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RAF pilot is rowing across Atlantic to mark five-years since his daughter was cured of leukaemia

An RAF pilot is rowing across the Atlantic to mark five-years since his ‘brave’ nine-year-old daughter was cured of leukaemia. 

At just 22-months old, Isla was diagnosed with cancer and had over 1000 rounds of gruelling chemotherapy to fight the deadly disease.    

To celebrate her being cancer-free, Phil Holdcroft, 42, embarked on the 3,000 mile rowing challenge in a bid to raise money for the wish-granting charity, Starlight Children’s Foundation, which supported his daughter when she was in hospital.

The father-of-two, from Oxfordshire, began the intense journey across the Atlantic on December 12 along with three other RAF pilots – and is attempting a world record time of 29 days and 14 hours, finishing in Antigua. 

Completing the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge isn’t for the faint-hearted and the team have 574 nautical miles to go and are in second place overall by two miles. 

Phil and his wife, Beth, 41, have praised their ‘amazing little girl’ who has ‘come on leaps and bounds’ since going into remission in October 2016 – and is now officially cancer-free.

Phil Holdcroft, 42, from Oxfordshire, is rowing across the Atlantic to mark five-years since his ‘brave’ nine-year-old daughter, Isla (above) was cured of leukaemia

Beth noticed she was 'drained of colour' and was 'uneasy on her feet' and took her to A&E to find out what was wrong. Pictured: Isla with dad Phil (right)

Beth noticed she was ‘drained of colour’ and was ‘uneasy on her feet’ and took her to A&E to find out what was wrong. Pictured: Isla with dad Phil (right)

At just 22-months old, Isla was diagnosed with cancer and had over 1000 rounds of gruelling chemotherapy to fight the deadly disease - but she is now 'thriving' and cancer-free

At just 22-months old, Isla was diagnosed with cancer and had over 1000 rounds of gruelling chemotherapy to fight the deadly disease – but she is now ‘thriving’ and cancer-free

Phil (right) and his wife, Beth, 41,(left)  have praised their 'amazing little girl' (middle) who has 'come up leaps and bounds' since going into remission in October 2016

Phil (right) and his wife, Beth, 41,(left)  have praised their ‘amazing little girl’ (middle) who has ‘come up leaps and bounds’ since going into remission in October 2016

Completing the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge isn't for the faint-hearted and the team have 574 nautical miles to go and are in second place overall by two miles

Completing the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge isn’t for the faint-hearted and the team have 574 nautical miles to go and are in second place overall by two miles 

Beth said: ‘Our family has been able to conquer the impossible and it has been the greatest gift we could’ve ever imagined. At times when all hope was lost, I remember telling myself “get through this hour and then I’ll think about the next”.

‘Nine months after being diagnosed with leukaemia, Isla was having chemotherapy every day. She lost her hair and was put on steroids, which made her like a completely different child because she’d have unpredictable mood swings and her appetite would come and go.

‘But her spirit never dampened and she always had a look of determination and hope. Our amazing little girl was so brave and because of her, our outlook on life has completely changed. We now live in the moment because you never know what is round the corner.

‘I remember going on the ward and seeing other children that had cancer, it was heartbreaking. But that is why it is so important to raise money for charities that help families like us.

‘They are a lifeline and I couldn’t imagine getting through Isla’s two and half year cancer battle without them.’

Isla, now nine, was diagnosed with leukaemia at just 22 months old after Beth noticed she was ‘drained of colour’ and was ‘uneasy on her feet’. 

Beth recalled: ‘When Isla was born, I fell in love with her instantly. She was a beautiful, happy baby and got along perfectly with her sister, Isabella.

‘However in July 2014, when she was 22 months old, I noticed she didn’t look quite right – the colour had drained from her face and her demeanour seemed off.

‘I took her to the GP and it turned out she had an ear infection. We were given antibiotics but after a week, her symptoms did not improve. 

‘I knew something wasn’t right but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I thought maybe she’d caught a second infection. 

‘We ended up going back to the GP and I remember seeing a locum doctor who gave us a referral on the basis that you “should always trust a mother’s instinct.”‘

Beth and Phil took Isla to A&E and she was later admitted onto a children's ward at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxfordshire

Beth and Phil took Isla to A&E and she was later admitted onto a children’s ward at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxfordshire 

Following a blood test, Beth was told Isla's body had stopped making blood and she needed an urgent transfusion

Following a blood test, Beth was told Isla’s body had stopped making blood and she needed an urgent transfusion

However, that afternoon, Beth decided to take Isla to A&E with Phil and she was later admitted onto a children’s ward at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxfordshire.

Beth added: ‘I was seen by a nurse who told me I was right to bring Isla into hospital. She had a blood test and we waited to see a doctor. I knew that whatever news we were going to be given was not going to be good. 

‘A few hours later we were taken to a separate room and were told that her body had stopped making blood and she needed an urgent transfusion. 

‘The hairs on my arms stood up. I burst out crying and Phil tried his best to console me – but we were both speechless.’ 

The next day, Phil and Beth were taken to a room to see an oncologist and given the devastating news that Isla had leukaemia.

Beth added: ‘The news of Isla’s cancer came as a complete shock. I didn’t think an active and healthy child could develop the disease until that very moment. 

‘The doctor was reassuring and spoke about Isla needing two and a half years worth of treatment. But inside I felt pure terror. I felt like I was falling and waiting for the impact.

Beth said: 'I was seen by a nurse who told me I was right to bring Isla into hospital. She had a blood test and we waited to see a doctor. I knew that whatever news we were going to be given was not going to be good'

Beth said: ‘I was seen by a nurse who told me I was right to bring Isla into hospital. She had a blood test and we waited to see a doctor. I knew that whatever news we were going to be given was not going to be good’

Isla was scheduled in for daily chemo appointments, which would sometimes end in her being kept on a ward to be monitored overnight

Isla was scheduled in for daily chemo appointments, which would sometimes end in her being kept on a ward to be monitored overnight

‘She told me children’s bodies were able to recover from higher doses of chemotherapy better than adults. Using more intense treatments gives medics a better chance of treating the cancer effectively.

‘I knew our lives were about to change for good. We were told to prepare for our routines to alter so we could attend daily hospital appointments.’

Beth gave up her job as a teacher and Isla was scheduled for chemotherapy, which would sometimes result in her being kept on a ward to be monitored overnight. 

She said: ‘In total, Isla had over 1000 doses of chemo alongside weekly hospital appointments. We were lucky we were able to survive on one wage, but it was tough.

‘During the first few months, she was terrified and would refuse to take her coat off and stand by the door. But she very quickly got used to it and the hospital became our second home.

‘She lost her blonde curly hair but it didn’t phase her. Her sister Isabella was supportive and helped keep us grounded because we needed to be there for them both – but it was incredibly hard to keep positive.

Beth gave up her job as a teacher and Isla was scheduled in for daily chemo appointments, which would sometimes end in her being kept on a ward to be monitored overnight

Beth gave up her job as a teacher and Isla was scheduled in for daily chemo appointments, which would sometimes end in her being kept on a ward to be monitored overnight

But on October 26, 2016, Phil and Beth got the news they'd been waiting for - Isla was in remission

But on October 26, 2016, Phil and Beth got the news they’d been waiting for – Isla was in remission

‘Isla was placed on steroids and her weight would fluctuate. We had to put her in her sister’s clothes because she didn’t fit into anything.

‘The chemo made her immune system low and sometimes Isla would react badly and we’d spend days in hospital praying we’d make it through the night. Phil and I lived moment by moment. There were so many times we thought she might not make it. 

‘During Christmas 2015, Isla was sick for seven-weeks with an upset stomach. Her body was so weak, it couldn’t fight the infection. Amazingly, she recovered but it was not a smooth ride.’

On October 26, 2016, Phil and Beth got the news they’d been waiting for – Isla was in remission. 

Beth, who now works as a civil servant, said: ‘When we were told Isla was cancer-free I burst into tears. It was like coming up for air after being unable to breathe for so long.

‘So many charities aided our experience when we were in the hospital and I don’t know where we’d be without them. 

‘Starlight provided play facilities for us in hospital. Isla once watched Frozen back-to-back seven times on a television that was theirs. They also funded a trip for us to go to Lapland in 2016 as a family – that was the first time we truly were able to relax and enjoy ourselves. It was amazing. 

Charity Starlight provided play facilities for the family in hospital. They also funded a trip for Phil, Beth, Isabella and Isla to go to Lapland in 2016 as a family

Charity Starlight provided play facilities for the family in hospital. They also funded a trip for Phil, Beth, Isabella and Isla to go to Lapland in 2016 as a family

‘This October, Isla has been cancer-free for five years. She has bounced back and is thriving. She is so proud of Phil and they have inspired each other to know there is no obstacle you cannot overcome.’ 

Cathy Gilman, CEO of Starlight says, ‘Phil and his family know more than most people the importance of having the time, the space and the opportunity to play when a child is seriously ill. 

‘At the end of Isla’s treatment in 2016, Starlight took the family on a once in a lifetime trip to Lapland where Isla met Father Christmas and they created special memories together.

‘We are just blown away by Phil and the team’s efforts to raise money for Starlight especially as it means they won’t be with their families this Christmas. 

‘The money that the Atlantic Flyers raise will help more children to experience play in and out of hospital which really helps to alleviate the anxiety, isolation and uncertainty of their treatment. We can’t thank Phil, Si, Sonny and Chris enough for taking on this tremendous challenge.’ 

Phil began the intense journey across the Atlantic on December 12 along with three other RAF pilots - and is attempting a world record time of 29 days and 14 hours, finishing in Antigua

Phil began the intense journey across the Atlantic on December 12 along with three other RAF pilots – and is attempting a world record time of 29 days and 14 hours, finishing in Antigua

The team embarked on the 3,000 mile rowing challenge in a bid to raise money for the wish-granting charity, Starlight Children's Foundation

Si Berry (left), Sonny Rae (first right), Chris Carrington-Smith (second left) and Phil (far right) embarked on the 3,000 mile rowing challenge in a bid to raise money for the wish-granting charity, Starlight Children’s Foundation

Phil said the idea behind the challenge is to 'connect' with daughter Isla as well as raise money

Phil said the idea behind the challenge is to ‘connect’ with daughter Isla as well as raise money 

Phil has praised the charity for giving the family ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and said the challenge is about a ‘higher purpose’. 

He is rowing with fellow RAF servicemen Si Berry, Sonny Rae and Chris Carrington-Smith for 14 hours a day – he said the idea behind the journey is to also ‘connect’ with Isla.

He said: ‘As a family and a dad, we are forever indebted to Starlight for what they’ve done – they gave us light at the end of the tunnel. The cancer was incredibly tough to deal with psychologically and the trip to Lapland in 2016 gave us something to strive for.

‘Now it’s about giving back and providing these opportunities for other families out there – It’s about a higher purpose. As a team we are rowing between 12 and 14 hours a day and we have already raised over £27,000.

‘I have been doing challenges each year to celebrate Isla being cancer-free, but to mark the fifth anniversary, I wanted to do something big and raise £50,000 for charity.

‘Isla is an inspiration and a hero to us all. What she went through at 22 months old is staggering. The challenge has also helped me connect with her in ways I never thought it could.

‘Being at sea has given me a greater understanding of the uncertainty Isla may have faced when she was in hospital. I remember the first night – it was a strange environment with all these new noises. 

‘Like being at sea, you are trying to work out different things and what they mean. She truly is an amazing little girl who overcame the odds stacked against her.’ 

You can find more information and donate to Atlantic Flyers here.

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