When Kristie’s daughter Bridgette threw up during a sleepover and had to go home, she blamed it on the 11-year-old eating too many lollipops.
Little did the mother-of-three know her little girl would have surgery just weeks later to remove her ovaries before undergoing 14 months of radiation and chemotherapy.
“You don’t even think about having kids when you’re 11, but she had to make the decision about whether or not we’d remove her ovaries,” Kristie tells 9Honey.
It all started with an attack of vomiting on a sleepover, followed by Bridgette complaining of a headache the morning before school.
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She vomited again but never had a fever or any other worrisome symptoms, so Kristie assumed it wasn’t anything serious. Her GP suggests Bridgette get an MRI to make sure they aren’t friends.
“She didn’t have to take Panadol or anything like that. I wasn’t too worried,” she admits.
“I thought she might need glasses, that’s why she’s throwing up. She’s been spending too much time on her iPad.”
When Bridgette told her mother she was seeing double while looking at a horse in a distant paddock, it seemed Kristie’s suspicions had been confirmed.
Assuming there would be no harm in getting her daughter’s eyes checked, Kristie took Bridgette to see Bridgette the day before her scheduled MRI appointment.
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The optician looked the little girl in the eye and then said to her mother, “She has severe swelling of both optic nerves. You have to take her to the hospital now.”
Concerned, Kristie called her GP, who told her to wait for the MRI the next day for more information.
Less than 24 hours later, an MRI technician contacted Kristie and said, “There’s something there, and it’s big.”
She was told to go home and pack a bag and then go straight to Wollongong Hospital, where Bridgette was taken to Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick for more thorough tests.
“The pediatrician in the ER pulled me aside and said, ‘It is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you that your daughter has cancer.’ She was 11,” Kristie recalls, her voice cracking.
Neurologists told her they needed to operate on Bridgette as soon as possible to remove the golf ball-sized tumor so they could identify the cancer and figure out how serious it was.
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Within days of her admission, Bridgette was driven to her first brain surgery.
Luckily the surgeons were able to remove most of the tumor and 10 days later the family was called to see what the biopsy had revealed.
“When you walk into a room full of people, you know it’s not good news. Still, I didn’t expect the news we got,” Kristie says through tears.
Bridgette had a rare and aggressive brain tumor called atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (ATRT), which can come on very suddenly.
Hers was grade four, meaning it was malignant (cancerous) and fast growing, but highly unusual for a child her age.
“It’s impossible to put into words how it felt. My husband couldn’t speak,” says Kristie.
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Bridgette’s treatment, which would involve more than a year of chemotherapy and radiation to her brain and spine to kill the cancer, would have to start immediately.
Bridgette was just 12 at the time, had not yet reached puberty and the treatment would affect her fertility, so she had to decide whether to have her ovaries surgically removed before starting.
“One of the first things she had to do was remove her ovaries to freeze them so that if she wants to have kids when she’s older she can do IVF,” reveals Kristie.
Although Bridgette’s two younger sisters may one day be able to donate eggs, the young woman was determined to have her own biological children.
“She just said, ‘No, I’m not having my sister’s babies — I’m having my own,'” Kristie says with a sad laugh. “She made the decision to undergo another operation.”
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While Bridgette was making decisions about her reproductive health, Kristie and her husband were told they would have to relocate from Dapto to Sydney for the first five months of their daughter’s treatment.
He was a terrifying prospect financially and emotionally. Could they afford the cost of accommodation in Australia’s most expensive city? Do they have to split up the family?
“Trying to try and pay a mortgage on top of housing over the long term, then you have parking and eating out…financially it would have crippled us,” Kristie admits.
Luckily, they were able to secure a family room at the Ronald McDonald House, where they stayed together for free during the first half of Bridgette’s treatment.
The 11-year-old was a soldier throughout chemotherapy and radiation, even when her treatment was extended by several months while she recovered from side effects.
After five months of weekly treatment in Sydney, the family was able to return to Dapto and Bridgette only had to stay in Randwick for treatment every three weeks.
After 60 grueling weeks – nearly 14 months – the chemotherapy and radiation was finally over, but her cancer journey is far from over.
Four months after Bridgette’s last treatment, the 13-year-old’s scans have all been clear so far, but the past year has taken a huge toll on her body.
“She was in a wheelchair for the entire treatment and was tube fed (NG) for most of the time,” says Kristie, and the hair loss was too traumatic.
“Having an NG tube makes people stare at you, and for a young girl that’s not very comfortable.”
Bridgette must relearn how to walk after the muscles in her legs atrophied and months of invasive treatments left her with panic attacks and an intense phobia of needles.
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Although Kristie has no doubt that her daughter will be better with the support of counselors and psychologists from the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation and Canteen, she fears the trauma will linger for years.
“Since she is young, she will recover. But I imagine as she gets older it will have some kind of effect,” she says.
For now, the family is focused on getting through the next four years, which will be a “critical” time as relapse is most likely to occur.
“We just have to cross that bridge when we get to it, and it’s not something you want to think about, but you have to prepare,” says Kristie.
Bridgette will need regular checkups, including a monthly MRI for the first two years, then one every six months before moving on to once a year.
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She will need to stay alert for the rest of her life, and in the future she could face other side effects from chemotherapy and radiation that have already affected her kidney function.
Kristie hopes that with more research, no mother or child will ever have to experience what she and Bridgette have experienced over the past two years.
That’s why the family supports the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation to raise vital funds to support clinical oncology trials at The Children’s Hospital in Westmead and Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick.
“I think our experience would have been very different if we had gone to a different hospital. The compassion, hard work, nurses and medical team have been incredible,” she says.
The Sydney Markets Foundation held its 41st annual cherry auction on November 19 which helped raise $80,000 in support of the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation. You can donate here.
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