Labour Day backyard barbecue a year ago is one Alicen Chow will never forget.
Her daughter, Islay Mei Gordon, was playing with other children and fell from a tree. It didn’t appear to be a big deal at the time, but it would soon spiral the young family into a fight for life.
Soon after the fall, Islay began to limp and complain of a sore back. A trip to the doctor identified nothing out of the ordinary.
As the weeks passed, Islay started getting more peculiar aches and pains. She developed an odd rash on her shoulder and the pains in her knees and back were continuing to get worse, and when she woke up in the morning she was often so stiff she could hardly get out of bed.
Finally after weeks consulting with doctors and other health professionals, it was discovered Islay had leukemia.
“[The diagnosis] was terrifying,” Chow said. “I think we probably thought it was a death sentence at the time.”
Islay was rushed to B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver to begin cancer treatment.
The first 24 hours were a whirlwind of activity as Islay underwent treatment. For the family, it opened an unexpected new world of learning medical terminology and understanding the cancer.
“You quickly move from ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ to being inundated with information. You really don’t get a chance to catch your breath,” Chow said.
Islay faced the first days with a lot of courage for a six year old as doctors and nurses poked and prodded her in the early stages of the cancer treatment.
Chow was surprised how well Islay held up.
“The moment we got [at the hospital] they made it really easy. They treat children with remarkable respect,” Chow said. “They made it as easy as they could and she did really well.”
Anne Correlli, a pediatric oncology nurse at Victoria General Hospital, said family is so important when a child is dealing with cancer.
The family is considered a part of the health team.
“We try to build that trust with the families so they trust themselves and so when they are here and looking at numbers on the machine that we can reinforce with them it’s not just about the numbers but what they see in their child,” Correlli said.
After a few weeks at B.C. Children’s Hospital, Islay returned home and began taking day treatment at Victoria General Hospital.
Islay has been in remission since mid-January and returned to Grade 1 at Keating elementary school in September.
The hardship of dealing with cancer is not just the disease, but how it changes family life.
Chow said her family was lucky they didn’t have to spend more time in Vancouver, so they didn’t face a lot of financial hardships.
Still, there were incidents that came up where they had to ask groups like Make-a-Wish and the B.C. Childhood Cancer Parents’ Association for help.
Chow, who is in the public service, now works two to three days a week at home. Her husband, Coll Gordon, has returned to his small law practice.
Chow said she doubts her family life will ever be the same.
“The biggest change is you develop this new normal, but it does quickly become part of your everyday routine.” she said.
“Everything changed. There’s no going back. The sense of invincibility is gone.”
By the Numbers:
1,500 — Number of childhood cancer cases diagnosed each year in Canada.
70% — Percentage of children diagnosed with cancer who become long-term survivors. The majority of them are considered cured.
75% — The cure rate of childhood cancers. Leukemia leads the success charge with close to a 90 per cent overall cure rate.