ON Monday, just hours after losing her daughter Laura to a brain tumour, Nicola Nuttall climbed wearily into her car to keep her regular appointment to give blood.
In a haze of grief, she knew the 23-year-old would have wanted it that way after growing frustrated that cancer had put a stop to her own donations.
It was Nicola’s simple, immediate way to honour her daughter, whose incredible courage in the face of a devastating diagnosis even coaxed comedian Peter Kay out of semi-retirement.
Nicola, 53, said: “Laura was so public minded. She signed up to give blood as soon as she turned 17 and was annoyed when cancer stopped her donating.
“I knew she would have expected me to show up, no matter what. When I got there a part of me wanted to stand up on a table and shout, ‘My daughter died this morning’ but I resisted.”
Little squeezes from her hand lessened before they finally stopped.
Nicola says comic Peter, who struck up a close friendship with student Laura, sent regular messages of support through her final days.
The family are now showing the same resilience in Laura’s death as she showed in life, vowing to carry on her legacy to raise awareness and funds for research into the cancer that killed her, glioblastoma multiforme.
Today Nicola reveals that in a final altruistic act, Laura has donated her brain for research into the aggressive disease.
It is the biggest cancer killer of children and under-40s but gets just two per cent of research funding.
Nicola, of Nelson, Lancs, said: “Laura was very aware that things will never change unless there’s more research, and that’s why she decided to leave her brain to science, but it’s very emotional for us as her family.
“When she first signed up for it the nurse told me, ‘You can change your mind at any time because she’s your little girl’, and of course there’s a part of me that feels like doing that. But we have to do what Laura wanted.
“If it stops another family going through what we’ve been through, then it will be worth it.”
In a 2021 interview Laura poignantly asked: “What kind of legacy will I leave if I just focus on myself and not others?”
Her life touched thousands of strangers around the world as Nicola recorded her daughter’s highs and lows using the Twitter handle @shitscaredmum.
Laura also pushed herself forward to raise the profile of brain cancer and drew up an extensive bucket list which she described as “never ending, because when it ends, I end”.
Among other challenges she finished her degree, drove a monster truck, met former American First Lady Michelle Obama, went fishing with Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, presented a TV weather forecast, commanded a Royal Navy warship, rode pillion on a racing motorbike with former champ Ron Haslam and shared stories with Bowel Babe cancer campaigner Dame Deborah James, who died last June.
Laura’s boundless determination and sheer will to survive meant she outlived the year-long diagnosis she was given in 2018, which came during her first university term at King’s College London, where she studied politics, philosophy and economics.
An eye test which was part of an application to join the Royal Navy Reserves showed a swollen optic nerve, and further tests showed she had eight brain tumours.
But Laura refused to give up without a fight, enduring 11 cycles of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, several invasive operations and private immunotherapy treatment in Germany, paid for by donations.
In 2021 Peter Kay made his comeback in two fundraising gigs for Laura after taking a break from public life four years earlier.
Laura’s dad Mark is a film and TV storyboard artist — producing a series of sketches from a script to show how the finished production could look — and he knew Peter from working on his Noughties C4 sitcom Max And Paddy’s Road To Nowhere.
They had lost touch but Peter phoned after seeing Laura’s story on his local TV news.
He has since become a close friend of the Nuttalls and often visited Laura, who told The Sun last November: “He comes round and makes me laugh until my cheeks hurt.”
Nicola said: “Peter has been by our side all the way. He didn’t want to intrude but has been keeping in contact with us offering support.”
She continued: “Nobody knows what to say to us really. I miss Laura. I miss Laura the little girl, I miss the girl she was and I miss the future she’s not going to get.
“All grief is horrible, but to lose your child, who you’ve been with every moment of their life, whose every wish and every ambition you know, whose stories you have heard, whose hope you hold for them . . . it’s a very distinct type of grief.
‘When she was studying for A-levels Laura was also doing her advanced driving test and training for a marathon. She was always in a rush – and never more so than when she was diagnosed.
“I’m imagining Christmas morning when there are just the three of us.
“There’s a big pile of board games in the cupboard and I’m thinking I might as well throw them away because there are only three of us instead of four and we won’t want to play them again.
“People say you get used to a new ‘normal’ but I can’t think that far right now.”
Laura’s condition began to worsen this month and she lost the ability to speak, instead communicating with a thumbs up or down.
Two weeks ago the family were told there was little hope, after she was no longer able to swallow.
Mark and Nicola moved a sofa next to her bed so they could sleep beside her.
Little sister Gracie also spent hours with her as the family said a slow goodbye.
The sisters had vowed to get matching tattoos but Laura ran out of time, so Gracie inked matching apple and strawberry stencils on their wrists.
Nicola spent hours reading Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree to Laura, as she had done when she was a child.
Laura was still able to squeeze her family’s hands until two days before she died, and Nicola said she was “as tenacious in death as she was in life”.
She added: “I’d look at Laura over those last days when she was sleeping and think, ‘She looks as she’s always looked. Maybe she’ll wake up and do better today’.
“She’d been written off before and I thought, ‘I can’t under-estimate her’, but this cancer is so pernicious and so evil.
“It stole every bit of her, bit by bit. She lost her voice two weeks ago, then she couldn’t eat or swallow. All the things that made her Laura just disappeared.
“It was heartbreaking because I’d give her a bed bath and look at how strong her body was, how fit and healthy she was.
“Her body was in great shape but her brain was not, and that’s what’s so cruel about it.”
Through tears, Nicola tells funny stories about Laura — how she convinced her and Mark to let her intern in America after secretly fixing up a room online instead of staying with a “friend” she invented, how she worked for Trading Standards, who would give her a £10 gift voucher to see if off-licences would sell her booze under age, and how she made her family laugh.
Nicola said: “When she was studying for A-levels Laura was also doing her advanced driving test and training for a marathon.
“She was always in a rush — and never more so than when she was diagnosed.”
Despite her public profile, Laura has asked her parents to give her a private cremation attended by close family only.
Nicola, Mark and Gracie intend to mark her life with a party or festival this summer, then return to fundraising for Laura’s charities.
The family have been floored by the amount of online tributes to Laura, and flowers and gifts have been arriving at their home every day since her death.
Among the messages is a thank-you from a local secondary school which last year asked her to write a “life letter” to sixth-formers.
She signed it off with: “Be kind, be brave, be silly, be honest, be happy, be you.”
Laura — who once wrote a letter to her cancer saying: “I’m sorry I ruined your plans” — said that on the day she was diagnosed she had two options.
She added: “I could say, ‘All right, that’s fine, I’m going to sit here and die, or am I going to do something about it and stay positive?’ — and that is what I chose to do.”
It was a vow that Laura stood by right until the end.
Trains, boats, planes
WHAT Laura managed to tick off her bucket list . . .
- Went fishing with Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer (she caught a pike, they caught nothing)
- Graduated with a 2:1 in politics, philosophy and economics after switching from King’s College London to Manchester University when she fell sick
- Met Michelle Obama
- Drove a monster truck, a bus, a 650-ton crane, a tractor, a digger and a tank
- Had a pub lunch with comic Peter Kay and danced on stage with him in front of 10,000 people
- Travelled to the US
- Had a video chat with educational activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai
- Visited the Royal Mint and pressed a 50p coin
- Went on safari in South Africa
- Watched the Women’s Euro footie final at Wembley and received a video message from the England captain, Leah Williamson
- Had a song dedicated to her by The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr
- Drove a London Underground train
- Completed a skydive
- Presented the weather on BBC TV
- Commanded a Royal Navy warship
- Spent a day with police tackling a simulated riot
- Went sailing around the west coast of Scotland with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust
- Had tea at The Ritz with newscaster Sophie Raworth
- Ran a marathon
- Visited the Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and Heinz factories in Wigan, receiving tins with her name on
- Carried a baton at 2022 Commonwealth Games
- Met TV’s Fiona Bruce
- Rubbed shoulders with X-Files star Gillian Anderson