Eve Blair: After surviving neuroblastoma I realise “how lucky I am to be here”

Eve Blair, Radio Foyle. DER2714MC060
Eve Blair, Radio Foyle. DER2714MC060

There’s nobody locally who doesn’t know the name Oscar Knox and his battle against neuroblastoma, which he ultimately lost earlier this year.

There’s nobody locally who doesn’t know the name Oscar Knox and his battle against neuroblastoma, which he ultimately lost earlier this year.

For Strabane woman Eve Blair it was a story that resonated deeply with her, because she too had had neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer that affects up to 90 children every year in the UK.

However, unlike Oscar, Eve survived, and she’s now a healthy 30 year old.

Diagnosed when she was just five months old, her mother Sylvia joined us for a cup of tea, to explain what happened.

“Eve was my first baby but I am a midwife, and had been delivering children for five years before she arrived. So I was around very young children a lot. This was important because when Eve started to cry, this hard sore cry, I knew that it wasn’t colic.

“I initially took her to out of hours because this line appeared on her face, straight down the middle, and one side became very red. That doctor said it was because she was lying too close to me, and was sweating too much.”

Thankfully Sylvia didn’t agree with his assessment and she returned to her own GP who made a decision to send her to Altnagelvin for an x-ray.

“I was so glad they were doing something as her eye was also getting slightly droopy on the same side as the redness. I remember they had to take an extra x-ray which I knew was strange because Eve had been so good, staying so still.

“The next day the phone call came, from the consultant, to say we needed to come and see him. He showed us the x-ray and there it was, a shadow on Eve’s chest, about the size of a fifty pence piece.

“That was a Thursday, and we were in the Royal on the Monday. There was no time wasted. I remember her consultant Mr Boston telling us that ‘the chest was a good place to get it’. This was 1984, there was no Google or internet to research on, so we took his word for it. And there wasn’t time to worry.

“I also remember the sister on the ward was lovely, she told us she had seen it before and that the results had been very good.”

Eve spent two weeks on the ward after her surgery, with her mother constantly by her side.

“My sister Ivy persuaded me to leave one day, just to get out for a few hours. And of course wasn’t that the day Gerry Adamas was shot. Belfast went into lockdown and we couldn’t get the car back to the hospital, so I left on foot to get back to Eve. I didn’t leave her again!”

Eve’s father Andy, a farmer, travelled up every day after the cows had been milked, and went home in time to do the evening milking routine. It was a long two weeks in Belfast for the young couple, but they had great support from their family.

Sylvia says, “My family and Andy’s family were just fantastic. We made a decision not to broadcast the news that Eve had cancer, it was kept just inside the family. I didn’t want Eve labelled as ‘the girl who had cancer’.”

Eve interjects to say, “I’m so grateful for that. I’ve never really told anyone about it. It’s actually really strange to be going over it all today, but after Oscar Knox, I want parents of children diagnosed with neuroblastoma to know that it’s not always a death sentence.”

Yet Eve still lives with the after effects of the neuroblastoma. The redness that appeared so suddenly when she was a baby, on one side of her face, is caused by Horner’s Syndrome. It’s essentially nerve damage that can happen when any kind of trauma is caused to the nerves, not just from neuroblastoma. It remains although the cancer has gone.

She explains how it affects her, “I have a love hate relationship with Horner’s Syndrome. My left eye looks droopy all the time, which I can be self-conscious about. The red flushing that appears on one side of my face also happens when I’m exercising. When I was at school I loved sports and it always happened when I was taking part. Kids can be cruel and I remember some kids calling me ‘Phantom of the Opera. I hated it. But looking back I’m so grateful for it because without the Horner’s Syndrome appearing my mum might not have taken me to the doctors so quickly.”

Sylvia actually chose not to tell Eve about the cancer until she was older. “When she was little, in order to explain the scar she has running horizontally around her chest, I told Eve that God feel asleep when he was making her and added an extra part they needed to take out. Then when she was 19 I called on Mr Boston to explain properly; he was just about to retire so it was lovely that we caught him in time. He always had a soft spot for Eve, calling her Evie, and he was delighted to catch up with her when she was doing so well.”

Nowadays the survival rates for childhood cancers is three in four but back in 1984 it was just one in four. Sylvia is shocked by that stark reality, “I didn’t know that but I guess my Eve is that one in four.”

Eve replies, tears brimming in her eyes, “It’s something I don’t think about too much but when Oscar passed away it really affected me. I just realise how lucky I am to be here.”

It’s no wonder the pair have a great bond. Eve concludes, “We’re extremely close, mum is definitely my best friend.”

First published on 06 July 2014