When Sallie’s son Harvey was diagnosed with leukaemia, it wasn’t the first time her family had been touched by childhood cancer. She’s sharing her story now to inspire others to join Walk for Kids with Cancer and to help create a better future for families affected by this devastating disease.
In 2009, Sallie’s cousin Bec was diagnosed with a form of brain cancer known as a Glioblastoma Multiforma (GBM) Grade 4.
“I remember her getting really sick and having all these terrible headaches,” she says. “Bec was treated at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Unfortunately, her brain cancer was so aggressive that when it returned, her little body couldn’t cope. Bec ended up passing away when she was just 11 from side effects related to her chemotherapy. I was so heartbroken.”
Picture: Bec holding her fingers up to her head as bunny ears
When Sallie’s five-year-old son Harvey started to display worrying symptoms of his own in 2020, she knew something was wrong.
“He woke up one day and couldn’t walk. Then he got a cold and just kept getting sick with fevers.”
When Harvey developed a lump in his chest and started struggling to breathe, Sallie knew he needed help. She took him to the GP again and they referred him to the Emergency Department for blood tests, which quickly identified the source of the problem.
“I remember the doctor taking me into a side room and saying to me, ‘I’m sorry, we think Harvey’s got leukaemia.’ I was in complete shock,” Sallie says.
Harvey’s condition was critical. He had so much fluid on his lungs that his heart had been pushed to the other side of his body. He was rushed by helicopter from his home on the NSW South Coast to Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick (SCH) for emergency surgery and treatment.
Picture: Five-year-old Harvey on a stretcher, awaiting to be airlifted by the Newborn and Paediatric Emegency Transport Service helicopter.
Harvey had T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (T-ALL). Leukaemia is one of the most common childhood cancers, it impacts the type of white blood cells that attack foreign invaders and activate other parts of the immune system. Most children have Pre-B ALL (85%) whereas Harvey’s T-cell diagnosis meant that the treatment he needed was particularly complex.
“He was deemed high risk,” Sallie explains. “He was one of very few kids who needed radiation on top of chemotherapy. They also found leukaemia cells in his spinal fluid, which they were worried might seed into his brain.”
All up, Harvey spent 14 months receiving intensive treatment at SCH. Sallie says that journey took its toll on the whole family.
Picture left: Harvey stands by his hospital bed in pain.
Picture right: Harvey asks his mum, Sallie to shave his head and remove his 'itchy hair crumbs'.
“Harvey was saying things like, ‘What did I do wrong, Mummy?’ ‘Will I die?’ ‘I just want to go home,’ and, ‘I hate this life.’ No child should even ask these questions or have these thoughts. I must have cried a thousand tears for him,” Sallie said.
“At the time our daughter Amelia was only one and I was pregnant with our third child. Amelia stayed at home with family while I stayed with Harvey in Sydney. I missed out on so much of her growing up because of cancer.”
Picture: One-year-old Amelia comforts her big brother Harvey, patting his head while lying in his hospital bed.
Sallie says that support from the team at SCH helped her family through the toughest time of their lives.
“The staff at the Hospital were amazing. The nurses became like family, and the oncologist was so good with Harvey. He’d talk about Lego and Star Wars to make Harvey feel comfortable, and he did whatever he could to give Harvey as much of a life as possible.”
After two long years, Harvey’s doctors finally gave Sallie the news she’d been anxiously waiting for. His cancer was in remission, and his treatment was finally finished.
“It was like I could breathe again,” she says. “I felt like everything was going to be okay.”
Picture: Harvey walks through the hospital's Fairy Garden with a smile on his face.
When it came time for Harvey to ring his end-of-treatment bell at the Hospital, there was someone very special Sallie wanted by her side.
“I decided to invite my Aunty Lorraine. Her daughter Bec never got to ring that bell, and I thought it would be nice for her to see a success story and bring a bit of closure to the heart-breaking experience she had.
“I was so honoured to have her involved, and I’m so proud of her for choosing to share Bec’s story alongside Harvey’s to help raise money for other sick kids. Fundraising is going to help make things better for the next lot of kids that go through this.”
Sharing her daughter's story for the first time, Lorraine says, ''After 13 years, I want to share Bec's story to honour her short but sparkly life, and to highlight the desperate need for further research and new treatment options for all forms of childhood cancer.''
To go all in for kids’ health for sick kids like Harvey and Bec join Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation’s (SCHF) Movement of Many as part of this year’s Walk for Kids with Cancer. Due to take place on March 24 in 2024, the walk is a 24km journey from The Rocks to the Northern Beaches around Sydney’s spectacular harbour.
Funds raised through last year’s Walk for Kids with Cancer were directed to the frontline of kids’ health. Thanks to the generosity of people like you, SCHF was able to fund a new Nurse Educator position for 12 months at the Kids Cancer Centre at SCH.
The Nurse Educator makes sure staff are equipped with the specialist skills they need to deliver world-class care and cutting-edge procedures like CAR T-Cell therapy. These procedures help ease the burden of treatment on children like Harvey and increase their chances of getting better and going home to their loved ones.
Registrations for this year’s Walk for Kids with Cancer are now open. Click here to find out more and sign up today.