WAITING FOR THE ALL-CLEAR
When little Sam Bradley was finally diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous tissue, says Joy Orpen, his parents knew a long road lay ahead
While most of us are looking forward to an imminent holiday or important family celebration, one particular Irish family is praying for a day — years down the line — when their precious, desperately ill boy Sam gets the all-clear.
Michelle and Colm Bradley, who are both in their 30s, and hail from Mayo and Fermanagh respectively, were thrilled when Sam was born two years ago. However, last October things began to go terribly wrong.
“Sam got chickenpox, but he didn't bounce back as you would expect,” recalls Michelle. “When he got a rash, doctors said he was allergic. In spite of taking antihistamines, he was waking every half hour in distress. So we took him to hospital in Enniskillen, where they told us he had a virus.”
This unhappy state of affairs continued for several nail-biting months until early this year, when Michelle decided enough was enough and took her little boy to her sister's GP in Mayo.
That doctor gave Sam a thorough examination before referring him to Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar. But while careful not to alarm the parents, she encouraged them to insist that Sam's blood be tested and that an ultrasound scan be done of his tender abdomen area. “There was no panic; we never dreamed it was anything serious,” says Michelle. But when they were summoned into the hospital’s relatives' room, she knew they were in serious trouble.
“They told us Sam had an 11cm tumour growing from his right kidney. It was taking up two thirds of his abdomen and had pushed his liver and stomach up into his chest. They were sure it was cancer, while the rash had been caused by high blood pressure. We were then transferred to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children,” Michelle says.
And so began the Bradleys’ hard journey, which looks set to continue for many years to come. The next step was to ascertain what kind of cancer it was. Two weeks of tests delivered a tough diagnosis; he was suffering from neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous tissue that mainly affects children.
Further tests then brought even worse news; Sam's tumour was compounded by the presence of MYCN-amplification. MYCN is a gene and according to a medical source involved in this case: “Increased copies of this gene increases the production of cells — including cancerous ones.”
“In one short day, Sam went from being intermediate to high risk,” recalls Michelle with a perceptible shudder, “while his treatment plan went from five months to 18 months. It was the very worst day of both our lives.”
Right now he is on stage three of a six-stage treatment plan. So far he has had eight punishing rounds of chemotherapy, surgery lasting more than seven hours to remove the tumour and the affected kidney, and he has been given stem cells to encourage the growth of healthy blood and bone marrow. He requires constant transfusions to rebuild his blood and platelet count.
Next Sam will begin radiotherapy. He is being treated in the children's
‘In one short day Sam went from being intermediate to high risk. It was the very worst day of both our lives’
haematology unit (CHU). Michelle was intimidated when they first went to the ward: “I was petrified because it confirmed my child had cancer,” she says. However, she stresses that it's a nurturing environment, with support for all the family as well as Sam. “Though the kids are sick, they are mostly happy. You see some get better, but you see the other side, too.”
Michelle says the biggest problem with neuroblastoma is the danger that it will recur. “If that does happen, and it can happen at any time, there aren't huge treatment options,” she explains. “Neuroblastoma is one of those cancers they don't really know how to treat if it returns. If he relapses, he only has less than a 10 percent chance of long-term survival.”
After radiotherapy, Sam is to undergo immunotherapy to try to prevent the return of the neuroblastoma. Michelle says it's not altogether straightforward. “Immunotherapy is only available in Europe on a trial basis. So if Sam got knocked off the trial — and this could happen for any number of reasons — he would have to travel to the US for treatment,” she says.
Should he need to go to America, it will become a very expensive exercise. And so Michelle and Colm's families established the Sam Bradley Care Fund. Which is just as well, because, as Michelle puts it: “You don't get much time between relapse and needing to go.”
Should he be a suitable candidate for treatment in Europe, the funds will be kept intact until he gets the all-clear, which can only be given, officially, five years after the initial diagnosis. The money will then be split between the haematology unit at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and organisations dealing with children's cancers north and south of the border.
In the meantime, the Bradleys have to soldier on supporting Sam as best they can while caring for their baby, Jake, a recent arrival.
“We have had to rent a house in Belfast and employ a full-time minder for the baby while we are at the hospital,” says Michelle. “We haven't been home for nine weeks.”
Ordinarily Colm works as a journalist for the Fermanagh Herald, while Michelle is the reservations manager at Neven Maguire's award-winning
MacNean House in Blacklion, Co Cavan. Neven and his staff are fully behind Michelle and were about to hold a ‘Dine for Sam’ night at the time of this interview.
Neven says: “Myself and my wife Amelda, along with staff at MacNean House, were deeply affected by the news that little Sam had been diagnosed with cancer. Our heart goes out to Michelle and her family.”
Michelle, Colm and Sam need all the help they can get and there is no lack of that from their various communities. A CD has been made; there has been a ‘slave’ auction, hill walks, a county senior football match between Fermanagh and Mayo and a cooking demonstration in Mayo, all to raise money for the fund.
In the meantime, beautiful blue-eyed Sam, who is crazy about football, cars and Curious George (an animated monkey) continues, in spite of all he has been through, to charm the pants off everyone he meets with his huge grin and happy disposition.
His parents have only one wish and it is this: “Our biggest goal is to reach that all-important moment when we get the all-clear.”