What started as unusual lump in Priya’s hand became a ghastly succession of bad news culminating in the primary schooler being diagnosed with a rare type of childhood cancer, stage IV high risk alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.
Cheeky Priya Ramswarup calls the sleepy seaside town of Yeppoon in Central Queensland home with Mum Vanessa, Dad Ravi, and best buddy Bailey the dog.
It was in March 2015 when Vanessa was getting Priya (then aged six) ready for school that she noticed her daughter’s right hand was swollen.
On closer inspection, Vanessa could feel a lump and asked Priya if her hand was bothering her, to which she replied a confident, “Nope, don’t worry about it Mum!”
Watch video: Priya's Story | Fighting Rhabdomyosarcoma | The Kids' Cancer Project
But the intuitive mum knew something wasn’t right so they went to the local doctor who ordered an ultrasound and x-ray that same day which lead to a referral to a paediatric hand surgeon and a request for more tests along with a surgical biopsy.
Vanessa knew the lump on Priya's hand needed expert examination.
Vanessa, Ravi and Priya knew they would need the support of extended family at this time, so they flew to Sydney for all the additional medical examinations.
They were right. The biopsy revealed the lump was a malignant tumour.
“After the consultation I was in shock but kept it together for Priya and my father-in-law who had driven us to the appointment,” said Vanessa. “I tried to keep calm, but when I spoke to Ravi later that day I just broke down with fear for our little girl.”
Priya was referred to Paediatric Oncologist Dr Geoff McCowage (Dr Geoff to his patients) at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. At that point, he wasn’t sure what type of cancer Priya had. What he did know was treatment had to start immediately - her cancer had metastasised to her lungs. It meant she only had a 25 per cent chance of surviving.
It was a devastating blow to what was already difficult news to deal with.
The anxious parents learned Priya’s medical intervention would be as equally aggressive as her cancer including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and further surgery. It was estimated she would be in treatment for a whole year.
Priya's treatment included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
“It was just one thing after another, bad news, bad news, bad news,” recalled Ravi. “Priya has a tumour. Priya has a cancerous tumour. Priya’s cancer has spread. Then you find out that the type of cancer Priya has, only roughly three kids in Australia get. Three!”
Despite everything the young girl went through, she kept her cheeky sense of humour in a heroic display of resilience.
“Priya was, and still is, amazing,” said Vanessa. “She never complains, she never refused to go to hospital or have any of the dozens of procedures she had to have.”
Priya's Aja took a year and a half out so he could drive her to every appointment (and spoil her with treats now and then).
But there was one day during treatment when Priya hit an all-time low. The cumulative effects of chemotherapy and radiation were making her so very ill.
“She was feeling really, really sick and had to be wheeled into the bathroom to go to the toilet,” recalled Vanessa. “On one of these trips she said, ‘you’re a really good Muma, if I die, I’ll never forget you’.”
“In that moment it took everything in me to hold it together. I told her not to be silly, walked out of the room, and lost it,” said Vanessa. “For a little kid to even have to think about death is just awful, let alone her saying that to me.”
"Muma, if I die, I'll never forget you".
Seven months after the horrifying diagnosis, the Ramswarup’s finally received good news. The treatment was working. A total body PET scan showed no evidence of disease in Priya’s lungs, plus her hand had minimal evidence of the cancer.
In May 2016, 60 weeks after she was diagnosed, Priya’s treatment was over and she was allowed to ring the end-of-treatment bell to celebrate. It was a moment that filled the family with mixed emotions.
“We had an end goal we were working toward,” said Ravi. “But when Priya actually got to ring the bell we asked ourselves, ‘what happens now?’”
“You get to that end date,” Vanessa said. “And it’s kind of like ‘wow, there’s no more treatment’ but it also feels like there’s no safety net. I remember being in the hospital, just bawling my eyes out, to be honest.”
Priya recovering at home with her best friend Bailey.
Priya reached a big milestone in 2018 - two years cancer free. It was a critical period for her type of cancer. Now her scans have gone from every three months, to every four months and doctors will keep a close eye on her until she reaches the five-year mark.
“Priya is playing soccer and touch football, and doing really well in class despite missing a year and a half of school. Most kids ease their way back in, but not her, she hasn’t missed a day,” said Vanessa.
Cancer free! Priya walks home from school with mum Vanessa.
With that same vitality and sense of focus, Priya leapt at the opportunity to become a YPURA artist. Her proud parents said she was over the moon to be invited to submit artwork to grace the label of a new sparkling mineral water.
“She is very creative, like Vanessa,” gushed Ravi. “She really enjoys drawing and couldn’t get to the job quick enough - she raced to get all her colours and textas out and started.”
“Priya knew the design had to be about nature,” said Vanessa. “No influence from us at all. She’s very independent, although she’s a little person.”
“I think we’re especially proud because since the cancer diagnosis, every day counts a little more, every achievement feels a little bigger,” said Vanessa.
“What Priya has been through has given her insight far beyond her years,” said Ravi. “It’s great to hang out with her because she’s a sponge, she’s not afraid to try anything and she has a real crack at life.”
L-R: Ravi, Vanessa and Col Reynolds OAM at a fundraiser the couple held at their cafe, The Coffee Club Yeppoon Esplanade, in August 2017
Priya’s artwork appears on YPURA Sparkling Mineral Water. Proceeds of sales go toward funding childhood cancer research in Australia.
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