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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - HEALTH - Sam Bradley Care Fund, see www.to­geth­er­for­sam.com Sam's blog, see www.our­su­per­sam.word­press.com

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.”

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