Bryony Daly was just 9 years old when she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive muscle tumour in her leg. In a few short weeks her life was completely shattered by a barrage of aggressive treatments – surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy – all in the shockingly stressful environment of the decrepit Victorian Children’s Hospital in Bristol, a hundred miles from home. A few months into treatment, she was skin and bone and hadn’t the motivation to do anything except lie and listen to stories. She had lost the will to live.
Meanwhile, we as parents were frantically doing everything we could to support her. Like many before and since, we were utterly shocked to realise that since Bryony was under 18, we had absolutely no choice at all as to her medical treatment. So all our efforts were directed to helping in other ways. But this was a time well before the arrival of the internet – there weren’t even any mobile phones then – so our findings and our understanding of cancer were naturally very limited.
Healing was amongst the supportive resources we did find and use. Following a healing session when Bryony was at an extremely low point and being fed via a tube, the healer predicted a turnaround ‘in about two weeks’. We didn’t know what to make of this at the time, but thanked him and carried on caring for Bryony in every way we could. Exactly – as I realised in retrospect – two weeks to the day, I saw the turnaround occur, while Bryony was on a very rare visit home for the afternoon. From her usual situation – lying down on the sofa, being read to – she suddenly decided to get up and play the piano for a few minutes – the first time she had played since her diagnosis, and the first motivated action she had taken in a very long time. Despite 9 months more gruelling treatment, she became increasingly well and her outlook and demeanour completely recovered. In fact, she was now more present than ever, having decided to embrace her life as it was, rather than mourning the life she had lost.
During this period, Bryony was offered a free visit to the inspirational Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (HITWGC) in Connecticut, a summer camp for children with life-threatening illness set up by Paul Newman. This was quite an adventure, which started when she was collected from our home in a chauffeured car. She came back a little over a week later, clearly transformed by the experience. Such was her enthusiasm for camp, that every following year she found a way to go to one of the camps, in the USA, Ireland or England.
Her difficulties were certainly far from over though. The treatment of her muscle tumour had been ‘successful’ in that it never returned. In medical terms, this was a breakthrough, as a few years earlier, they would have amputated her leg, treated her, and then she would have died. Childhood cancers are voracious, and treatment up until the later part of the 20th century was almost uniformly unsuccessful. But the treatment was a clumsy, blunt instrument, and the leg she was left with was useless. It was never going to grow to its full length without very experimental surgery. After meeting people with similar experiences, Bryony had just made the bold decision to go ahead with an amputation when she was diagnosed with radiotherapy-induced bone cancer. So at age 13, the amputation went ahead, followed by another 6 months of high-dose chemotherapy in Bristol.
Almost a decade of good health followed, and she was able to get back to school, to her social circle, and her music.
Apart from her state-of-the-art prosthetic limb and ongoing supportive treatment such as mistletoe therapy, life became relatively normal. Through her teens, Bryony continued to manage a trip to the HITWGC every summer, until eventually she was too old. At this point she decided to train to become a leader, which resulted in her spending the entire summer in Connecticut each year, heading up one group after another. Her personal experience enabled her to know exactly the place that many of the arriving young campers were in, and exactly what was needed for them to have the same transformative experience that she had had years before. There are many accounts of her irrepressible style, such as the day she brought a large dustbin in to breakfast, pulled off her leg and dropped it in, got all the children with prosthetics to follow suit, and had a day of celebrating one-leggedness and one-armedness – which featured a lot of hopping!
Meanwhile, Bryony left school and went to the Birmingham University, intent on becoming a music teacher. This plan was brutally cut short when she was 22 by another radiotherapy-induced bone cancer, diagnosed tragically late, after she had already developed secondaries in her lungs. She died of lung failure just a few months later, despite all efforts.
Her life was brief and in many ways tragic. But primarily it was enormously joyful and enthusiastic, and inspirationally courageous in the way she encompassed and faced into each challenge that came her way, even her own death. The light she lit continues to burn brightly 15 years later, never failing to light a smile in family and friends around the world. She is still remarkably present, particularly in the spirit of Yes to Life, where huge numbers receive the benefit of the help she knew was so desperately needed by so many.
Robin Daly – Founder, Chairman and Father