Fri | Jan 19, 2018

Cancer can destroy an entire family

Published:Sunday | November 20, 2016 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
As if losing her husband to liver cancer wasn’t heartbreaking enough, Christine Campbell’s emotions and finances took another battering when her 15-year old-son was diagnosed and died from colon cancer a few months after.
Nine-year-old Briana Mesidor is blind in the left eye and had her left leg amputated because of cancer. She now has lung cancer.
Twelve-year-old cancer survivor Kenardia is now back at school after battling leukaemia for four years.

As if losing her husband to liver cancer wasn't heartbreaking enough, Christine Campbell's emotions and finances took another battering when her 15-year old-son was diagnosed and died from colon cancer a few months afterwards.

The mother, who wept as she spoke to The Sunday Gleaner, said her husband of 23 years died in January 2015, just a few months after being diagnosed. In June of that year, her worse fears became a reality when her youngest child and only son was diagnosed with cancer. Both mother and son fought valiantly, spending more than a $1 million in the process, but he died in November.

"You don't know when it is coming," she said of the disease, which has ravished and continues to ravish, so many lives.

The fact that her son's body was attacked in his teen years speaks to the reality that cancer is no respecter of age, and it is striking its victims from as early as a few months out of the womb.

Paediatric oncologist Dr Michelle Reece-Mills said her youngest patient is three months old, and according to statistics obtained from the Ministry of Health, 56 children died from cancer in 2014 alone.

Campbell said her son's cancer was aggressive, and by the time it was detected, it was already at stage three. She recalled that he started having pain in his side, but she was told that it was an infection when she took him to a private doctor.

"He came home from church and he said, 'Mommy, the pain coming back. I can't manage the pain anymore', and the Sunday morning, I took him to UHWI (University Hospital of the West Indies) and they did an ultrasound and they did a CT scan and it showed that there was a mass," she said.

"By the Monday, the pain was even greater, and they had to rush him to the theatre and took out the mass, and when they took it out, they said it was stage three colon cancer."

But two months after being released, the cancer came back, and this time, she was told it was at stage four. The doctors told her three months before he died that they could do nothing more for him, and for that period she lived at the hospital, maintaining a vigil at her son's bedside.

"I lived there for three months. I did not come home and sleep at all. I stayed at the hospital," said Campbell, an early childhood educator who has three other children.

After a while, she was unable to work, but fortunately for her, some of the doctors and the nurses at the hospital pooled their resources and helped her to purchase medication at times. Her pastor and her church brethren also assisted, and a psychologist was on hand at the hospital, which helped her to cope with her grief.

She also formed a bond with other mothers of cancer patients and they encouraged each other as she tried to encourage her ailing son and his sisters, who were still mourning the passing of their father while grappling with their brother's sickness.

For those with no family support, the challenges of caring for a child with cancer are even more daunting. Briana Mesidor was just two years old when doctors detected that she had cancer of the eye. Her mother, Marlene Charles, is from Haiti and admits that she feels alone at times as she tries to deal with her daughter's deteriorating health.

"It is very hard for me because when I come here, I don't have nobody, I don't have any family in Jamaica," she said.

Briana lost the sight in her left eye as a result of the cancer, but as if that wasn't bad enough, the cancer spread to her left leg, and it was amputated five years later.

Despite several rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer is back, this time in her lungs, and the doctors have advised Charles that her daughter, who is now nine years old, will have to have two surgeries in the near future.

"She is a strong girl; she is strong more than me. She is very, very intelligent and she is not sad," said the mother of four, who lived at the hospital for nine months with her daughter at one point.

Verna Lewin had to live at the hospital, too, when her 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia four years ago. Leukaemia is cancer of the blood cells.

"All during the holidays, I couldn't even come home to get little New Year's dinner or little Christmas dinner, so they would send stuff for me, and I would share with others because I have other friends who were there, so when I get stuff, I would share. Call it that practically, we who were at the hospital, all of us were like family," said the mother of six.

Her daughter, Kenardia, was out of school for two years as she got treatment for the disease, which is now in remission. Lewin said her daughter did several tests before she was diagnosed after she started experiencing persistent fever, joint pain, and difficulty passing stool. She believes early diagnosis is crucial to fighting cancer and is happy that her daughter is now back in school.

"I wouldn't want anybody to go through this experience," she said.