As the world struggled to understand Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and gawked at Steve Irwin’s passing, Grace Rizzo had other things on her mind. She'd been taking her son Alex back and forth to the GP with escalating flu-like symptoms.
“Eventually I demanded something be done,” said Grace. “Even as we went in for a CT scan, they said there was a one in a million chance that anything was seriously wrong.”
Turns out, Alex was that special.
On 18 September 2006, he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a tumour that develops in the cerebellum; the area at the back of the brain that controls movement and coordination. His was an aggressive tumour that had spread down his spinal cord.
“When I heard the word ‘cancer’ I thought it was a death sentence,” said Grace. “But we put our faith in the doctors and did whatever it would take to save our son.”
The toddler’s treatment plan started immediately; surgery to remove affected tissue, 31 rounds of radiotherapy and a course of chemotherapy which had been shortened thanks to scientific discovery.
Weeks before his diagnosis, kids like Alex were typically given eight rounds of chemotherapy; but they’d just found that the same results could be achieved by reducing the standard amount to four effectively minimising long term side effects.
“That was definitely enough,” said Grace. “Alex went into hospital for his fourth and last round of chemotherapy on Easter Sunday 2007.”
Today, the 15-year-old high school student doesn’t allow the disease he had as a small child define him. The side effects of his treatment are manageable and don’t interfere with his interests and social life. He gets good grades, has a gentle laid-back nature, and is looking forward to going for his learner driver’s permit after his next birthday.
Grace on the other hand is cautious as she lists her son’s health concerns. She knows the effects of radiation, particularly when directed to areas of the brain that control hormones, will become more apparent as he matures.
“At the moment, Alex’s only limitations are high-frequency hearing loss, he’s shorter than average and he has a mild learning disability,” said Grace.
“I hope that he never gets sick again; that he can live a happy and healthy life, get his license, get a job, get married, have a mortgage and win lotto!” said Grace.
“But I’ll always worry about him,” said Grace. “He might have the sniffles and I’ll think the worst.”
While Alex benefited from a medical breakthrough 12 years ago, Dr Bryan Day at QIMR Berghofer Medical Institute isn’t satisfied. He’s scientifically working to improve outcomes for kids like Alex.
The Kids' Cancer Project is funding three studies into medulloblastoma to help kids like Alex:
- New therapeutic targets for paediatric medulloblastoma
- Development of personalised medicine to treat medulloblastoma
- Using targeted chemotherapies to reduce intensity of radiotherapy in medulloblastoma
In their studies, Dr Day and his team aim to discover new therapies that will target only the tumour cells and not the normal brain.
“It’s our hope that we can eliminate the need for radiation and chemotherapy treatment altogether while still effectively targeting the tumour,” he said.
And that’s our hope too.