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Brave five year old Jess fought off rare cancer

September is childhood cancer awareness month, so Southampton Hospital Charity is raising awareness of childhood cancer, how it affects families, as well as some of the signs and symptoms that parents need to be aware off.

Around 2,400 children and teenagers are diagnosed with cancer every year in the UK. That's around six every day.

 Signs of cancer (or another illness) include: 

  • An unusual lump or swelling
  • Unexplained paleness and loss of energy
  • Easy bruising
  • An ongoing pain in one area of the body
  • Limping
  • Unexplained fever or illness that doesn't go away
  • Frequent headaches, often with vomiting
  • Sudden eye or vision changes

 If you know of anyone presenting with similar symptoms then make sure you see your GP straight away.

Brave five year old Jess fought off rare cancer

Jess Vardy, from Bishops Waltham, is now in remission, after being told she had cancer in 2013, at just the age of five.

Mother, Dawn Vardy, explains: “It was the day before Jess’ fifth birthday in 2012 when she complained that her hand hurt. She had a fever, as well as the pain in her hand, but the symptoms kept coming and going. We went to the GP after a week, and had several diagnosis, including juvenile arthritis. Jess was due to see a specialist in March 2013, so we waited for that appointment to find out what was wrong.”

“Her pain got so bad that we had to go the Emergency Department on 21 December. In hospital, doctors discovered a hard lump under Jess’ left arm, and we were transferred to Piam Brown ward at Southampton General Hospital.  On Christmas Eve she was given an MRI scan which showed a large mass under the arm which was the size of an orange. She was discharged with pain medication to spend Christmas at home.”

“This was not to be. On Christmas Day, the pain got so bad that she was slipping in and out of consciousness. Jess had to be rushed back to hospital and put on morphine. Doctors did a biopsy of the lump and it was diagnosed as a rhabdoid tumour. For us, cancer was not even on the cards as the cause. We had never before thought about cancer in children.”

A rhabdoid tumour is a rare, highly aggressive malignancy of early childhood, and is primarily found on the kidney. Only around two cases are diagnosed every year in the UK.

“Her prognosis was looking poor. As this tumour usually affects the kidney, doctors expected the tumour under her arm was a secondary site. Jess was given full body scans and I think everyone was surprised when we found out it was actually the primary site. Her prognosis immediately got better, but we knew that we still had a long way to go.”

“On 19 January 2013, Jess started year-long treatment for the tumour on the highest toxic form of chemotherapy. She had week-long treatment in hospital every three weeks to reduce the size of the tumour. Over the period of treatment her immune system failed to work so she picked up every illness she came across.”

“During this time, we were sharing care between Piam Brown ward, and the team at Winchester Hospital. Those weeks that Jess was well enough, she went back to school. These were the times that she looked forward to as she could be with her friends and she got back a sense of normality for a while.”

“The tumour responded really well to the treatment and shrunk considerably. At the start of June we were sent to Stanmore Hospital in London to have the tumour removed. It had grown around lots of the nerves and stopped blood vessels from getting blood to Jess’ arm, which is why it had been so painful at Christmas. We were really worried that they would have to remove the whole arm to ensure they got rid of all of the tumour, but we were lucky. Jess has some loss of function in her arm, but she worked really hard with the physiotherapist to get movement back again.”

“She then had to start radiotherapy to target the area where the tumour was. This was done every day for six weeks for 30 minutes. She was really brave at this point as we weren’t allowed in the room with her during the treatment period. She had a cast of her body made and had to be secured to the board on the machine so that she couldn’t move. This ensured the treatment was accurate and only treating the affected area.”

“Because of the radiotherapy treatment, she kept getting infections under her arm. The clinical dermatology team had to look at her as she had skin damage down to the nerves. This set us back another six weeks until it healed, which took longer as she still had no immunity. After the course of radiotherapy, Jess had to go back on chemotherapy until November.

“In January 2014, Jess was officially declared as in remission which we were all thrilled about.”

“We have to come back every three months for scans and xrays, and this will be done for the next five years. The older she gets, the better the prognosis is that the cancer won’t come back.”

“We felt that we wanted to do something for the people who had given us back our daughter. As a family we set a target to raise £1,000 but were staggered that the final total was around £6,000.” 

“Our local community all got on board. Some teachers from my husband’s school ran the Great South Run, our local postmen cycled the three peaks, and we got support from Bitterne Park School. We did events ourselves like the tough mudder, race for life (along with lots of Jess’ friends), and arranged a football tournament and charity ball. Now that Jess is in remission, we are starting to do more fundraising events for Piam Brown Unit.” 

Please donate to the ward that gives so much to families like us who are going through cancer treatment. Call us on 023 8120 8881.

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