Dubai expat Pauline Herbert talks about her son's battle with leukaemia and why we're seeing golden ribbons everywhere. (It's Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, that's why!)
Pauline Herbert could not fathom why her son, Oliver, had suddenly begun eschewing his love for football and opting to sit out games on the bench instead. The Dubai mum-of-two also began spotting a lot of bruises on his body that he could not explain. When he started catching infections, "one after the other", they decided a more serious medical check was in order. That's when Oliver was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL) - a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
A cancer diagnosis is a lot to swallow for 'grownups' - let alone 12-year-olds. And yet, childhood cancers are hardly uncommon. In fact, according to World Health Organization, cancer is a leading cause of death for children and adolescents around the world and approximately 300,000 children aged zero to 19 years old are diagnosed with cancer every year.
September is the month to recognise that, which is why you may be seeing an uptick in the number of golden ribbons on people's social media profiles this month. The colour is meant to represent how precious children are.
For Pauline and Oliver, the ribbon is a symbol of the "rollercoaster" that the last two years have been. Oliver was diagnosed in September 2018, and the treatment cycle began almost immediately. "When you first find out, you barely have time to get your head around it before you need to start the chemotherapy," says Pauline. "The first eight months were really intensive. We were in and out of the hospital 80 per cent of the time."
The good news now is that Oliver has reached the maintenance phase of his treatment - which is to say, he's in remission. "There are no cancer cells in his blood now," says the Lebanese expat with obvious relief. "The maintenance phase is to make sure that nothing comes back."
The Year 8 student was unable to attend school or meet his friends for much of the treatment plan, and needed a private tutor to help him cope. "Our school gave us all iPads; the teacher would post the homework and we'd do it that way," Oliver tells WKND. "I'm allowed to meet my friends now, but I can't - because of Covid-19." Looking back on his experience, the Arsenal fan says it was definitely "scary and difficult" at the start but adds, "I've gotten used to it now."
The youngster's resilience is a trait that Pauline says surprised and amazed them in equal measure. "It's not enough to tell a child he has to fight - you have to help them understand what it is they're fighting. So, we were talking to him all the time, preparing him mentally. We didn't just let things happen to him. Because of that, when things happened, they didn't take him by surprise. And it's amazing what a great fight children can put up when they understand. I think they're far more resilient than adults."
Perhaps one of the most challenging points in the journey was when Oliver had to be induced into a two-week coma. "That was very, very hard," says Pauline, who works as a copyeditor. "We don't know how it happened, because we were shielding him, but there was a point just before he moved on to maintenance that he caught something - and it developed into a severe pneumonia." Pauline says Oliver's condition escalated in a matter of hours. "He couldn't breathe anymore, so they had to put him on a massive ventilator, for which he needed to be induced into a coma."
Thankfully, Oliver's lungs recovered in two weeks and he was able to breathe without ventilator support. The rehab that followed, however, was a real uphill struggle. "It was like a complete reset. He couldn't remember anything: how to walk, how to use his fingers, even how to put two Lego blocks together - and Oliver was really skilled with Lego. He used to be a Lego genius." Eventually, a behavioural therapist helped the youngster regain all of those basic skills again.
As parents, having to watch your child undergo these trials - the chemo cycles, vomiting, hair loss, lethargy and more - is crushing. "There were loads of tears," admits Pauline. "But also moments when we had to say we're doing the best we can - for both kids. You sort of stretch your mental abilities as much as possible." And an experience like this, she says, can only make you stronger. "You learn how to put things into perspective, how to prioritise your worries. When you've got that mental awareness, you feel like you are in control of the situation, not the other way around. And that makes such a difference. As a family, all of us have grown a lot. We didn't have an option."
There are a lot of 'signs' for cancer that are easy to miss - even for paediatricians. As with all cancers, a misdiagnosis or late diagnosis is often the cause for a very different ending to such stories. Pauline's advice is straightforward: "Listen to your child, don't ignore the signs, follow your parental instinct, and don't go to Dr Google. You'll only get really scary answers that won't help you or your child."