IT’S a special moment for any mum as they watch their little one take their first faltering steps.
For Cathie Robertson, seeing daughter Cara stand on her own two feet not only marked an important milestone, it signalled something much more important – she was beating cancer.
Toddler Cara was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) when she was only 18 months old in July 2013. The news devastated Cathie and Cara’s dad, Henry Adam, as doctors told them their baby would face years of intense treatment to beat the disease.
But today, more than a year after that awful day, Cara’s prognosis looks good. Her little body has been through gruelling chemotherapy but she’s responding well and although the illness held back her development slightly, she’s catching up with all the important milestones as she approaches her third birthday on December 11.
And she’s just been awarded a Cancer Research UK Little Star award, a joint venture between the charity and TK Maxx to recognise the courage of children who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Sitting at home, watching her daughter play, primary teacher Cathie, 39, says: “I look back on everything that’s happened since last summer and think to myself, ‘how did we get through that?’ I think you just go on to autopilot and try to be quite practical as a way of coping.
“I try not to show how upset I am in front of Cara, but when she took her first steps, it was amazing to be able to share something happy with her. I burst into tears, real genuine tears of joy.
“Because of her treatment, Cara didn’t walk around the 18-month mark like other babies. It took her until she was two years and five months to take her first steps, just in May this year. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. Now there’s no stopping her.”
Cathie, from Portobello, will also never forget July 10 last year when a consultant at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children broke the news of Cara’s illness.
“Cara had been pretty poorly following a bad bout of croup, but I sensed something wasn’t quite right – she was very listless, just not her usual self.
“She was due follow-up bloods six weeks after getting croup but I asked for the tests to be done a week early and that’s when it was picked up.
“Her bone marrow was packed with leukaemia cells as well as her blood and it was also in her central nervous system, known as CNS disease. To get news like that is every parents’ nightmare. Now it was our nightmare. I just kept looking at Cara, so small and vulnerable. She was still only a baby. I couldn’t fathom how her tiny body could have to go through this.”
Cara had also begun to show some of the disease’s symptoms – she was pale, listless and would bruise easily. Chemotherapy started the next day.
Cathie adds: “In the first few months of treatment she had to endure lots of painful lumbar punctures and also intrathecal chemotherapy where the drugs are injected straight into the spine, which was just awful for her. It took a long time before I could leave her in theatre after her general anaesthetic without crying.”
Cara spent three months in hospital before being allowed home for visits between treatments in October last year.
Another three months of intensive treatment followed and she was put on a maintenance programme last December. Cara now has one type of oral chemotherapy daily, another type weekly and a monthly dose of intravenous chemotherapy. She also has to take steroids.
“She’s been through so much for being so little but I’m immensely proud of the way she’s handled it, she’s just been amazing,” says Cathie.
“It’s only now that we’re seeing some progress that I allow myself to think back to when she was really poorly. At one point she took a reaction to the chemo and got an infection that caused her to gain 4kg of fluid in the space of a week.
“That’s a lot for a child. Her fingers, toes, arms and limbs all looked fit to burst and it was so upsetting. I still get flashbacks to that awful, awful time.
“But I honestly count ourselves among the lucky ones. ALL is treatable and Cara’s prognosis is good.”
ALL is the most common type of leukaemia among children. Every year around 8600 people are diagnosed with leukaemia in the UK, and of those around 650 will have ALL, with roughly half the number of cases being in adults and half in children.
Clinical trials funded by Cancer Research UK are vital in developing new treatments for the disease. During the last 40 years, over 15,000 more children in Britain have beaten cancer than would have done if survival rates had remained the same as in the 1970s, thanks to research and improved treatments.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Cathie is a fervent supporter of Cancer Research UK and the charity’s ongoing work to find new treatments for childhood cancers. Survival for leukaemia in particular has risen from 33 per cent to more than 85 per cent of children in Britain surviving for at least five years, largely due to work funded by Cancer Research UK.
“It’s vital that we keep funding research, not just for children like Cara, but for all the little ones who will be diagnosed in the future. We’re learning more and more about this disease all the time, but research has to go on. Like every parent, it’s my dream that one day there will be a cure and families won’t have to go through what we’ve been through.”
She adds: “It’s lovely for little ones to have their bravery recognised with the Little Star awards. Cara is so tiny and she’s been through so much. It’s nice that she’ll have her Little Star to keep as she gets older.”
With Christmas approaching, Cathie, also mum to five-year-old daughter Sula, is hoping the family will get a chance to celebrate a little more this year than they did last year. “We still can’t really plan for things. If Cara gets so much as a high temperature, she’s straight back in hospital. It’s become a way of life for us.
“I’ve totally changed the way I deal with things. Like most mums, I used to never want to bother my GP with what I thought were silly complaints, but now I’ll get the slightest thing checked out.
“Doctors never feel they’re being bothered and it’s important for other parents to keep on top of any concerns they have for their little ones, no matter how small.
“The staff at the Sick Kids have just been amazing with us and I’ve also had a lot of support from other parents. The parents of children on Ward 2 have a private Facebook group where I’ve gone for a chat sometimes if I’ve been feeling low. Help is there.”
She adds: “My heart breaks all over again every time I’m in hospital with Cara and I hear that another set of parents has been given the same awful news that we got. But the fact that Cara is doing well is my little beacon of hope. I cling on to that with all that I am.”