Real Stories

Juggling it all… a child with cancer and a newborn

A diagnosis of childhood cancer turns a family’s world upside-down. So does bringing home a newborn. Angela’s family had both.

At 39 weeks pregnant with her third child, Angela received a phone call from her husband telling her that their seven-year-old son Henry had been diagnosed with leukaemia.

Angela shares how she juggled Henry’s cancer treatment with the needs of a newborn baby, and how Henry is going nearly two years after treatment ended.

While I was pregnant with our youngest son Bradley, there were a number of things about Henry that weren’t adding up. He was getting headaches, and he would come home from school and fall asleep. Then about a month after a minor surgical procedure he just wasn’t picking up, so I took him to a local doctor who ordered blood tests.

I was 39 weeks pregnant and ready to give birth.

When Henry’s blood came back, we were referred for a bone marrow biopsy at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide which is 80km from home. Since I was so heavily pregnant and the results might not be the same day, I stayed in Kapunda while my husband, Jack and his mum took Henry to Adelaide.

That night, Jack called to tell me Henry had leukaemia and he would be starting treatment in three days. It was a pretty tough phone call and I certainly wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t have a worst-case scenario in my mind because I was so focused on having a baby at any moment.

The plan had been to give birth in Kapunda, like I had with Natalie and Henry. But with Henry about to start treatment, doctors suggested I give birth in Adelaide. That way if the baby or I needed to stay in hospital we would be in the same hospital as Henry and the family would be together.

That made sense and we decided to give birth in Adelaide, but the timing didn’t quite work out. Bradley was born in Adelaide on Saturday. Less than 48 hours after Henry’s diagnosis and two days prior to his first hospital treatment, I delivered a baby.

Thankfully, the baby and I were both well and I could go home and enjoy one night with Henry before his treatment began. Staying in hospital longer would have been lovely, but family bonding was really important. Without that one night sitting around in the lounge room together, life would have felt even more chaotic than it was.

It was when Henry was admitted to hospital, that it really hit me that I wasn’t able to get too involved in his treatment. I had a newborn baby to look after and I couldn’t give my full attention to both of them. Chemotherapy was also an issue as I couldn’t handle any waste. Instead, Jack dropped everything to stay in hospital with Henry, while I tried my best to juggle everything.

That meant I would leave home at six in the morning to get to the hospital. I had family or friends drive me so I could use the time to reply to messages and make phone calls. While I was at the hospital, I would meet with Henry’s medical teams and juggle Bradley’s check-ups with the clinic.

It was hectic and I would get home around eight at night to spend time with my daughter Natalie. It was tough on her. Even though mum and dad came to stay, I wasn’t around a lot in those first couple of months. So, it was critical for me to be there for her overnight. We would sleep in the same bed together, with Bradley in the bassinet beside us.

Redkite was there for us from day one when we received a Redkite bag with information and toiletries. We’ve still got the bag and we use it all the time.

The fuel vouchers were also really good because during Henry’s hospital treatment I travelled to and from Adelaide every day. The vouchers made sure there was enough fuel in the car and there was a Coles Express near the hospital.

As our circumstances changed, we received some financial assistance as well because the bills kept coming in. Redkite also helped with the kids’ school fees, we used the Book Club to get age-appropriate books to read together, and the Coles vouchers put food on the table.

Henry’s in-hospital treatment went on for a year and he was away from school the entire time. When he started to return, we noticed he needed emotional support because it was a huge mental load.

Initially, just getting him to school was a challenge. He didn’t want to go. Then trying to get him into a classroom with 20 other kids was a struggle. He needed one-on-one support. So, my sister-in-law or I would stay with him while he was at school. Sometimes I had to breastfeed in the staffroom because I had a baby to look after too. This went on for a full school term until he got the confidence to be a part of the class.

His teacher was really supportive. He let all the kids wear their caps in the classroom because Henry wouldn’t let anybody see him without a hat or a beanie. He didn’t wear one at home, but at school there was no way anyone was going to see him without his hair!

Henry’s been off treatment for almost two years now and he’s got his energy back, but he’s probably a little flatter than he would have been without three years of chemotherapy. Now, we just need him to follow the rules.

During treatment, we let him eat whatever he wanted for dinner, and we would let him play on the PlayStation all the time. Now he has to eat with the family and put the PlayStation away more often. Getting him to understand that is tricky. When your life has been disrupted, it’s not easy to transition back to a ‘normal life’ where going to school, eating veggies, doing homework and sharing things with your brother and sister is expected.

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