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Learn lesson of tragic songbird Eva: heed cancer warning signs

Following her death from melanoma several years ago, Eva Cassidy's parents want to raise awareness of skin cancer in her memory, writes Áilín Quinlan

The swiftness with which it does its deadly work is unreal. It's a very fast growing cancer – ignore it at your peril

Beautiful, talented, and by her late twenties already a promising singer and guitarist, Eva Cassidy seemed to have it all.

Although not yet known on the international stage, music was the big love of Eva's life.

The third of four children, the Washington-born singer – who is now a household name for her renditions of 'Fields of Gold' and 'Over the Rainbow' – was in her late-20s in 1992 when she noticed the mole on her shoulder.

"Eva had been holidaying in the Caribbean, where she met a dermatologist who noticed it, and told her she should get it checked out," recalls her mother Barbara, speaking for the first time about her daughter's ordeal.

Eva saw a dermatologist and was immediately sent for a biopsy on the mole on her shoulder. The results were positive and an operation was scheduled.

The melanoma was removed:

"She was told it was not all that deep, and that she had a bright future ahead of her, health-wise," her mother recalls.

Yet, says Barbara, she worried:

"As a mother you always worry about your children, and it niggled with me."

Officially, however, things were okay.

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"It was believed that the doctors had got whatever vestiges remained of the melanoma – the doctor felt he had gone deep enough," says Eva's father Hugh, a retired schoolteacher.

However, that was not the case.

Reassured by the apparent success of her operation, Eva didn't attend the follow-up appointments in the months after it.

"They wanted to do regular check-ups but she didn't go because she thought it was unnecessary. She thought everything had been taken care of," recalls Hugh.

Eva moved out of home into a little apartment in Annapolis, Maryland, and continued to sing and record, working as a gardener to earn extra money.

"She was very happy – it was her first real apartment," recalls Hugh, and for the next few years Eva lived there with her cats.

Life, it seemed, was on the up and up.

In 1993, Cassidy was honoured by the Washington Area Music Association with a Wammie Award. The following year she was invited to perform at the event, and chose to sing 'Over the Rainbow', a performance which a 'Washington Times' review described as a show-stopper.

She took home two more awards that night, a sure sign that her career was starting to really take off.

"But unknown to us," says Hugh now, "the cancer was thriving in her."

The first red flag came during the summer of 1996, when the young musician was working with artist friends, painting murals in schools.

"She'd have to get up on a ladder to paint," recalls Barbara. "She noticed her hip was sore all the time and so she went to have an X-ray – they found that her hip was completely severed. It was amazing that she wasn't experiencing more pain."

Eva was scheduled for a hip replacement, but first had to undergo a battery of tests.

"An X-ray of her chest found the cancer had spread to her lungs," says Barbara.

"It dawned on us that it was all connected to her original cancer. It was a terrible realisation – it later turned out to be in her shoulder as well, and this made it difficult for her to continue playing guitar."

Nevertheless, Eva continued to go to the recording studio and to record as much as she could.

Eva's oncologist suggested aggressive treatment:

"It was felt that this could result in five years of living but that without it, she could have just six months to live. It was a terrible shock and we decided on the aggressive treatment," recalls Barbara.

But things got worse and worse. Eventually, says Hugh, even the drive to the hospital in Baltimore for treatment, an hour from the family home, was excruciating for her.

"These were normal roads but she was feeling every vibration."

Visitors filled the family house, to which Eva had now returned.

"Eva had wonderful friends, there was never a day when someone didn't come.

"She was prayed for by so many people, and she was never lonely but always well loved to the end.

On September 16 Cassidy gave her last performance in Washington: "She got on the stage with a walker and her last song was 'What a Wonderful World' and there wasn't a dry eye in the place," says Hugh, who recalls how one of the country's foremost record companies contacted the young singer shortly before she died.

"On her deathbed Bruce Lundvall of Blue Note Records rang and apologised for not signing her. In later interviews he said he made a bad mistake in not signing her," says Hugh sadly.

The singer, who had so much ahead of her, died on November 2 at the family home. She was just 33. Her ashes were scattered at a favourite beauty spot.

"Eva was always drawn to the water. Southern Maryland is very beautiful, and she requested that her ashes be scattered on St Mary's River. It was a very bittersweet moment. We still go down there several times a year," says Barbara.

Cassidy's music soon gained international recognition. Some 18 months after her death, her haunting version of 'Over the Rainbow' was played by Terry Wogan on BBC Radio 2 to an overwhelming public response.

Soon afterwards, 'Songbird', an album compiled shortly after her death – consisting of studio demos and live recordings – climbed to the top of the UK albums charts and led to worldwide recognition for the young singer. Posthumously released recordings have sold more than 10 million copies and her music has climbed to the top 10 chart positions in Australia, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland.

"People are much more aware now of the dangers of the sun," says Barbara, while Hugh adds:

"I think people nowadays wouldn't miss their follow-up appointments – the swiftness with which it does its deadly work is unreal. It's a very fast growing cancer – you ignore it at your peril."

"It will be good if people are made more aware of the insidiousness of this cancer and the perils of it – you have to heed the warnings."