Heartbreaking words boy, 14, told mum while struggling through 'brutal' cancer ordeal as Deborah James backs Sun appeal

When Ryan Whittall was diagnosed with a potentially fatal type of cancer at just 14, it wasn’t just chemotherapy he needed. 

“No one talks about the mental health side of cancer,” said Ryan, now 15.

“People think you’re diagnosed, get chemotherapy or radiotherapy or steroids or whatever you medically need to treat the cancer, but what the diagnosis can do to your head is devastating.”

At his lowest ebb, Ryan, from Dover, told his mum Paula: “I’m done, I can’t fight anymore.”

This December, The Sun is asking our army of kind-hearted readers to give whatever they can to our Joy to the Ward appeal, to raise money for NHS Charities Together to help fund mental health provision and other vital services and support for young people like Ryan. 

Sun columnist Deborah James, who writes on her journey with stage 4 bowel cancer as Bowel Babe, knows all too well what the disease can do to a person's mental health.

She said: "It's a great privilege to support The Sun's Joy to the Ward appeal.

"I know how invaluable the psychological support services are.

"When you're having treatment for cancer, the physical side is explained in great detail, you're hand-held through the entire process.

"But people don't talk as much about the mental impact of treatment, your daily anxieties and fears for the future.

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"I've hit rock bottom on my cancer journey a number of times, particularly this year. It's never been more important to get the mental health support you need to keep you strong when cancer is throwing everything at you."

Deborah, who, like Ryan, was treated at The Royal Marsden in London, is backing The Sun's Joy to the Ward appeal.

She said: “Having a safe space to speak with someone professional who can offer guidance and support makes such a difference.

"I’d encourage everyone to give generously to this appeal to support the mental wellbeing of patients with cancer and their families this Christmas, every donation will make a huge difference.”

'I remember thinking I was going to die'

For Ryan, his symptoms started with stomach pains in November 2020 and were initially diagnosed as the common condition gastroenteritis. 

“Not once did cancer even come into our minds,” said mum Paula, 48. 

When Ryan didn’t improve, he was sent for a scan which showed a section of his bowel had effectively eaten some of his large bowel and he underwent an operation in April this year. 

Shortly afterwards, the family was told Ryan had non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the immune system, and he was referred to The Royal Marsden Hospital, London. 

Facing six months of treatment at a crucial time in his life and education, Ryan says he was petrified. 

He said: “In the space of a few minutes, I was told I had cancer, needed chemotherapy and steroids and had to stay in hospital for a few months.


The Sun’s Joy To The Ward appeal is raising money for NHS Charities Together, the national, independent charity supporting more than 230 NHS charities across the UK.

Your donations will help support children and families going through the toughest times imaginable, providing specialist equipment and services along with toys, play- workers, parents’ accommodation and much more.

DONATE ONLINE: Scan the QR code above with your phone camera to go straight through to our donation page or visitnhscharitiestogether.givesafely.org/joy.

DONATE BY TEXT: Text JOY to 70607 to donate £10 to NHS Charities Together. You’ll be charged £10, plus one message at your standard network rate. NHS Charities Together will receive 100% of your donation.

DONATE BY POST: Use the coupon on the left.

  • NHS Charities Together is the trading name of the Association of NHS Charities. Registered Charity No 1186569 (England & Wales) and SC050716 (Scotland). Company No 12325259

“I remember thinking I was going to die. It seemed so unfair.”

Going through chemotherapy was “brutal” and taking steroids affected Ryan’s emotions. 

Paula said: “A month or so into treatment, Ryan was crying and so angry and in so much pain. 

“He kept saying, ‘It just needs to take me, I’m done, I can’t fight anymore.’

“It was so harrowing to hear as a parent.”

Ryan was referred to the paediatric psychological support team and met clinical psychologist Dr Laurie Josephs. 

She taught Ryan how to manage panic attacks and gave him coping mechanisms when everything felt overwhelming. 

When he went into remission and came home in July, Laurie provided support for Ryan ahead of returning to school – something he was anxious about. 

I wouldn't be where I am today without her

He said: “I didn’t have much hair because of the chemotherapy and I was able to talk through my feelings with Laurie and come to the decision not to wear a hat. 

“The breathing exercises and coping strategies she taught me I still use today when I get stressed about exams or mocks. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without her.”

Ryan added: “The doctors and nurses saved my life, but psychologist Dr Laurie Josephs saved my mind.”

For Paula, Laurie’s intervention quite simply “changed the family’s lives”.

In fact Laurie has inspired Ryan so much that he now wants to become a young person’s counsellor himself. 

Paula said: “Ryan’s come through the worst trauma of his life in a way we could never have dreamed of and a lot of that is down to the mental health support he was given.”

Benefits of therapy

Laurie said: “Psychological support for young people and their families can provide an outlet for these difficult thoughts and feelings that accompany a cancer diagnosis. 

“Some of our sessions focused on learning specific coping skills and other times we made space to talk about difficult thoughts and feelings. 

“I’m looking forward to hearing about Ryan’s journey to becoming a counsellor, I know he’ll be a great one.”

Like Ryan, Sophia Hodge, 11, has benefited from counselling at The Royal Marsden.

She was just nine when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in July 2019. 

Despite going into remission in January 2020, the year 7 pupil has since suffered from PTSD symptoms.

Sophia, from Bexhill, East Sussex, said: “I started getting really anxious and scared about going to hospital for check-ups.

“I’d cry and get angry and upset. I’d have panic attacks if I needed an injection.

“One time, I had to be held down by Mum. 

“I was scared the doctors were going to hurt me and I wouldn’t be allowed to leave hospital.’

Mum Vickie's own expertise in mental health meant she noticed the signs of PTSD in her daughter.

Cancer isn't over when the hair grows back

She said: “She was getting PTSD-like symptoms whenever we had to go to hospital.

“It was heartbreaking watching her go through it. 

“I knew that unless we got help, things would get worse. I think the trauma of treatment – combined with having to shield for a long time – had a huge psychological impact on her at a really fundamental time in her development. 

“Cancer isn’t over when the hair grows back and it was breaking my heart to see my little girl, who has already been through so much medically, so emotionally distressed.”

The pair were offered support from Dr Roberta Bowie, clinical psychologist at the Royal Marsden’s Paediatric and Teenage Psychological Support Service. 

Vickie said: “Roberta has helped Sophia create a hospital passport to tell others about her anxiety and what has happened to her. She’s helped her express how she feels when she has a panic attack.”

For Dr Bowie, Sophia’s journey is sadly familiar. 

She said: “A cancer diagnosis and its treatment can have a long-lasting psychological impact on children, disrupting key moments in their developments with cancer.

“Sophia was at a vulnerable age when she was diagnosed and coming to terms with that isn’t easy. Helping her externalise problems relieved some of the pressure she felt. She’s an amazing girl and is infectious to be around. I hope she’s proud of how far she’s come.”

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