A Co Armagh mum whose baby was diagnosed with cancer when he was just four weeks old is encouraging others to support the charity that was there for her family throughout one of the most difficult times in their lives.
Karen Brown, from Markethill, is sharing her story as part of Cancer Fund for Children’s Summer Appeal, to encourage local people to donate whatever they can to support families like hers whose lives have been devastated by childhood cancer.
Karen, who lost her brother Graeme to cancer 23 years ago, when he was just 15 years old, said she never expected that one day her own family would be affected by the illness.
“I was 17, and my brother Keith was just nine-years-old. Back then, there was absolutely no support for families like mine, and so my family, alongside family friend Doris Hamilton, has raised for Cancer Fund for Children to make sure that other families get all the support they need. But I didn’t really expect to need their help myself.”
Speaking about when her youngest son Tom was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2015, Karen said: “Tom was delivered very quickly. Everything was fine for the first few hours. He was not even 12 hours old when he was transferred to the neo-natal ward at the Royal Victoria Hospital where he stayed for 4 weeks. It was whilst we were there that we were told that he had neuroblastoma.
“At first we were advised to wait and see if it would disappear by itself, which can sometimes happen with babies, but when that didn’t work, the juggernaut that is cancer treatment and chemo started.
“When Tom started treatment it was as if the cancer had robbed us of a normal family life. You can’t go out and show off the baby. You can’t do the things that other new mummies enjoy. It robs you of that special time. It was very isolating.”
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it can have a huge impact on the whole family. Cancer Fund for Children stepped in to support Karen and her family, particularly Tom’s older brother Robbie, who was 6 years old at the time. Cancer Fund for Children’s Community Specialists can provide one-to-one support to siblings who are worried, lonely and vulnerable whilst their sibling is in cancer treatment.
Karen continued: “It can be hard on any child when a new baby comes along but suddenly for Robbie, his mummy wasn’t there anymore. He was never sure who was picking him up from school as I had to spend so much time staying with Tom in the hospital. In the beginning, it had a really big impact with me being away a lot.
“We were also very worried about the risk of infection at home. Robbie wasn’t allowed on the ward or to have friends over. And when Tom had his line in, we were constantly telling Robbie to be gentle around him. We were very pre-occupied making sure that Tom was okay, that Robbie felt a little side-lined.
“But Cancer Fund for Children was great with Robbie. Our Cancer Fund for Children Specialist came out and did some one-to-one work with him. She took him to Gosford one day for a picnic. Robbie looked forward to her coming. The support gave him something to focus on – he doesn’t associate his Specialist with Tom being sick.”
Gemma O’Toole, a Cancer Fund for Children Community Specialist, added: “When a child is diagnosed with cancer, life can change suddenly and dramatically for every family member. For siblings, this can be a bewildering time- sibling illness can mean long periods when a family is fragmented, and time is spent apart, with the focus on the sick child and other family members or friends stepping in to help support the care of the other children.
“Part of a Specialist’s role is to offer support to siblings, to help them to make sense of what is happening, to name and understand those ‘big feelings’ that can be so confusing and scary. We aim to help improve communication between the sibling and their parents or caregivers, so they are able to share fears and worries with those at home, and to help build confidence and resilience.
“The most rewarding aspect for me is being able to build a relationship of trust with a family at the most devastating, shattering time of their lives.”
After six cycles of chemotherapy, Tom and his family are trying to get back to normal. Karen hopes that their story will inspire others to support the local charity’s Summer Appeal.
“His last chemo ended on 29th July 2016. The last couple of stronger cycles were harder on him and he was quite sick but he coped well. He doesn’t really know any different. He sees the doctors and nurses and he just smiles at them. Right now he still has a little bit of neuroblastoma left so we have to go for check-ups but, touch wood, he is okay. We are just trying to become normal again.
“Until you are in the situation yourself, you really don’t know how invaluable Cancer Fund for Children’s services are, but please believe me when I say that every donation will have a huge impact on the lives of local families who have a child with cancer. We have been able to benefit from everything the charity provides and hope that others in the future who need it, can too.”
Cancer Fund for Children’s Summer Appeal hopes to raise £15,000 to support children and young people living with cancer. Money raised will help their team of Specialists to provide a range of practical, financial and emotional support to families so that they don’t have to face cancer alone.
To donate, please go to cancerfundforchildren.com/donate
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