By Liana Jacob
THIS ADORABLE three-year-old with BRAIN CANCER endured gruelling treatment that saw her confined to a pressurised room for over FIVE WEEKS – and with just a TWENTY-PER CENT chance of survival her parents are appealing for funds for cutting edge treatment.
In November 2017, operations management leader, Ben Lawson (32) from Great Yarmouth, UK, and his wife Elizabeth (33) noticed that their daughter, Anna (3), was experiencing headaches, loss of appetite and loss of balance.
Having taken Anna to the GP and A&E on several occasions, the symptoms were attributed to a viral infection. Finally, with Anna’s symptoms worsening, her parents took her to the hospital again. A doctor decided to perform a CT scan on her head with a significant mass being identified. Within a few hours, they were taken by ambulance to another hospital in Cambridge, where she underwent a MRI scan.
Numerous tests confirmed that Anna had a medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumour that develops in the back of the skull. Doctors informed Ben and Elizabeth that Anna would need emergency surgery to remove the tumour which would be lengthy and could carry a serious risk of death or brain damage.
With little choice, they agreed to the surgery, despite having no time to digest what was happening. On the morning of the operation, fearing she might not survive the surgery, they spent the day making Christmas tree decorations, playing games and trying to take in every moment with Anna. That lunch time she was taken down for surgery, only 36-hours after the mass was identified.
To their relief, Anna survived the surgery, however complications followed, with Anna having a lengthy stay in hospital before chemotherapy could start. Five gruelling rounds of chemotherapy followed, each lasting three-weeks, culminating in a high-dose chemotherapy which kept Anna confined to a pressurised room for over five weeks. In June 2018, Anna rang the bell to signal the end of treatment after they were told there was no evidence of disease.
She had follow-up scans to check for signs of a relapse every three months. Despite the significant side effects the treatment had on Anna, including the need for hearing aids and glasses, regular physiotherapy and loss of fertility, the family tried to look forward and regain some semblance of normality.
On February 3, 2019, Elizabeth discovered she was pregnant with their second child after suffering a miscarriage on Anna’s birthday in November 2018. They were over the moon and Anna was excited to have a sibling. However, a day after they discovered she was pregnant, their world came crashing down all over again, when they received the call from Anna’s doctor informing them her routine scan showed that her cancer had returned and metastasised to her spine.
Ben and Elizabeth were presented two options; one was to go home and make memories, or two to give Anna radiotherapy to her head and spine; an option that would have a devastating impact on her development both mentally and physically due to her tender age. Unfortunately, even the curative option was only given a 20 per cent chance of success.
She has since undergone six weeks of radiotherapy, each session requiring a general anaesthetic, and more recently commenced the first of four rounds of chemotherapy. They aim to do everything they can to make her happy and making as many memories as possible. Their wish is to take her on holiday to Disney World, in Florida.
While they are normally private people, Ben and Elizabeth have decided to share Anna’s story via social media to help raise awareness and raise funds via a Just Giving page in an attempt to take Anna abroad for immunotherapy/vaccine treatment in the hope of preventing a further relapse. The social media pages, aptly named Anna Poppy’s Army, provide regular updates on Anna’s progress and the bumps in the road along the way, and details of fundraising activities.
“Anna was having some symptoms from mid November 2017 whereby she was off her food, off balance, sleeping extremely easy and complaining of headaches,” Ben said.
“We had been to the GP and A&E and it was accounted as being ear/chest/viral infections. This seemed logical at the time, and of course more likely.
“The symptoms persisted on antibiotics, and finally Anna awoke from an eighteen-hour sleep with one of her eyes pointing off to the side.
“We took her to A&E again and a doctor decided to perform a CT scan on Anna’s head. Within a couple of hours, we were being taken by ambulance to Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge.
“Anna was put on steroids straight away to reduce the swelling and there was a noticeable improvement in her.
“We were sat down with Anna’s oncology consultant and a consultant neurosurgeon. They were confident based on the images that the tumour was a medulloblastoma, something that was later confirmed by testing.
“They explained that Anna would need surgery immediately to remove the tumour, followed by chemotherapy.
“The operation would be lengthy and carry serious risk of Anna dying or being paralysed. We signed the consent form there and then, we had no choice.
“The truth is this was a whirlwind, we didn’t have time to digest what was happening, we just had to go along with the guidance from the medical teams.
“I remember the day of Anna’s operation very clearly; we woke up early with Anna so that we could play together for as long as possible. We treated that morning as if we may never see Anna, or the Anna we know, ever again.
“When we were told that the original CT scan had identified a significant mass on Anna’s brain we just froze.
“I initially didn’t break down; I was almost in disbelief; this couldn’t be happening to my child. I called Lizzy’s and my parents. That first call I just broke down – telling someone made it sink in.”
Since she was initially diagnosed, Anna has had five cycles of chemotherapy, a high dose chemotherapy, daily injections, numerous surgeries, countless scans and tests. She has also endured endless appointments and stays in hospitals, as well as all the horrific side effects that have come with her treatment.
Despite everything that Anna has had to go through in her short life, in February 2019, Ben and Elizabeth were informed her cancer had come back. She has since undergone six weeks of radiotherapy to her head and spine, and more recently commenced the first of four cycles of chemotherapy.
“Anna completed her original treatment on June 13, 2018; she had three-monthly MRI scans to check for signs of disease,” Ben said.
“On the February 3, 2019, we found out Lizzy was pregnant after having had a miscarriage on Anna’s birthday in November.
“On February 4, 2019, she started nursery again, we picked her up on the high of her being back and Lizzy being pregnant again Then at around 3:30pm we got the usual call to say what the scan had found.
“This time it was Anna’s consultant who called and said it had come back and spread to her spine and that we needed to have a discussion the following day about the next steps.
“She had six weeks of radiotherapy of her head and spine. So far, she has had one cycle out of four of her chemotherapy.
“But we are slightly delayed at the moment as she has had a nasty viral infection, a fungal infection on her lung and shingles. She is trying her absolute best though.
“We plan to take Anna abroad and then when that’s finished we would love to take her to Florida.
“We plan to take Anna abroad for further treatment, after which we hope to have the opportunity to complete her wish of taking her to Disney World to see the princesses. Anna is a massive Disney fan, and would wear a princess dress every day given the opportunity.
“We understand more than most that time is precious, and as a result we are focused on doing the things Anna loves to make up for all the horrible things she has to endure.
“You have to be there for your child and just love them and care for them. When you are able to, make sure you always do something nice, the trivial things in life don’t matter, it’s all about making memories, for you as a family and for your child.
“Because Anna is so young, we have to put on a brave face so as not to burden her with the emotional consequences of what is happening. On the occasion that you do slip up, there is nothing worse than having your three-year-old with cancer trying to console you. We have horrible days, but there is always one positive thing each day, which is what we try to focus on.
“For anyone wanting to help, we would of course be grateful for donations, but there are so many other great charities available to support families like ours, and of course there is the opportunity to donate blood and become a stem cell donor.
“Although we understand childhood cancer is rare, regularly being on a ward with other families and their children who are also fighting for their lives, it doesn’t feel that rare to us, and we know that more money is urgently needed to help in finding a cure.
“Anna is so excited to have a sibling; she refers to Lizzy’s bump as her baby. She asks every day when is baby going to be here and she is always chatting and singing to Lizzy’s baby bump. It is heart-warming and heart-breaking watching Anna practise being a big sister to her dollies when the future is so uncertain.”
For more information visit: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/annapoppysarmy