Real Life Hope after leukaemia
Bubbly Zoë (5) from East London is in remission after childhood cancer. Lynn Williams spoke to mom Bronwyn Holloway
WHEN BRONWYN FOUND out that she was pregnant with her first child, Zoë, she hoped and prayed that her daughter would grow up to be a healthy little girl. But their lives were turned upside down when Zoë was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia when she was just two years old.
Bronwyn recalls waking up during a family trip to Port Alfred in January 2012 feeling “different.” Convinced that she was expecting, she bought a home pregnancy test to confirm her suspicions.
“I always wanted a girl, to the point that I had not even considered that I could be pregnant with a boy. My husband Vincent and I settled on the name Zoë, which means ‘life’ very early on in my pregnancy.”
Weighing in at 3.5kg at birth, Zoë grew up like any other normal baby. Soon she was a mischievous toddler exploring the world around her and enjoying regular playdates with her cousins.
On Sunday 24 May 2015 Zoë spiked a very high temperature. The following day she was at the doctor’s office. She was diagnosed with a throat infection
and prescribed an antibiotic, but another spike in her temperature had her in the doctor’s office yet again the following week. This time blood tests were done. The family GP phoned Bronwyn the next day and asked that she and Vincent urgently come to see her. “I was at work when I received the call. My entire body went cold and I remember telling a colleague that I hope it’s not cancer.”
“The doctor was not happy with her blood tests and advised us to see a paediatrician, who in turn sent Zoë’s blood report to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. The paediatrician recommended that we do a bone marrow biopsy just to be safe.
On 3 June 2015 the biopsy was done at Life Beacon Bay Hospital and by 14:00 the same afternoon it was confirmed that Zoë had leukaemia. “I remember the doctor putting his arms around me. With the mention of just one word my hopes and dreams were shattered. A choking fear paralysed me and I remember questioning why this had to happen to us,” Bronwyn recalls.
CHEMOTHERAPY Life as the family knew it changed in an instant as Zoë had to start with treatment immediately. She was transferred to the state-run Frere Hospital in East London where a doctor mapped out what the next two years were going to be like. By Friday 5 June 2015 Zoë started with her first intravenous dose of chemo.
Zoë’s chemotherapy protocol, for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, has lasted many months and eventually ended in August this year. It has involved countless injections, IVS, theatre procedures, tablets, and the dreaded cortisone, which caused insatiable hunger, weight gain, mood swings, insomnia and thrush.
As a result of the chemo Zoë lost her hair. For the first six months she was incredibly tired as her body reacted to the medication necessary for survival.
The family lived in the Frere Hospital for two weeks and when they were allowed to take Zoë home she had to be
HOW IS LEUKAEMIA TREATED?
Therapy for leukaemia consists of chemotherapy. Other treatments may include immunotherapy or certain biological molecules, which are still investigational. kept in isolation.
A very short list of people were allowed into the Holloway home and they had to have their temperatures taken and hands sanitised at the door. It was a very challenging time as Zoë could no longer visit anyone, especially her cousins, for fear of infection because of her low blood counts. The family, who once lived a busy out-and-about lifestyle, were now confined either to the hospital or their home.
“Your child changes before your eyes. Zoë ate constantly and she put on weight from food and water retention. But even though she was chubby and lost her hair, she was the most beautiful girl,” recalls her mom. “She never lost the essence of who she was. Throughout she has kept her manners, been kind, loving and caring to everyone she meets and I could not be prouder.”
“It has been a very challenging journey. Initially every cry and every scream during treatment tore my heart to pieces and I could do absolutely nothing to stop it. It has become much easier now as she is not so fearful of the procedures these days.”
At the end of her reconsolidation phase, which was one of the most intense phases of her protocol, just as the family thought Zoë was out of the woods, she had to undergo a blood transfusion as she developed a heart murmur. Her heart was working too hard to sustain her body. “The blood transfusion rejuvenated her. She got the colour back in her cheeks and she was bright and chirpy.”
KEEPING THE FAITH Zoë has been on treatment for two years. She is currently in the maintenance phase, where life has returned to a new type of normal.
She still has chemotherapy in pill form every night, once a month she has to get IV chemotherapy, and she takes 40 cortisone tablets over five days. Every three months she undergoes a lumbar puncture and intrathecal chemo performed in theatre.
Bronwyn said the family would not have coped had it not been for their faith in God, and the love and support they received from their family, especially her mom, who has been by her side in support for almost every procedure, and their friends and church community.
“In the first week of our journey I started writing letters to Zoë and my sister started a Whatsapp group. These became part of my therapy where I could voice my fears, hopes and the reality of our journey. “The encouragement I received from the people on that group helped me stay grounded. My husband and I grew closer and as a Christian family we have really learnt to put our lives in God’s hands.”
Bronwyn praised the management and staff at Frere Hospital for the excellent service and for going above and beyond the call of duty. “Dr Rema Mathew, Zoë’s paediatrician, has been so important in our journey and we as a family are incredibly grateful to her. She has shown us such support and love throughout.
“Our relationship with her will be a lifelong one as Zoë will need to continue her check-ups throughout her life.”
Since Zoë’s diagnosis Bronwyn has become actively involved with CHOC as a volunteer. YB
The Holloway family – Vincent and and Bronwyn are their daughter’s biggest supporters