Alison Bell, from Newtownabbey, is sharing her son Ollie’s story as part of Cancer Fund for Children’s Christmas appeal, to encourage local people to do whatever they can to support children whose lives have been devastated by cancer.
Alison said the day she was told Ollie had cancer was the stuff of nightmares.
“Just over a year ago, on October 18, 2016, I went to wake my five-year-old son Ollie to get ready for school, just like any other day. But Ollie complained that he couldn’t put his foot on the floor to get up. He was obviously in a lot of pain and crying so I took him to Antrim Hospital to get an X-ray.
‘‘As I made the journey I was becoming increasingly worried as he had been at the doctors with a rash the week before and had been losing a lot of weight recently and looking pale.”
Little did Alison know that within a few hours her world would be turned upside down.
“When the doctors asked to speak to me alone, I knew it was serious. I can remember the words so clearly. ‘It’s not good news – your son has leukaemia’. I had to compose myself before they brought Ollie into the room with me. From there we were transferred to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children where we stayed for the next five weeks for intensive treatments.
“It’s the stuff of nightmares but throughout his treatment Ollie just got on with it and fought. He celebrated his sixth birthday on the ward and we managed to have a little party for him which we fitted in around his chemotherapy on the day.
“The next stages of treatment were a mixture of inpatient and outpatient treatment which was really challenging. Although we had the freedom of not being in the hospital, the isolation was very hard on Ollie. His behaviour was affected by the intensity of having to stay in the house 24/7 to avoid the risk of infection. He missed school, his friends and just being able to be around people.”
It was whilst Ollie was in hospital that he was referred to Cancer Fund for Children for support. The charity’s team of community specialists provide individual support to children with cancer and their families either at home, in hospital or in their community giving them an opportunity to discuss their feelings in a safe environment with someone outside their family unit.
Alison continued:“Our Cancer Fund for Children specialist Gemma was absolutely amazing and a godsend to both Ollie and to me.
‘‘Gemma built up such a caring relationship with both of us to help us through what has been a very difficult time.
‘‘Through the dark days of intensive treatment when we were restricted to the house, her visits would be the highlight of our day. She would use ‘talking through play’ with Ollie to work through any worries he had and always knew at what point to suggest a therapeutic short break for us at Cancer Fund for Children’s short break centre, Daisy Lodge, if things were getting too much.
“She also helped arrange for us to receive the charity’s financial grants. Ollie was discharged from hospital in November so it was a massive worry to me how I was going to be able to afford to heat the house for him as it was so cold in the middle of winter, and we were at home 24 hours a day. But Cancer Fund for Children were there to support us with their Home Heating Grant. It was such a relief to have this additional worry taken away so that I could get on with caring for Ollie without this added financial stress.
“Likewise their Road Miles Grant also helped in a big way with the travelling expenses to and from hospital – all of these additional expenses really add up and until you’re faced with the realities yourself you just don’t think about the financial cost of a cancer diagnosis. The practical support offered by Cancer Fund for Children is amazing.”
Christmas is such a significant time for families, but for some it can be an immensely painful time, and for families impacted by childhood cancer this is no different.
Cancer Fund for Children’s Community Specialist Neil Symington said: “When I first meet families, it is at a time of disbelief and significant change as they face the challenge of being told ‘your child has cancer’. I feel privileged that I am part of a team and charity that can meet with a family to support them through a difficult time when they are feeling most vulnerable.
“Whilst being sensitive to the impact of their diagnosis, their treatment and the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis, we continue to engage with young people in a creative manner, with energy and with passion. We help children communicate their emotions and talk openly about how they are feeling.
‘‘We help them to talk about the many changes they may be experiencing following their diagnosis which may include, feeling isolated from friends and siblings, fear about their treatment and the feelings of boredom which can be part of being an in-patient for prolonged periods.’’
He added: “By supporting Cancer Fund for Children this Christmas, you truly are making a difference, enabling us to be there for children with cancer, and their families, when they need us most.”
After a year of treatment Ollie is doing really well and has now started a phase of less intensive treatment. He recently started back to school for the first time since that awful day last October.
Alison said: “It was a very emotional day – to see how far he has come. He still has two and half years of treatment left as well as daily chemo and we know that the cancer journey will most likely have long lasting effects even after he finishes treatment. Missing a year of school has left him behind academically and the chemotherapy drugs could likely have side-effects but, with Cancer Fund for Children’s help, we will address these issues and get through them together.”
Alison, who is currently preparing to trek the Grand Canyon in 2018 to give back to the charity that was there for her and her son, added: “I honestly don’t know where I would be today with the support of Cancer Fund for Children. That is one of the reasons why I’m taking part in a trek – to raise funds for a charity that has helped us on our journey and has a special place in my heart!”
This Christmas Cancer Fund for Children is urging people across Northern Ireland to do whatever they can to support children like Ollie.
The charity receives less than 0.5% of its income from government funding and relies on the generosity of the local community to raise vital funds. To find out more about how you can get involved visit cancerfundforchidlren.com.