As our eldest daughter approaches her 18th birthday, I poise to reflect on why this is more than just a birthday celebration. She was diagnosed five years ago with a rare disease, a less common type of neuroendocrine tumour called a paraganglioma – quite a mouthful. We entered the public hospital system here in our home state not as strangers. You see we had already been through this almost two decades earlier with our first born son whom at just 13 months of age was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that occurs in specialised nerve cells which are involved in the development of the nervous system and other tissues.
Neuroblastoma is the most common solid tumour diagnosed in children aged five years. In Australia 40 children each year are diagnosed with neuroblastoma which is considered a ‘rare cancer’. Of those children with high risk or stage 4 only 50% will survive.
We were up against it back then, the protocol was brutal, our son was put through a cytotoxic cocktail of chemotherapy drugs, then surgery, more chemo, an autologous stem cell transplant, radiotherapy and finally retinoic acid which concluded the end of his nine months of treatment.
It was some months before he returned to being a cheerful, happy little boy. This cancer treatment took it’s toll not only on him physically, but emotionally and mentally we bore the scars. Our lives were in limbo, as Luke continued with regular blood tests and scans to monitor the effectiveness of his treatment and to alert us as to whether he would ‘relapse’. This eventually happened approximately five months later, in November 1998. The warning signs were there, loss of appetite, lethargy, it was time to get some answers…
Further scans indicated ‘widespread progression of his disease with a massive abdominal recurrence which extended into the extradural space, invasion of his vena cava, a mediastinal mass and parenchymal lung metastases.’ A Tumour Advisory Committee Meeting dated the 8th December recommended a palliative approach was an appropriate way to go.
We had a few options;
- continue chemotherapy for about six weeks to get us through Christmas
- admission to hospital as an in-patient palliatively
- go home with palliative care support
We chose the later. Three weeks later our son passed away peacefully at home, just five days prior to Christmas 1998.
Our daughter came into our lives as a ‘rainbow baby’ as my husband and I had also suffered a stillbirth just months prior to Luke’s death. As she reaches this birthday milestone we are saddened that our son never had this opportunity, but ever so special for us as a family that one of children have made it this far. Although her condition is currently stable, considered to have metastatic potential ( she has tumours near lumbar and sacrum) as it is hereditary she will be monitored for the rest of her life. She has been through surgeries, and more recently PRRT. She will continue having regular blood tests and scans. If required she will have further treament. This year she will graduate from High School and her positive attitude and outlook on life are a real tribute, as is her resilience.
We cannot control our circumstances, but we try not to live in fear. Despite our hardships I feel an unwavering amount of gratitude, it allows you to look at things retrospectively. We really have so much to be grateful for, including an organisation – the only one in AUS/NZ dedicated to supporting patients with NETs the Unicorn Foundation.
This September Childhood Cancer Awareness Month kicks off as the Sydney Opera House sails will ‘light up’ gold to honour all those children diagnosed with cancer on September 1st. It will be a special night as families, friends and supporters of those affected gather for a candlelight vigil, all people are welcome and LED candles will be provided. During the evening, images of children who are going through treatment, survivors, and precious lives not lived will feature on a big screen. You can be part of this virtual tribute wall by emailling your tribute (a photo and a few words about your loved one) to firstname.lastname@example.org