When Hurstpierpoint author Hannah Peckham’s toddler was diagnosed with leukaemia, she feared the worst but then he, her half-sister Zoe Ball and friend Holly Willoughby inspired a very cheeky mission

Being told your child has cancer is every parent’s worst nightmare. For award-winning children’s author Hannah Peckham that nightmare became reality on November 16 last year when her three-year-old son, Bodhi, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

‘The thing with leukaemia is that it’s pretty hard to diagnose,’ says the 42-year-old writer of Conker the Chameleon and sister of fellow Sussex-based TV and radio presenter, Zoe Ball. ‘Bodhi used to walk and run everywhere but he kept saying that his legs were “out of breath”. He wanted to be with me all the time and then he kept picking up these different bugs and saying his tummy hurt. We went to the doctors and A&E, but a lot of these symptoms can be so many other things. Of course, I did that thing mums do and typed them into google and leukaemia came up but, as a parent, you never want to think it might be that. So, when we got the blood test and the doctors told us, I was shocked, it’s just so hard to process a diagnosis like that.’

Great British Life: Bodhi faces three more years of treatment. (c) Leukaemia UK/Lotty StaplesBodhi faces three more years of treatment. (c) Leukaemia UK/Lotty Staples

More than 530 children are diagnosed with leukaemia every year in the UK, making it the most common type of childhood cancer, accounting for around 33 per cent of all cancers in the under 15s. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is the most common type of childhood cancer and affects white blood cells, progresses quickly, aggressively and requires immediate treatment.

‘The first month is horrendous – it’s really intense as they try and send the leukaemia into remission with chemotherapy and those 28 days you're waiting to see if it's high risk or not,’ says Hannah about Bodhi’s treatment which he received at The Royal Marsden in Sutton and The Royal Alexander in Brighton. It was during this initial period of treatment that Bodhi got an infection and had to have an operation to have his central line removed, during which he began bleeding into his lungs.

‘The doctors told me they really weren’t sure if he would survive the op,’ Hannah says. ‘But then he made this miraculous recovery, the anaesthetist and oncologist said they couldn’t quite believe it – one minute they thought they were losing him and then suddenly he just came back fighting.’

The past six months has seen Bodhi and Hannah spend long stretches of up to 52 days at a time at The Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital. It meant that, rather than enjoying the superhero party they had planned to celebrate his fourth birthday in January, Bodhi was hooked up to a drip of antibiotics because his temperature had spiked.

‘We were dreading the fact we had to spend his birthday party weekend in hospital when he was supposed to be having a bouncy castle and eating birthday cake with all his friends,’ Hannah recalls. ‘But Bodhi being Bodhi, as I was getting him dressed, he put his pants on his head and started running around the hospital half-naked.’

Updating a WhatsApp group of family and friends, including her half-sister Zoe and good friend, Holly Willoughby, who she attended Burgess Hill Girls School with as a child, about their progress in hospital, Hannah sent a picture of Bodhi in his socks and vest with his pants on his head.

Great British Life: Zoe Ball and Holly Willoughby support Hannah's Pants to Leukaemia campaignZoe Ball and Holly Willoughby support Hannah's Pants to Leukaemia campaign

‘Holly replied to the message: ‘I’m going to wear my pants on my head all day in solidarity with Bodhi’ and then someone else in the group sent a picture of themselves with pants on their head,’ Hannah recalls. ‘Throughout the day, everyone on the group sent photos with pants on their head, which Bodhi found really funny and it helped get us through the day.’

This empathetic display of support was the catalyst for Hannah to launch the Pants To Leukaemia campaign, an initiative to help raise funds for research into a kinder cure for Leukaemia.

‘Bodhi is now in remission but the thing with leukaemia is that, unlike a cancerous tumour, which they attack and once it’s gone, they know it’s gone, it can hide in certain areas of the body like the spinal fluid,’ Hannah explains. ‘So, he still has three years of treatment – he'll be on daily chemotherapy tablets that I have to give him at home, each month he needs five days of steroids and he'll be having three monthly lumbar punches. That's why I've teamed up with Leukaemia UK on the Pants To Leukaemia initiative to campaign for research into a kinder treatment.”

Great British Life: Bronty's Battle Cry was Hannah's first book. Bronty's Battle Cry was Hannah's first book.

Bodhi’s diagnosis came during the illustration phase of Hannah’s fourth book, Bronty's Battle Cry, which was published this year [Sand tells the story of a dinosaur who tries to find his roar but ends up living life singing to his own tune – 25p from the sale of each book sold in the UK will go to the Pants To Leukaemia fund.

Hannah, who is a trained counsellor and was diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of five, began her writing career just after Bodhi was born and her first book, Conker the Chameleon, was published in 2021.

‘In the 80s being diagnosed as dyslexic was quite unusual, I was the first girl in my school to be diagnosed. So, for me, writing and spelling was always difficult,’ she says. ‘Knowing I was dyslexic, it took me a while to have the confidence to write a book but I think having Bodhi made me realise that I wanted to lay those foundations for him, so if at some point he does, want to talk about his feelings, he's actually got the vocabulary to do so.’

Conker the Chameleon, which won the International Book Awards Mind, Body and Spirit category in 2022, focuses on the zones of regulation – a systematic, cognitive-behavioural approach, which can be used to help children manage difficult emotions and regulate feelings, energy and sensory needs.

This month, the book is the subject of a children’s activity trail at Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens near Horsham. The immersive event invites visitors to explore nature, their senses and their emotions while engaging with the imaginative world of Conker and is designed to help lay the foundation of good mental health in children.

‘In the wild, Chameleon’s change colour to show their feelings and the book is about a little Chameleon who can’t change colour so he so he goes on his at this little journey and learns how to talk about his feelings instead,’ explains Hannah. ‘Often children just don’t have that social, emotional vocabulary around their feelings so that’s what Conker does in a really gentle way and obviously working with Leonardslee is wonderful because it's just such a gorgeous environment to be in.”

Great British Life: The family want to raise money to save other children. (c) Leukaemia UK/Lotty StaplesThe family want to raise money to save other children. (c) Leukaemia UK/Lotty Staples

Hannah, who has since published follow-up book, Conker and the Monkey Trap, and Climb, about an elephant who wants to climb a tree to show his worth, has three more books in the pipeline but at the moment her focus is on caring for Bodhi and spearheading the Pants To Leukemia campaign.

On July 22, she is hosting an event to raise awareness of the initiative at Danny House in Hurstpierpoint. In the lead up to the event, the town’s high street will be decorated in blue and orange bunting, representing Leukaemia UK’s branding (orange) and Bodhi’s favourite colour (blue). On The Big Pants Party day itself, there will be DJ sets from Zoe Ball and Norman Cook’s children, Woody and Nelly Cook, a graffiti wall, craft tents, food stalls and an ice cream van as well as a Guinness World Record attempt for the most people in one place with pants on their head.

‘Because Bodhi didn’t get his party, we thought we’d do something that not only raises funds and awareness but is full of his favourite things – it’s taking some organizing but I’m a mum on a mission and people are being so incredibly supportive,’ Hannah says. ‘It's kind of my way of coping at the moment – it makes us feel like everyone is a part of it, so it doesn't feel like what we’re going through is quite as lonely. We want it to be the best party ever for Bodhi and one that everyone can come and be a part of.’

• For details on how to book tickets to The Big Pants Party on July 22, follow @h.j.peckham and @leukaemiauk on Instagram

• To make a donation to the Pants to Leukaemia fund visit: justgiving.com/fundraising/teambodhi

• The Conker Activity Trail at Leondardslee Lakes and Gardens runs to July 23 – find out more at leonardsleegardens.co.uk