“Kids get cancer but don’t assume the worst”

Before March this year, Meagan Dodgson had never heard the word “neuroblastoma”. Now it is a word she will never forget.

Sitting in the clinic room of a paediatrician in rural NSW, Meagan had a hundred things running through her head to explain why her baby girl, Makayla, had suddenly lost feeling from her hips down, but cancer was not one of them.

When the paediatrician said, “I think it’s neuroblastoma”, Meagan’s world turned upside down.

Neuroblastoma is a rare form of childhood cancer that causes tumours to develop in the nerve tissue that runs up the back of the abdomen and chest and into the skull, following the line of the spinal cord.

In a matter of hours, Meagan and six-month-old Makayla were on a helicopter, being flown directly to The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, where the diagnosis was confirmed.

Scans, tests and surgery revealed Makayla had a tumour in her chest that was so large it had fused through her spine. The cancer had also spread to her liver, rib, arm and bottom.

Chemotherapy was the best option for treatment and started almost immediately, with the Hospital becoming Makayla and Meagan’s new home for the foreseeable future.

 “From the moment we arrived, I knew Makayla was in the best hands possible. She was being treated for more than her condition, the doctors and nurses recognised her as a person, which makes so much difference,” Meagan said.

Since March, Makayla has undergone seven rounds of chemotherapy with one more round to go before she is rescanned to see if the tumours have shrunk enough for surgery.

Makayla is one of more than 300 children cared for by the Network’s Cancer Centre for Children and Kids Cancer Centre each year. Thankfully, due to advancements in technology, treatment and research, the outlook is good.

Since 1983, the five year survival rate for childhood cancer has increased by more than 10 per cent, rising from 72 per cent to 84 per cent. Treatments to improve outcomes for children and adolescents have also continued to improve.

“Research, especially through clinical trials, has been the most important factor in improving the outcome for children with cancer,” Dr Luciana Dalla-Pozza, Head of the Cancer Centre for Children, said.

“New medicines and treatments have also been developed through intense research including immunotherapy which have enormous potential not only to further increase the cure rate but also with much less toxicity.”

This fills Makayla’s future with hope.

“I wouldn’t want any other parent to go through what we’ve had to but if it happens, I want people to know that kids do get cancer and not to assume the worst.”

“Yes cancer is scary and not everyone has a beautiful outcome but all the doctors and researchers are doing everything they can to get a beautiful outcome and to help our kids get better,” Meagan said.

“As long as they’re here and you’re here to fight with them, anything can happen.”

This month is International Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time to shine the light on childhood cancer, to reflect on how far treatments have come but also to recognise how important research is to finding better treatments, and one day, cures for the future.