On Saturday 1 September, Ben and Christine Bolitho along with their children Becky, Charlotte and Jono, joined a crowd beneath the golden sails of the Sydney Opera House to share the message kids with cancer need science.
It was in February this year that the tribe from Sydney’s Winston Hills were unwittingly thrust into the world of childhood cancer. Like any family who has been afflicted, they’d rather not be in the spotlight, but are happy to help raise awareness so that more funding goes towards research that can make a difference.
To date, ten-year-old Becky, who has just finished treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma has been the subject of an advertising photoshoot. She has also been filmed by Ten Daily and attended Government House, Sydney, for a reception hosted by His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret'd) Governor of New South Wales who, along with Mrs Linda Hurley, launched Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
The Governor of NSW, His Exellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d) meets Becky Bolitho and her mum at the lighting of the Sydney Opera House sails and candlelight vigil on 1 September 2018.
Then on Saturday night, the confident primary-schooler was given the honour to officially start the candlelight vigil. She took to the stage like a pro and waited patiently while her mum delivered a speech and the story of her cancer journey, which we have the privilege of sharing here.
Becky Bolitho's carefully printed speech notes.
“If you ask the general population, I think most people know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer; a friend, a relative, a work colleague, an acquaintance – it can happen to anyone. But it is probably very rare that the person diagnosed is a child.
Having one of our children diagnosed with cancer is something I never thought would happen to us. In fact, cancer was the furthest from our minds when all of this started.
On a weekend in mid-February this year, we noticed that something looked a little strange with Becky’s left eye. The eyelid was a little puffy and it wasn’t opening the same amount as the other eye. At first, it was so minor; you almost could not even notice it unless you looked closer.
However, by the next day, the puffiness had increased to the point we thought we should get it checked out. Admittedly, I wasn’t that concerned. I was mainly thinking about the busy week ahead at work so I wanted to get whatever was going on with her eye sorted quickly so that neither of us would have to take time off work or school.
How wrong I was going to be proved.
The official party for the lighing of the Sydney Opera House sails and candlelight vigil L-R: Professor Murray Norris AM, Associate Professor Tracey O'Brien, His Exellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d), Owen Finegan, Associate Professor Christine Giles, Becky Bolitho, Christine Bolitho, Mrs Linda Hurley.
At first, the doctor passed the swelling off as an eye infection, but then after a second visit, when things had not improved, ideas of a blocked duct or even a small cyst were brought up. Even then, there wasn’t too much concern.
It was only on the Tuesday when the swelling had increased further, that the GP recommended that Becky see an eye specialist and got her an appointment that day.
I went off to work still feeling unconcerned and my husband, Ben, took Becky to the ophthalmologist. Then at lunchtime, the message came.
“Call me – it’s urgent.”
At that point, the whirlwind began.
As I rang Ben back, I heard the words. Scans. Biopsy. Hospital. As quick as we can. Then the panic set in. I knew what those words meant and what they were suggesting, but I hoped that there had been a terrible mistake and that everything would be okay.
Becky had an MRI that afternoon and we saw an eye surgeon the following day who told us that she needed surgery right away. By this time, Becky could barely open her eye the bulge was so big.
Becky underwent surgery the next day and even while she was in the operating theatre, both Ben and I held out the hope that it would be okay and whatever the mass in Becky’s eye socket was, it would be nothing more than a benign cyst.
But after the surgery, while her eye was fine, the surgeon broke the devastating news to us; the mass in her eyelid, which had grown to almost the size of her eyeball, was not a cyst, but a tumour.
We would have to wait for the pathology results to be sure, but he suspected that the tumour was a type of cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma.
The wait over the weekend for the pathology results was torture. Finally, the phone call with the results came and then we knew for certain, our little girl had cancer. At once, our world fell apart.
There were so many emotions Ben and I were feeling that I am sure so many of you can relate to. Shock, disbelief, sadness and worry but mainly the gut-wrenching feeling of fear.
We didn’t know what we were dealing with. How bad was it? Had it spread? Would Becky be able to be treated and be okay, or would we be facing the terrifying possibility that we were going to lose her?
Quickly, we were referred to the Oncology Treatment Clinic at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead where we met with Dr Geoff McCowage. He was wonderful and took lots of time to answer all our questions and explain about the type of cancer Becky had.
Rhabdomyosarcoma is a highly aggressive, malignant cancer that forms in the soft tissues, such as muscle. It is a very rare cancer with, on average, less than 20 cases per year in Australia.
The long-term prognosis depends on type of rhabdo and the location of the primary tumour; with some sites, like the orbit, having a more favourable outcome.
After more scans, it was a relief to find out that the cancer hadn’t spread. We were told that the type and stage of her cancer indicated that Becky’s prognosis was positive; however, she would need chemotherapy and radiotherapy to kill off any remaining cancer cells and ensure that the cancer would not come back. Her treatment would need to begin as quickly as possible.
Everything had happened so fast that we barely had time to comprehend it all. At that point, it had only been a week since Becky’s surgery and less than two weeks since we had noticed anything was wrong with her eye. How could life change so quickly?
We had one last ‘normal’ weekend as a family before Becky’s treatment began.
She went to a birthday party the day before she was due to be admitted to hospital. I remember watching her play and swim in the pool with her sister and the other kids. I was struck with absolute disbelief that any of this was actually happening. She looked so happy and carefree, like a normal little kid with nothing wrong. It had to be a mistake.
She wasn’t even sick and yet, I’d seen the scans, the photos of the tumour taken during surgery and had spoken at length to the oncologist, so I knew there hadn’t been a mistake. This was all really happening.
The next day, Becky went into hospital to get her central line in and start the treatment protocol that would hopefully save her life. Over the next five or so months, Becky underwent 20 weekly rounds of chemotherapy and 20 intensive sessions of radiotherapy.
There were many things that were hard during this time.
The many trips to the hospital for appointments and tests, the cumulative hours sitting in waiting rooms and most especially, it was hard seeing Becky getting really stick from the chemotherapy. So sick that often she would end up admitted to hospital.
It was hard seeing her lose her beautiful long, strawberry-blond hair. Actually, when we found out Becky was going to lose her hair, she was allowed to dye it pint, purple and blue for a bit of fun, and when it started to fall out, Ben shaved his head too in support of Becky. Her hair has now started to grow back.
It was also hard trying to maintain a normal home life for our other kids, especially when Becky was in hospital. They missed us and they missed their sister too. Ben and I always tried to alternate nights in hospital so that neither of us was away from the other kids for too long.
There were many things that helped us get through this difficult time. We had wonderful support from our family. Grandparents who would come and babysit at the drop of a hat, and even neighbours who I could drop the kids off to when Becky and I had to make the dash down to the emergency department.
We also had many friends who prayed, made meals, dropped off gifts, or wrote heartfelt messages of support on our Facebook walls.
Becky’s school, her teacher and her friends were also great. They supported and cared for her anytime she was well enough to get to school, even if it was only for an hour or so once a week.
Thankfully, my work gave me extended leave while Becky was in treatment so I could focus on caring for her. Ben’s work allowed him to work from home or the hospital whenever he needed to.
And of course, we couldn’t have gotten through this without the wonderful support of the doctors, nurses and other staff at the hospital who cared for Becky so well, in particular Dr McCowage and Dr Ahern, our radiation oncologist.
Only a month ago, Becky finished her treatment completely and got to ring the celebration bell at the Oncology Treatment Clinic. Just last week we got the final results from her end of treatment scans. She has no evidence of disease and so we can hope and look forward to a life after cancer.
Becky is back at school now. She has re-joined the band and is in the school dance group. They will do their big performance at The 2018 Hills Performing Arts Festival next week.
Of course, while her treatment may be over, this will not be over for a long time yet. Becky will have 3-monthly scans for the next year and she’ll still be monitored regularly for many years after that. While we are confident of a good prognosis for her, there will always be the worry and fear that the cancer may come back.
I often tell people that going to the oncology clinic each week is such a humbling experience. There are so many sick kids there, many sicker than Becky was, many with longer treatment protocols and many that perhaps may not have as good a prognosis as Becky has had.
Funding for kids’ cancer research is so important. If it can prevent another child or another family going through what we had to go through, or even save a child’s life, it is worth it.”
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