Hollie Robinson-Marsh, 21, on holiday last year
 

The giggling girl with the cheeky smile won a place in history when she had a starring role in Princess Diana’s very last official engagement in Britain. On that day in July 1997 Hollie Robinson-Marsh, who had lost her hair during hospital treatment for leukaemia, made a beeline for the glamorous Royal visitor and Diana responded by sweeping her into her arms.

The delightful picture of that moment is often published to represent the natural warmth and kindness of the Princess of Wales, who died only a month later in that terrible Paris car crash.

As for Hollie, she survived her brush with cancer, never lost her bright and infectious smile, and grew up into the cheerful young woman pictured above. But in the end the same disease came back to claim her life 17 years later – and she finally succumbed to leukaemia just over three weeks ago.

For Hollie’s parents Clare Robinson and Gary Marsh the Diana photo perfectly sums up the brave spirit that helped Hollie, then four, overcome her childhood cancer.

“She was never a sickly child. She was always so bouncy and full of life – nothing fazed her,” says Clare. “We’re still shell-shocked at the moment. I’ll never come to terms with it because I’ll never understand it. She beat leukaemia once and it should never have come back.”

Discovering how much Hollie had touched the hearts of everyone she met has brought the family some comfort as they grieve.

Clare, 46, a school lunch supervisor, and Gary, 50, who works at Heathrow Airport, presumed a dozen or so of their daughter friends would go to her funeral. But in the end there were hundreds.

“I never knew the impact she’d had on people,” says Clare, whose sister whispered to her as crowds gathered on either side of the road that it reminded her of Diana’s funeral. “We had no idea how many people would turn up but there were so many they couldn’t all get in. They were lined up outside. To see how special she was to other people was so humbling. Seeing that, and getting so many messages, I know she will be remembered.”

Hollie was first diagnosed with leukaemia two days after her fourth birthday in December 1996. She was on the children’s ward in Northwick Park Hospital, North London, near the family home in Harrow, when Diana came to visit.

“Hollie jumped off the bed to have her photo taken with the Princess,” says Clare. “Diana picked her up to put her on her lap and couldn’t believe how heavy she was. I think she expected her to be light because she was ill. She’d said, ‘Oh my God, you weigh a ton of bricks!’ And that’s why Hollie was laughing.”

The family treasured the image of smiling Hollie. But it was only after Diana died that the “impact of the meeting hit”, says Clare. The Royal Mint asked to use the image on the booklet for a commemorative £5 coin and US TV stations interviewed Hollie during their funeral coverage.

The image of Holly with Princess Diana became the official photo for her memorial coin in 1997
 

Clare says: “We explained Princess Diana’s death to Hollie and she did the interviews but she wasn’t fazed by it. Nothing fazed her. At Great Ormond Street Hospital she’d never ask me why this boy only had one leg or why that girl had no hair. To Hollie everyone was the same and that stayed with her as an adult.

“A lot of her friends never knew she’d met Princess Diana, nor even that she had leukaemia. She just wanted to be normal.” On leaving school Hollie, who was an older sister to Jake, 18, Louie, 15 and Millie, 10, won a full-time job with Kids Can Achieve, a support group for children with autism and special needs.

The family later learned how she seemed to have a “magic touch” with children.

But towards the end of last year she started suffering back pain so severe she said it was like “being kicked in the back by someone wearing Dr Martens”.

Clare had never been concerned about the cancer returning during Hollie’s normal childhood ailments, but this time her instinct told her it was different.

“I had this sick feeling for the days before she was told it had come back,” she says. “Her symptoms were completely different to when she was a child but I just knew it was back.”

For a second time, the devastating diagnosis close to her birthday, December 11.

“All I wanted was for her to have her birthday. When she was diagnosed as a child it was the day before her birthday party and I just kept thinking, ‘Not on her birthday again’. Then to find out it was exactly the same cancer...”

Typically, Hollie kept her positive outlook. “She used to say to the doctors, ‘It’s OK for me because I don't remember it the first time so I’m only doing it once. But my mum’s got to do it twice’. That was Hollie all over, thinking of everyone else. She’d never let us get upset. She’d say, ‘Mum if you keep crying I’m going to send you home and you won’t be allowed to visit me for a couple of days. I don’t want anyone crying. She was so positive and so strong. All she ever wanted to do was get her life back.”

After gruelling rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy the only time Clare saw Hollie in tears when was she was told she needed a bone-marrow transplant, which would leave her unable to have children.

"Even then she decided she would adopt a child with Down’s Syndrome,” says Clare. “She’d made so many plans for after the transplant, including getting a new car and going to New York. She would have done them too, knowing her.”

Her brother Jake was a perfect match and and they went into hospital together for the operation on August 21. But one last course of treatment before the transplant proved too much and Hollie’s organs began to fail. She spent her last three days of her life in intensive care before dying on September 13.

Among mourners at her funeral were nurses from the hospital and the parents of children she had looked after.

“One person said there was just something about her, that she had this light that shone whenever she walked in a room. A friend of hers said Hollie was like the horse whisperer, but with children. She had a gift. I’ve found out things like that since she died. Now I can look at her life and think we were given those extra 17 years for a reason.”