time carer for three and a bit years.”

This meant Jill – a carer for adults with learning disabilities – not working at all during this time.

Cruel twists and turns: ‘We were really happy, we thought that was it’

That part of the family’s journey finally came to an end as Olivia got the all-clear in October 2019.

“We were really happy that day, I remember it was the 17th. We thought that was it.”

The check-ups dwindled from every couple of months to every six months, and then yearly.

Olivia celebrating Christmas last year with mum and dad Jill and Kevin. Image: Jill Wood

Then came Covid. Of course, all families had their own struggles during the pandemic. But coming on the back of Olivia’s years-long cancer struggle, the Woods were in desperate need of a break, and something to smile about.

After all, they’d seen off both cancer and Covid.

“When Covid finally left, we decided to book a holiday. Our first ever cruise as a family, the Royal Caribbean Cruise from Barcelona to Italy and back.”

Just as the Woods started looking forward to the adventure of a lifetime, Olivia started developing shoulder pain.

In February 2023 this developed into a high temperature, and she was admitted to hospital.

After five days of the doctors not being able to find anything concrete wrong with her, they decided to do a bone marrow test.

Devastatingly, the results showed that the leukaemia had returned.

Recurring nightmare: Back in hospital, February 2023. Image Jill Wood

Olivia the first child in Aberdeen to undergo groundbreaking leukaemia therapy

“It has been hard,” said Jill.

“But we’ve been on a whole new journey this time around, because between her first and second diagnosis there has been a massive breakthrough in the treatment of leukaemia.”

Olivia was the first child in Aberdeen to undergo immunotherapy.

This is when a patient is hooked up to a bag of Blinatumomab for 28 days, given a two-week break, and then hooked up for another 28 days.

Blinatumomab is a targeted cancer drug that was only given to children in Scotland from last year.

“A miracle drug,” said Jill.

“It basically left no trace of cancer in her blood or bone marrow, which was amazing. There were a lot of side effects that could have come with it, but thankfully didn’t.”

With mum Jill during Blinatumomab treatment. Image: Jill Wood

‘We dream about going on that cruise one day’

Olivia is now in ‘maintenance’, which means she has daily oral chemotherapy at home, as well as monthly intravenous chemotherapy, and has to visit hospital every three months for a lumbar puncture and bone marrow test.

She is due to come off maintenance in September 2025. The best-case scenario is that she is then cancer-free.

“That is the hope. We do dream about being able to go on that cruise one day.”

To keep Olivia’s spirits up in the meantime, Jill and Kevin got her a puppy, Luna, last year.

“She’d wanted a dog for many, many years, and we’d always said no.

“But we decided that with everything she’s been through, we’re not going to deny her any more, we’ll just go for it. She’ll be one year old this month.”

The Wood family with Luna, who they bought to keep Olivia’s spirits up. Image: Jill Wood

‘She’s not like a normal child’: The grim reality of living with leukaemia

Having spent her formative years battling leukaemia, and continuing to do so as she approaches adolescence, life hasn’t been easy for Olivia.

“For Olivia it was the loss of her hair which affected her quite badly,” said Jill. “She’s really struggled with that.

“Obviously, being a girl in Primary 7 and getting ready to transition to academy, losing your hair’s not the best.

Olivia with Luna, and hair coming back in. Image: Jill Wood

“She’s not really like a normal child, she doesn’t go out and play.

“She grew up way before her years, she interacts with adults better than she does children her own age.

“However, she has two best friends who have stood by her through everything, which has been really good for her and for us as a family.

“But she can’t go out and do normal things like go into town and have a day out. If she does, she ends up in pain until she can’t cope.

“She had her first solo trip out at the weekend, and needed to come home within two hours.

“She just doesn’t seem to have the same life as other kids her age.”

Pioneer: Bag change day during immunotherapy. Image: Jill Wood

Naturally, the gruelling rounds of treatment mean Olivia misses a lot of school. She missed almost all of her final year at nursery and first year of primary school.

And having missed half of P6, she has already missed a quarter of P7.

Despite this, Jill says she’s doing well, helped by her, Kevin and Olivia’s grandparents all chipping in with home schooling. “It means she’s at least getting some education while not at school.”

A mother’s pain: ‘My anxiety trebled, I ended up in therapy’

A craft display Olivia did in her room at Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital. Image: Jill Wood

Jill is currently back at work, working with adults with learning disabilities for Inspire. She does this alongside caring for Olivia.

She said her work had been “fantastic – they’ve gone above and beyond in supporting me and my family.”

But Olivia’s struggles have been Jill’s struggles, too.

“Working, plus caring for my daughter and looking after a household, it’s not easy. At times it’s absolutely shattering.

“My mental health has taken a knock at times.

“My anxiety trebled after Olivia’s second diagnosis and I ended up in therapy, trying to cope with everything that’s gone on this year.”

I asked Jill how the past few years have changed her and Kevin, a contracts manager, as people.

Olivia and Jill met Summer and mum Lizzie in 2015 when Summer was also diagnosed with leukaemia, and have been close friends since. Like Olivia, Summer has also had a second journey with cancer. Image: Jill Wood

“We’ve become a lot more understanding of people with illnesses and people who have to basically give up their entire life to look after one individual.

“And we’ve met some really amazing people throughout our journey who do so much more than we do, who have gone through so much more than us.”

Gratitude to Aberdeen sick kids charity: ‘I’d give everything to Archie if I could’

Throughout all the trials and tribulations of the last eight years, the Wood family have been supported by the Archie Foundation.

“Archie has done so much for us over the years.

“They provide play, support workers, events, birthday gifts, they make sure kids don’t go without at certain times of the year if they’re stuck in hospital.

“They’re so supportive of people going through any kind of treatment.

“Honestly, I would give everything to Archie if I could.”

In fact, Jill isn’t just talking the talk.

She is going to abseil 130 feet down the old radio tower at the old AECC, now King’s Church, on July 27.

All to raise as much money as possible for the fantastic people at Archie who have helped her family so much.

‘I’ll dangle off a building for her. Her and all the other children’

Christmas 2017. Image: Jill Wood

Although Jill admits to being “petrified” of heights, with everything the family has been through, nothing seems impossible anymore.

“If Olivia can go through what she’s gone through, I can go through this.

“I’ll dangle off a building for her. Her and all the other children.”

To donate to Jill’s abseil for Archie, visit: