BEFORE tragically passing away from a rare form of cancer in 2020, Toni Crews made an extraordinary decision.
And tonight, after the mum-of-two offered her body to medical research, it will be dissected by scientists in a TV documentary – a first in British history.
Channel 4's My Dead Body will tell Toni’s story and explore her life and death alongside emotional interviews with her loved ones who were determined to carry out her last wishes.
The 30-year-old also narrates the film in her own words – producers used entries from a diary she kept and even replicated her voice using AI technology.
It is hoped that the documentary will bring Toni’s condition to the forefront and will help save thousands of people.
Toni, from Kent, was the the eldest of three sisters. At university, she embarked on an occupational therapy degree, but dropped out to work in a care home and started a family.
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At the end of 2016, while she was in her mid 20s, she started complaining of headaches and burry vision.
In October that year, she told her parents the devastating news that doctors found a rare cancer, adenocarcinoma, inside her tear gland.
Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that begins in the lining of the glands inside an organ.
The disease can affect areas such as the colon, breasts, oesophagus, lungs, pancreas, or prostate.
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In an interview with The Guardian, her mother Jo said: “She downplayed it, telling us it was nothing to worry about. But, of course, that won’t stop a mother being a mother."
Toni had an operation that November to remove the cancer, as it was aggressive and resistant to chemotherapy.
During the surgery, her right eye and some of its surrounding tissues were removed – doctors had informed her this was the best chance of survival.
He father Jason said: “By early 2017, the surgeons were confident they’d taken all of the tumour out. With Toni and her doctors so positive, we weren’t too worried."
Believing she was cancer-free, life slowly returned to normal for Toni, who was a doting mother to her two young children.
But in mid 2018, she was heartbroken when she started to experience painful headaches again.
Although they thought it was the nerves settling after the operation, doctors later discovered that another tumour had been growing where her eye had been.
After further surgery, Toni and her parents remained convinced that she was on the mend – only for her health to tragically take another downward spiral in January 2020.
The cancer was back and had spread, with an oncologist advising the family not to “waste” time in hospitals but “go home and make memories”.
A month after that, Toni tragically passed away at home.
Prepared for grief
In the months leading up to her death, Toni made sure to teach her kids about dealing with grief and and even organised a baby shower for her sister and a family trip to Legoland.
She also asked her parents to take care of her kids once she was gone, and told them about her wishes for her body after her death.
Toni wanted to teach people about cancer and even ran several pages on social media which gave people signs to look out for and how to seek help.
Her parents say when she eventually told them about her plans for her body, they were not surprised.
But although they thought they knew the magnitude of their daughter’s decisions, they were unaware of exactly how “groundbreaking” it would be.
Plan to action
When Toni died at the age of 30 in August 2020, her family and a team of experts worked tirelessly to make her wishes come true.
There was no funeral held when she died – her body was instead giving to anatomy professor Claire Smith and her colleagues, who informed the family they wanted to make a film.
Prof Smith, of Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said: "By donating her body to public display, the first of its kind in the UK, Toni Crews has given us an extraordinary and unique look into the journey of the disease.
"While the presence of her voice in the form of diary entries and letters and social media posts ensures the film is filled with all the warmth and generosity that characterised Toni’s inspiring life.”
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After the making of the documentary, Toni’s family held a small cremation ceremony to finally say goodbye to her.
Jason added: "Because the medics have kept some parts of Toni for teaching for years to come, she’ll go on educating – her legacy continues.”
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