The speed with which life changed from normal to catastrophic was astounding, said Jessica Cameron, reflecting on the period in which her baby daughter was diagnosed with a devastating brain cancer.
Little Brooke, just three months old at the time, was undergoing scans related to seizures when doctors suddenly stopped communicating with mum Jessica and dad Brent for several hours.
“When they didn’t talk to us for quite a long time we knew it wasn’t good,” Jessica said.
“They had discovered a large growth in her head. It was so large they were surprised she was able to move at all. They didn’t want to show us the scans. A couple of days later she had her first craniotomy [removing part of the skull in order to cut away the tumour].”
So began a medical nightmare that lasted almost two years.
“It all just happened so quickly,” Jessica said. “Everything in life blurred and we just went into a zombie mode, doing what the medical experts told us to do, desperately trying to understand what’s going on and, much of the time, not really take any of it in. Everything just stops. You can’t breathe.”
Small rays of light
After the operation Brooke went on to 14 rounds of chemotherapy then had a second craniotomy, followed by several weeks of radiotherapy. Following the radiotherapy there was a small period of hope when doctors said that the leftover tumour cells in her head were dying off.
But her blood counts were not recovering as they should have been and, following a lumbar puncture, it was revealed that Brooke was also suffering acute myeloid leukaemia – likely a side-effect of the chemotherapy treatment.
Having felt some hope for their baby daughter’s health, this was a crushing blow for Jessica and Brent. It was effectively a death sentence – the brain cancer could not be treated without making the leukaemia worse, and the leukaemia could not be treated without the tumour returning.
“There were no options,” Jessica said. “You can’t fight both. There was nothing else we could do. That was it.”
Amazingly, despite the devastating development, the family still experienced good days over the coming months. With Brooke’s older brothers, William and Brodie, the family would enjoy life as much as they could, knowing how precious each day was.
“After we found out she had leukaemia, we did everything we could to make every day good,” Jessica said.
“She’d never really been anywhere because she had no immune system. She had only been at home or at hospital, so we took these chances to take her everywhere. Her favourite was the beach. She wasn’t afraid of the water. She just wanted to keep walking out, to keep going.”
Brooke celebrated her second birthday early, receiving gifts from friends, family and adoring hospital staff. One of the gifts from a nurse, given to Brooke at a party thrown for her in the palliative care unit of the hospital, was an Easter Bear from The Kids’ Cancer Project.
That bear, along with another she had received earlier in her treatment, was one of the comforting toys she carried everywhere, until the end of her life.
Putting the pieces back together
Brooke passed away one week after her second birthday.
“She wasn’t in pain any more,” Jessica said, when asked whether it’s possible to find a silver lining. “She no longer had to have weekly blood tests or weekly blood transfusions or needles or people poking her. She didn’t have to do any of that any more. She was free. She had fought every day for her life and she deserved a break.”
The bears went to her new baby brother Ethan, who was born on what would have been Brooke’s third birthday and who shares the same birthmark that Brooke had on the back of her neck. “It’s like he was hand-picked for us by Brooke,” Jessica said.
The teddy bears have a special importance, Jessica said. It’s not just the fact that funds from their sales go to vital research around advancements to kids’ cancer treatments. While that is significant, the real value of the teddy bears from The Kids’ Cancer Project is intensely personal.
“These kids with cancer are incredible,” Jessica said. “They’re so strong but they miss out on so much. Every day they’re fighting to stay alive in a frightening hospital environment.”
“Then, when they’re given a bear it is not only soft and comforting, but they can take it everywhere and it constantly reminds them that someone cares about them. The hospital experience is so isolating, so to have something cuddly with you all the time and the happy thoughts it brings, it keeps them fighting, it keeps them strong and it keeps them comforted.”