Bitter Sorrow

Dear friends. Late last Thursday morning, on a scheduled Melbourne visit for medical reviews, in an airless hospital room, I found out that Ned’s leukaemia has shockingly made an aggressive comeback and has been rapidly taking over his bone marrow, much to our anguish and horror. The “hurting legs” that he’s been complaining about was not just over-exertion or physio exercises. There are now no further viable treatment options, and we’re going to prioritise quality of life and family time above all else. From naive to numb in an instant. A brutal shock we’ve experienced 5 times now - 3 of which when I was on my own. And the dates and circumstances of each are deeply etched in our minds.

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The boys and I flew home immediately Thursday afternoon, and we’ve been trying to process the news since, whilst still maintaining household and family life as normally as possible, and disseminate the news gently. Disclosing this development to Lucy and Ned (separately) was grim, but in some ways, our consistently un-emotive, undetailed presentation of simple facts at every stage along the way has meant that Ned has always taken everything in his stride, and seems now more concerned about having a new intravenous line for occasional chemo to reduce disease burden and alleviate symptoms where possible. Fortunately, other than some fatigue and leg pain, Ned’s still in relatively good spirits currently.

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But folks, though we don’t have definitive answers, and your questions are most likely our questions too, we do sadly acknowledge that this is likely the end of a very long, challenging road. And time is not plentiful. We intend to continue the girls at school as usual (and for Ned when he’s not too fatigued), Seth will continue with his part-time work (teacher at the same school) while he can, but I will not yet go back to work as planned. We’re also trying to very hastily plan and re-book Ned’s oft-postponed and keenly-wanted Make-a-Wish beach holiday in Hamilton Island for as soon as possible. 

Whilst we have often found incredible encouragement and community from social media, and we will continue to do updates when we can, we’re going to take a step back for a time in the interests of self-preservation and family time. We genuinely appreciate contact, however may not be able to respond or articulate our needs. In this gap, some dear friends of ours have offered to kindly step up and help coordinate support where possible, and the contact person for this will be Stelle Carmichael: stelle.carmichael@gmail.com. Whilst we’re not actively seeking financial support, we thank those of you who have offered - our Rare Cancers Australia fund for Ned’s care expenses is still open and active, but please don’t feel obliged (https://treat.rarecancers.org.au/campaign/2059/helping-ned-isham).

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We are so very heavyhearted that, after his last 18 months of suffering and our family’s displacement… after EVERYTHING… it has come to this, and don’t understand why we couldn’t have spent those 18 months instead making memories. Perhaps God was using that time to remind us, and everyone around us, that time is precious, that each of our children are gifts from Him, and though much of parenting and life is really difficult, it’s so important to really indulge and “be” in those golden moments. Just be. In each moment. We are feeling extremely thankful that we’ve had these last 2 months of blissful ignorance back at home in Tasmania – time that was bought by each of the previous treatments.

Because even now, back in this hopeless darkness and anguish that is somewhat familiar but somewhat altered, there are still moments of joy, of gratitude and of humour, as we tenuously flip between acceptance, denial, and bitter sorrow - especially for his beloved, devoted siblings. Above all, as our dear friend reminded us in church this morning: “The eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are His everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). He will walk with us every step of the unknown ahead, comfort us when it’s too hard and grief is overwhelming. And in that knowledge, despite the torment and despairing anguish, right now there is some tangible peace for us both.

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HOME

Our family seems to exist according to the analogy “it never rains, it pours”...  Right back to Ned being diagnosed in the fortnight lead-up to my fellowship exams and admitted as an emergency the night before; moving house (under tense legal circumstances) the same day as my final exam in another city; Ned being admitted for a serious infection 2 days before my labour induction to deliver Gilbert; Gilbert being my only non-thriving newborn due to his major difficulties breastfeeding - all while we had a seriously-ill child going into transplant; Eleanor being admitted for severe gastroenteritis a few days before she had to donate her bone marrow; needing to discuss and make serious life-altering decisions on behalf of Ned after all-nighters with the screaming baby; Ned’s continuous immunotherapy infusion (via frequently-alarming CADD pump) causing new, unexpected side effects, grounding him in Melbourne the day before we were supposed to return to Hobart briefly to prepare for Seattle; abruptly discovering Ned’s first development of CNS disease and his horrifying marrow disease proliferation when we’re over the side of the world to our home … and so it has continued. And thus, in similar fashion, after having reserved boat tickets several months ago for our permanent return to our Tasmanian home just before Christmas (anticipating the holidays’ heightened ticket demand), and packing the car up over the preceding weeks, Seth and I mulled over the options despondently as we took his temperature multiple times that Friday morning, hoping his symptoms would suddenly clear and the thermometer was lying, before I resignedly took him in to hospital. 

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And so, instead, after bookings were altered and the logistical knot was gradually untangled through a sleep-deprived haze, Seth traveled back to Tasmania by boat with the girls on Saturday evening, and I stayed behind in hospital with the boys to continue Ned’s treatment - which included a 2am surgical removal of his ?septic Hickman central venous catheter (now the first time he doesn’t have a central line in 4.5 years!). Thankfully, his symptoms responded to treatment and the admission was short-lived, so after re-packing our suitcases at our flat and saying goodbye to the wonderful RCH staff, the boys and I went straight from hospital to airport, farewelling my parents (who traveled back to Congo the following day), before flying home to a very warmly raucous welcome.

So how is it? How does it feel to be home? How is the transition for profoundly changed and weary people back to a familiar place and community after 18 months?

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We are SO thrilled to finally be home, breathing fresh air, waking up to kookaburra laughter, and hearing nothing but crickets and birdsong at dusk, instead of the traffic soundtrack of our high-rise apartment city life and the sterility of our hospital home. Christmas at home together, WITH NED, quietly celebrating our Saviour’s birth with our family and church was far more than anything we hoped for when we were sorrowfully contemplating the second transplant and its grim prognosis so many months ago in Seattle.

But it seems apt that I employ the analogy of post-run exhaustion as I gear up to run another half marathon this weekend. Because if you can, try to imagine the feeling of crossing a race finish line, having given more than your absolute all, and then realising you have to walk another 20km back to the car, parched, heavily-laden, and under a hot sun...

Where there is comfort in established friendships and recognisable settings, there is also apprehension about social awkwardness and naivety after so few interactions outside hospital for so long.

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Where there is strength in seeing and being held by dear ones again, there is fragility and vulnerability in bearing one’s soul, suppressing those prickling tears while divulging pieces of the heartache and anguish.

Where there is familiarity in a much-loved home, there is also the unknown of navigating the family dynamics as we re-learn to live together and recognise each other’s new limits, the set-up with our smallest family member now sharing this space, the adjustments we have to make due to Ned’s poor mobility, the social events we now have to decline because he’s too tired, we’re too emotionally over-wrought, or it’s just dangerous for Ned’s immunosuppressed state.  

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Where there is joy for the kids in reuniting with dear friends, there are also nerves, sadness at having missed out on peers’ milestones, difficulty sleeping and nightmares, new viruses, and ungrounded fears rearing their ugly heads.

Where there is a normal home / holiday routine, there is also the chaos of re-integrating necessary regular hospital appointments & possible unscheduled admissions, the vast amount of physical rehabilitation Ned needs, and the Melbourne visits for several days of reviews and tests every couple of months, with a return to work and school for Seth, Lucy and Ned.

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Where there is the attempt to mindfully settle and purposefully unwind from such tight coils of tension, there is also the necessity for hypervigilance (trying not to be paralysed by the constant overwhelm or fear of relapse), staying abreast of Ned’s regular blood counts, numerous daily medications and oft-changing doses, new symptoms, and maintaining the required precautionary measures to keep him as safe as possible - whilst living in a home where our kids are drinking tank water, treading on wallaby poo (or eating it, in Gilbert’s case), and getting very dirty outdoors.

It’s a world where I’m feeling constantly confronted by juxtapositions. I feel like shouting to everyone excitedly that we’re home, but then I feel almost defeated by many social interactions, broken by some, especially when the expectations are that we slip back into the “normalcy” that we lived before, as if nothing has happened. For though we may appear physically the same, there are deep, deep wounds - both the emotional and psychological wounds, manifesting as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and the physical weariness from years of having to function at 300%, living on minimal sleep, in unfamiliarity and uncertainty, with constant demands and no respite.

Beyond the years of our own cancer battle, some geographically-distant oncology friends have been battling cancer twice over - their young son’s persistent leukaemia, and now the husband’s current aggressive lymphoma. Their faith amidst the darkness and pain has been such encouragement to me. This is a Bible passage the Hantlas recently shared and their words: “ ‘Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.’ So each day, as troubles present themselves, seek to overwhelm, and in light of the whole scheme of things, threaten to capsize us, we remind ourselves of the hope of heaven and God’s care of us, and we trust with each day as it comes.”

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Yes, we are profoundly relieved that we have finally returned to live in our home and have some freedom. Though the recovery is long, and the scars will be there for life, we are even more abundantly thankful to God for the miracle of Ned’s life. Living moment by moment, a lesson reinforced so fiercely over our time away, continues to ring true as we slowly try to recuperate and readjust ourselves and our children back to pleasant mundanity.

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100 Days

Our much-anticipated Day +100 milestone was finally reached on Wednesday this past week... for the second time within a year and a day – the day before (November 27th) had been the ONE year anniversary of Ned’s first transplant from younger sister, Eleanor.

A year and a half of absolute exhaustion, guilt about the journey our children all have to travel, overwhelm and anger at God’s seeming abandonment at times, but then utter gratitude for His abundant mercies when at our lowest points; a year and a half with a new baby born, an interstate move, international travel, leukaemia aggression and relapses, 2 bone marrow transplants, immunotherapy, CAR-T therapy, countless procedures, immeasurable pain and suffering, literal life-and-death decisions on behalf of our son… the list continues. I still remember the moment Seth and I were told in Seattle that Ned would need another bone marrow transplant upon our return to Australia, and the devastation and sheer overwhelm at the mountain rising up ahead of us.

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But through it all, we have been, and continue to be, held together by what can only be attributed to a transcendent being of super-human might, for it has not been by our strength alone that we are still standing. God’s strength has been made perfect in our grave weakness.

Day +100 was joyfully celebrated with previously forbidden food – barbecued sausages, fresh berries, a babycino… although it must be said that not all restrictions lift immediately due to the profound immunosuppression that comes with a 2nd transplant and its consequent hefty toll.

Once again, we would like to share with you, our vast community and “village”, the miraculous results of Ned’s latest 100-day (most critical) bone marrow molecular MRD, showing NO disease remaining. ZERO. This doesn’t preclude it returning in future, but in this moment, Ned is CANCER-FREE, and in his words (with the naivety of a child who doesn’t realise this has been his last treatment option): “That means I don’t need any more transplants, Mum!!” Thank God!

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We are SO grateful to modern medicine and the numerous medical, nursing and healthcare staff who have worked tirelessly to rid Ned’s body of cancer. And thank YOU for all of your immense support, encouragement and prayers. We couldn’t have done this last 18 months on our own.

 

“For those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  - Isaiah 40:31

Cancer: The Mountain Lion

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Today is Day +95. A few days after discharge from the transplant unit on Day +75, unfortunately Ned was readmitted with a few ongoing, puzzling issues, including an infection. This has been difficult on all of us, since we’d been on an upwards trajectory. It’s one thing to have a short-lived acute insult or a harrowing few months; it’s quite another to have cumulative acute traumas (emotional and physical) evolving into chronicity over a much longer period, adding more battering with no reprieve or recovery between. All away from the safety and comfort of home. Though I continue to thank God daily for allowing Ned to access life-saving treatment in a world-class facility at the hands of experts, I can honestly say too that every single day of these last 18 months has involved many personal sacrifices, grief and an overwhelming desire to just stop - it is by His strength and grace that we are still standing. And for fear of sounding ungracious and pessimistic today, reflecting the current state of my mental health and exhaustion levels, I’m going to re-post an apt analogy I’ve read - sometimes a rather comical metaphor really is the best way to convey an other-world traumatic experience when it’s just too hard to articulate.

(I have taken the liberty of replacing a few profanities, indicated by *)

With thanks to the author, Caitlin Feeley.

“What’s it like to go through cancer treatment?

It’s something like this: one day, you’re minding your own business, you open the fridge to get some breakfast, and OH MY GOSH THERE’S A MOUNTAIN LION IN YOUR FRIDGE.

Wait, what? How? Why is there a mountain lion in your fridge? NO TIME TO EXPLAIN. RUN! THE MOUNTAIN LION WILL KILL YOU! UNLESS YOU FIND SOMETHING EVEN MORE FEROCIOUS TO KILL IT FIRST!

So you take off running, and the mountain lion is right behind you. You know the only thing that can kill a mountain lion is a bear, and the only bear is on top of the mountain, so you better find that bear. You start running up the mountain in hopes of finding the bear. Your friends desperately want to help, but they are powerless against mountain lions, as mountain lions are godless killing machines. But they really want to help, so they’re cheering you on and bringing you paper cups of water and orange slices as you run up the mountain and yelling at the mountain lion - “GET LOST, MOUNTAIN LION, NO ONE LIKES YOU” - and you really appreciate the support, but the mountain lion is still coming.

Also, for some reason, there’s someone in the crowd who’s yelling “that’s not really a mountain lion, it’s a puma” and another person yelling “I read that mountain lions are allergic to kale, have you tried rubbing kale on it?”

As you’re running up the mountain, you see other people fleeing their own mountain lions. Some of the mountain lions seem comparatively wimpy - they’re half grown and only have three legs or whatever, and you think to yourself - why couldn’t I have gotten one of those mountain lions? But then you look over at the people who are fleeing mountain lions the size of a monster truck with huge prehistoric saber fangs, and you feel like a *fool for even thinking that - and besides, who in their right mind would want to fight a mountain lion, even a three-legged one?

Finally, the person closest to you, whose job it is to take care of you - maybe a parent or sibling or best friend or, in my case, my husband - comes barging out of the woods and jumps on the mountain lion, whaling on it and screaming “*DAMMIT MOUNTAIN LION, STOP TRYING TO EAT MY WIFE,” and the mountain lion punches your husband right in the face. Now your husband (or whatever) is rolling around on the ground clutching his nose, and he’s bought you some time, but you still need to get to the top of the mountain.

Eventually you reach the top, finally, and the bear is there. Waiting. For both of you. You rush right up to the bear, and the bear rushes the mountain lion, but the bear has to go through you to get to the mountain lion, and in doing so, the bear TOTALLY KICKS YOUR *BUTT, but not before it also punches your husband in the face. And your husband is now staggering around with a black eye and bloody nose, and saying “can I get some help, I’ve been punched in the face by two apex predators and I think my nose is broken,” and all you can say is “I’M KIND OF BUSY IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED I’M FIGHTING A MOUNTAIN LION.”

Then, IF YOU ARE LUCKY, the bear leaps on the mountain lion and they are locked in epic battle until finally the two of them roll off a cliff edge together, and the mountain lion is dead.

Maybe. You’re not sure - it fell off the cliff, but mountain lions are crafty. It could come back at any moment.

And all your friends come running up to you and say “that was amazing! You’re so brave, we’re so proud of you! You didn’t die! That must be a huge relief!”

Meanwhile, you blew out both your knees, you’re having an asthma attack, you twisted your ankle, and you have been mauled by a bear. And everyone says “boy, you must be excited to walk down the mountain!” And all you can think as you stagger to your feet is “*curse this mountain, I never wanted to climb it in the first place.”

Credit to writer, Caitlin Feeley @ https://somehedgehog.tumblr.com

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“Yes, my soul finds rest in God; my hope comes from Him. Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken.” - Psalm 62:5-6

Is There Light?

You know, on previous occasions, I’ve found myself wishing for foresight, for a glimpse of which seemingly-crucial decision will land me where…  

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But now, I feel fortunate that we can’t see the height of the mountains before we’re climbing them. If I had, I feel like I would’ve just collapsed from overwhelm. Even just this last week, with Eleanor requiring adenotonsillectomy and grommets in a different hospital, was quite the logistical challenge. We’re very thankful that we had superb, prompt medical care available, and are praying for a swift, uneventful recovery, with perhaps improved behaviour and sleep!

Ned has had a vicious and complicated recovery from this second bone marrow transplant. We had assumed it would be more difficult, but it has defied even these expectations… so many needles, transfusions, swabs, side effects, general anaesthetics, trips to theatre, nighttime awakenings; multitudes of medications, considerable pain and nausea, excruciating itch; throngs of new faces, treating teams and an ICU stay (albeit short), myriads of scans, bone marrow aspirates, lumbar punctures and other procedures … so much fear and uncertainty, so little control, and so many deep scars from our time in room 208.

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Ned is now finally starting the road to recovery. His gut symptoms were diagnosed as GvHD (graft-vs-host disease), then that was negated, then back to GvHD, then controversy... And after a couple of months of seeming steroid inefficacy for his severe gut symptoms, necessitating IV nutrition and frequent electrolyte corrections, a new drug (at clinical trial phase) was introduced, steroid-weaning was commenced, and thankfully it seems to have elicited a great response in Ned. He’s now enjoying certain foods again (although we do have to actively restrict him to only mealtimes), and returning more and more to his old happier self.

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The central line-borne sepsis that landed him in ICU has cleared after 2 weeks of IV antibiotics (and a lot of stress), without removing his indispensable lines, and his kidney function is starting to improve. We’re finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, thank God. His days, outside of medical routines and requirements, now consist of school lessons, physio (relearning to walk and balance), music / art / play therapy, Lego, card games, puzzles, painting masks, writing letters, reading, listening to music, sometimes napping... oh and once in a while, meeting a famous comedian / author:

Today is Day +70. Add in the 7 inpatient days pre-Day 0 (transplant day), and that makes 77 days that we’ve been separated, tag-teaming; that Ned’s been missing the outside world and his sisters. And nearly 18 months of feeling like we’ve lost ourselves, being away from home and friends, out of our jobs, our old lives and community.

Given all of this, we are so very, very elated and relieved to let you know that Ned’s Day +60 MRD (bone marrow test) has come back completely and entirely clear. No leukaemia, great chimerism. This shows that this 2nd transplant (and all its preceding treatments) has indeed, at this moment, achieved its purpose – praise the Lord!

And now, onwards to Day +100, then hopefully… home.

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 “The Lord’s compassions... are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness”

- Lamentations 3:22-23

Kintsugi

 

Emily has this wonderful ability to sculpt, shape, rework and finely tune beautifully articulate updates of our journey with Ned’s cancer. While deeply personal she always captures so clearly, and expresses so eloquently what I often fumble to express myself.

 

It is in another format that I have found myself naturally shaping and forming an expression of what I have been feeling and wrestling with over the last few months. This sculpture is a work I felt I needed to create, one that shares with you ideas of strength, loss and how we hold it all together.

 

For a long time, and especially in the last couple of months I (as well as Emily) have felt quite fragile, and that each day we are just holding ourselves together for Ned, for Lucy, Eleanor and Gilbert. A fragility borne of days, weeks, months, years of battling this cancer and all the implications of that for our family.

 

I recently came across Kintsugi; I’d seen it before, but it captured my attention again as I saw in it ideas that resonated with my own thinking on strength, resilience and redemption.

 

Kintsugi is a form of pottery where old broken ceramic works are repaired with gold dust, lacquer and resin, thus creating a restored or redeemed version of the old piece. The philosophy behind this is the idea of embracing imperfection, that the cracks and repairs are events in life and help shape who we are.

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 Alongside this concept consider the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans where he talks about suffering:

 

“ …but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3b-5)

 

I would hope that the suffering we have endured as we have all traveled with Ned, all the pain, loss, upheaval, isolation, sadness, and immense sickness would build something into the character of all of us. And would draw out that strength that God has written into our DNA.

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The gaps in the sculpture, the missing pieces in the sculpted face: these represent the things we’ve lost in this difficult journey. The dreams and goals that have been abandoned, the careers put on hold, the school life for our children interrupted, their friendships and milestones missed, the sense of home stalled, the skill building hours lost, important events missed, and so on.

 

Kintsugi pottery it’s about restoration, the gold and resin patches the cracks, puts the fragmented pieces back together. The cracks, the suffering, become lines of gold; redeeming us into something new. And this is the work of God in us, putting us back together, holding us together through those cracks. Just as the Apostle Paul says it’s about shaping our character. And this is what my piece is about. God gluing me back together, the great Kintsugi master of us all.

 

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God rebuilds me through the inspiration of my amazing wife. A woman of gumption who motivates me to be a better husband, better father and better man every day.

 

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The prayers of many and the friends who diligently call or text; these refresh me.

 

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The excited embrace of my daughters and their laughter at my jokes, or full body smile from baby son, or the whispered ‘I love you Daddy’ from Ned as I carry him to the bathroom; these repair me. 

 

And finally it is in those few rare moments of time that I have to create art I find restoration: for through the creation of objects I am reminded of the Creator himself and am restored.

Success at What Cost?

This last fortnight has seen such contrasting extreme emotions – the rejoicing high of brilliant 30-day bone marrow results juxtaposed so starkly with the despairing low of Ned’s current suffering. Let me explain in more detail about what’s been going on and what’s ahead…

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What is this result you’re talking about?

Ned showed signs of engraftment at Day +18 (18 days since his transplant on 20th August) but all transplant patients need bone marrow aspirates sent for testing on Day +30, Day +60 and Day +100 to see if any leukaemia cells are making a resurgence at these critical points during this period of high vulnerability to relapse or transplant failure.

What does this result mean for Ned?

Previous MRD tests have always shown (tiny) varying degrees of remaining leukaemia, so this is our best result (down to the lowest recordable amount at molecular level: 0.00000%). It shows that his bone marrow is regenerating purely from the donated healthy stem cells, and at this stage, it seems like the leukaemia has been ablated… finally. However, though this reduces future relapse risk, it does not preclude it altogether. That is an ever-present, life-long risk and concern for Ned. The next test (MRD) will be at Day +60.

Was the CAR-T treatment in Seattle necessary?

Yes! CAR-T, though not successful independently long-term, actually contributed to this result because it reduced his marrow disease significantly (from 58% —> 0.01%) and eliminated his CNS disease… thus allowing him to be eligible for inotuzamab – the miracle drug that finally (and miraculously!) put him into remission in order to have a hopefully-curative 2nd transplant. It was that or palliative care.

Now what?

Now, we attempt to support his body in through the regeneration and healing process, since the collateral damage from a successful transplant can be vast, especially after the cumulative damage on Ned’s little, developing body from years of heavy chemo, radiation, a previous transplant and CAR-T treatment. GvHD (Graft-vs-Host Disease), where the body attacks the foreign cells, is a main contributor to post-transplant morbidity - depending on severity of organ damage, it can range from simple and manageable to severe with fatal consequences, and is treated with immunosuppressants.

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Over the last 40ish days, Ned has been suffering from serious GvHD of the skin and gastrointestinal tract, which has only had a minimal response to the treatment with multiple immunosuppressants. Uncertainty prevails, symptoms aren’t controllable, and investigations continue (he is currently have scopes and intestinal biopsies). Because one main immunosuppressant has caused renal toxicity, the steroid immunosuppressant has had to be escalated, and if you are at all familiar with steroid treatment, you’ll be aware that they can cause severe neuropsychiatric effects (irritation, anger, ravenous hunger, misery, emotional lability; adults have reported wanting to die on high-dose steroids). His rage, hunger and personality changes from weeks of high-dose steroids, have been distressing at best, and since his symptoms continue, the prescription now is complete “gut rest” - in other words, we have had to deny this voraciously steroid-hungry, sick 6yo boy’s pleas for food; fasting him with no definitive end point, because sometimes acute GvHD can turn chronic, requiring ongoing treatment. This has been the straw that has broken the metaphorical camel’s back… for him and us. Whilst so many sophisticated measures are instituted to address the suffering from pain and nausea in paediatric patients, it floors me that there is no alternative to the treatment of gut GvHD: hunger-inducing steroids + nil oral intake. Torture, 24/7; the horror of which is behind closed doors and rarely witnessed by any healthcare staff, and only mildly placated by cuddles.

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And today... in fact the whole past sobering week... it has all just seemed too hard; many tears have been shed. After wailing heartbreakingly for “just a little bit of porridge?”, he curls up in a foetal position in bed, silently whimpering and refusing to look at us… over and over again. Today, we are not the parents who are feeling victorious and triumphantly battling on; we are broken and are relying on God’s strength alone. Today’s moments have been full of fragility, anguish and raw weakness. Because despite what you may assume of the resilience of a child who has endured more than 4 years of discomfort and pain (not just the collateral damage from disease itself, but additionally, the ramifications of human error – multiple failed IV attempts, accidental medication miscalculations or omissions, theatre delays, burns from leaking chemo, misplaced nasogastric tubes); what you may assume of the parents who have repetitively born the brunt of his anger, misery and despair, who have guiltily had to enforce restrictions or physically restrain with silent tears streaming, it never EVER gets easier. The only thing worse than a defiant child raging against you is witnessing that same spirited child shriveling in defeat, resigned and broken from the numerous lost battles and protests simply to yield a sense of any independence or control. Being socially isolated, constrained to a hospital room with a closed door (and only the same 4 support adults ever allowed in - me, Seth and my parents), separated from beloved siblings, living in a fishbowl of healthcare staff, enduring excruciating pain, nausea, headaches and so many other discomforts, lacking any choice or independence (even going to the toilet) due to muscle atrophy and an attached heavy pole, living at the mercy of visiting healthcare teams or alarms, having medications and procedures enforced, and now, being denied food... it’s just no life for a little boy.

“When You don’t move the mountains I’m needing You to move;

When You don’t part the waters I wish I could walk through;

When You don’t give the answers as I cry out to You;

I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in You.”

© Lauren Daigle

In This Moment

 “The day before my child was diagnosed, I wasn’t a cancer parent either.”

And yet, here we are, into our fifth year of trying to sustain one child through this ugly combat, and parent three others through their sibling’s suffering.

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25 days have passed since Ned’s second bone marrow transplant, and we’re now amongst the “old hands” on the RCH oncology ward. Ned deteriorated very soon after the donated cord blood cells were given on 20th August, with odd patterns of unusual symptoms that presented a dilemma for many of the medical teams involved. A severe top-to-toe (extremely itchy) rash, combined with fluid imbalances, fevers, headaches, pain, nausea, delirium, rare medication reactions, low blood pressure, and electrolyte disturbances presented a confounding picture with evasive answers. After many investigations, a skin biopsy revealed it had been early graft-vs-host disease (GVHD) all along, but with a different pattern because he’d had CAR-T prior - using Eleanor’s cells (in his body from previous transplant)! The relief from this discovery was short-lived as the treatment was high-dose steroids... And many a cancer parent is intimately aquainted with the hellish responsibility of caring for a sick child on high-dose steroids!

A few days later, on Day +18, the blood results revealed that the new stem cells had engrafted, and he’s been slowly but steadily improving since then, thank God.

Yet another small victory, worth a celebratory hug and some rejoicing… but in the grander scheme of things, in my current, ever-increasing, weariness-induced pessimism (arguably justified given the lead-in we’ve had), there is still a very long, torturous road ahead. And now we await the all-important Day +30 bone marrow test results in the coming week, and then the “magic” Day +100 mark.

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You see, the treatment regimes for most childhood cancers are really quite antiquated due to a disproportionate lack of funding compared to adult cancers. Whilst hundreds of new drugs have been developed for various adult treatment protocols since 1980, only 3 have been developed for paediatric cancers - even despite there being greater long-term tolls and more numerous years of life lost from paediatric cancers. I could go on with statistics to prove the disrupted quality of life, the severe side effects and organ damage, but the harsh reality is that even if a child survives childhood cancer, there will most likely be long-term ramifications, sometimes life-limiting, for many years to come.

Sometimes, more often than not when my mental health is struggling, it is just all too overwhelming for me to ponder ahead or dwell on. So, despite being born a ‘type A personality’, with plans A, B and C, as well as plans D & E coming out my ears, and now being subjected to a life ruled by the whim of a most unwelcome, temperamental, insidious disease, with 4 dependents, I’m finally starting to prefer, by sheer necessity, a new mantra: “taking each day as it comes”. If, after another sleepless night, I ruminate about my lack of rest and wonder about how I’ll survive the coming day or week ahead, I’ll dig myself unnecessarily into an even deeper hole than I was before, so I’ve had to find a better way. Hence why I’m now teaching myself how to “live in each moment”; leaving all previous suffering, hardship and discomfort out of each precious moment. Because God, in his mercy, graciously gives me the aliquots of strength I need to get me through just one moment at a time. That’s all I need to focus on... how I will serve in THIS moment.

In this moment, I’m getting to cuddle my over-tired, but beautifully-soft 1-year-old while he breastfeeds.

In this moment, I’m getting down to level with my 3-year-old’s protesting eyes and speaking my love to her through her shrieks of stubbornness.

In this moment, I’m pausing between the baby’s breakfast spoonfuls to watch the tree leaves cast dappled sunshine on the path outside our hospital window, as staff rush in to work.

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In this moment, I’m relishing the fact that my 9-year-old feels safe enough to ask me the difficult questions, or thrash out some complex emotions that she’s been dealing with.

In this moment, I’m dragging myself out of bed, casting the numerous preceding night wakings from my mind, to cuddle away some pain and comfort a night terror.

In this moment, I’m sipping the warmth of what has become our wellness-giving daily coffee.

In this moment, I’m savouring the warmth of direct sun on my face while enjoying a quick walk outside with my husband.

In this moment, I’m wiping away Ned’s tears, speaking words of love and reminding him of his preciousness, while also firmly holding his arms down during a procedure.

In this moment, though my voice quivers and siblings are screaming for attention, I’m singing him his favourite bedtime song over FaceTime.

In this moment, I’m carrying him to the toilet, pushing his pole, savouring the closeness of his frail body in my arms.

In this moment, though the smell of fresh vomit is pungent, I’m feeling the tension of his preceding nausea draining from his body.

In this moment, I’m rubbing in slathers of thick moisturising creams whilst simultaneously holding down cold packs to reduce the intensity of his constant widespread itch.

In this moment, I’m quietly rejoicing that we got another day. Another day with our Ned.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” - Phil 4:13