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Michelle Grant reveals the trauma of watching her son suffer

Michelle Grant, from Co Armagh, tells Stephanie Bell about the trauma of watching her son suffer

Michelle Grant will be forever haunted by the pleading look in her terrified five-year-old's eyes as she was forced to hold him down while doctors administered life saving treatment. It was a gruelling ordeal that went on for nine agonising months and to this day little Peter, who is now seven, is still frightened of hospitals.

The chemotherapy which ultimately destroyed the cancer cells that were threatening the child's life took a terrible toll on his wee body.

Too young to understand what was happening, Peter's distress was more intense because he believed his devoted parents Michelle (37) and Michael (39) were forcing him to take something that was making him sick.

"It was terrible," says Michelle. "I can't even put into words how we felt. Peter was violently sick as a result of the chemo and he had to be held down for it to be administered. We would have to carry him into the hospital kicking and screaming. He had to have the medicine by IV and he fought so much we had to hold him down.

"It was awful seeing my child going through that.

"He used to ask 'Why are you doing this to me? Why are you making me sick?'

"He had no symptoms before and in his mind he was well until he got the medicine which made him sick and which we were making him take." Michelle has chosen to share the emotional journey her family have been through over the past two years since little Peter's cancer diagnosis to show her support for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which runs throughout September.

The family, who live on a beef cattle farm in Silverbridge in Co Armagh, have joined forces with leading local charity Cancer Fund for Children, to raise awareness of how a diagnosis of the disease affects the whole family and what support is available for those who find themselves plunged into that nightmare.

Peter was diagnosed with a Grade 3 cancerous tumour in his eye in 2012, when he was just five.

The family have been through a traumatic time dealing with the challenge of their son's treatment and its impact, the isolation he had to endure due to risk of infection and the effects on their eldest child Alannah (12).

Added to this is the torment of knowing that, although mercifully, the chemotherapy has been a success and Peter is now clear of cancer, there is a risk it could return at any time.

Michelle's ordeal began months before her child was diagnosed when she made repeated trips to her GP and the eye clinic about a lump growing out of the side of Peter's eye.

She says: "It started as a small piece of skin and it wasn't making him ill or annoying him at first, but it didn't look right and I brought him to the GP.

"I was told it was nothing to worry about and given cream. But it continued to grow and we visited the eye clinic in the hospital twice and again we were told it was nothing to worry about."

The growth appeared in July and it wasn't until October when it had grown to the size of a grape that plans were made for surgery to have it removed, again in the belief that it was harmless.

In fact, the scheduled surgery in October was cancelled at the last minute because Peter was considered non-urgent.

It was then rescheduled for November and, after 45 minutes in surgery to have the tumour removed, Peter was allowed to return home.

Michelle says: "He had his operation on the Tuesday and by that stage he couldn't close his eye, so he was glad to get it removed and he came through it well.

"He came home and I kept him off school the rest of the week to make sure he didn't get an infection.

"I had just been to the school on Friday to let them know he would be back on Monday when I got a call from a consultant in the Royal telling me that Peter had cancer.

"It was completely out of the blue and such a shock, especially as he hadn't been sick and we had been told for months there was nothing to worry about.

"It was absolutely horrendous. I couldn't take it in and I was running round the house crying. My husband Michael came in and I couldn't even talk to him or tell him."

Instead of going back to school on the Monday, plans were made to admit Peter to the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children.

The weekend passed in a blur for the couple and Michelle says they only managed to get through it with the support of family and friends.

Tests were carried out to ensure the cancer had not spread. The couple were told that their son's tumour had been an aggressive and advanced Stage 3 cancer and that the root was still behind Peter's eyelid.

Michelle says: "Between the worry of Peter going through tests and the stress of waiting to hear if the cancer had spread, it was just a nightmare.

"When the results came through, we thanked God it hadn't shown up anywhere else and the main focus then was to start chemotherapy straightaway."

But there was another blow. The couple were told that Peter could have chemo for nine months and there was a chance it might not work.

If it didn't succeed in killing off the remaining cancer cells, their only option then would be to take their son to America for specialist radiotherapy.

It would be three long months before doctors could tell if the chemo was effective and, again, there was great relief when tests showed that it was working.

By then, Peter, who had experienced no symptoms before treatment started, was suffering terrible sickness as a side effect of the chemotherapy.

Michelle admits: "Normal family life disappeared for us. I spent a lot of time at the hospital with Peter. Our lives consisted of hospital food and sleepless nights. Peter's older sister Alannah, who was 10 at the time, stayed at home with her dad or her granny. It was hard leaving her behind.

"When Peter was home I went into protective mode and battened down the hatches. Nobody was allowed in the house due to the risk of infection.

"Of course, living on a farm and having a wee boy that just loves tractors and animals made this very difficult.

"He loved to roll in the hay with his daddy and help feed the animals and that all had to stop.

"We were in a constant state of anxiety. One of the lowest points was Alannah's confirmation. Peter was not allowed to attend and I remember just sitting in the church, crying because he wasn't there."

While medically Peter is now doing really well, he still requires regular MRI scans and will continue to have his condition carefully monitored throughout his life as there is a strong risk the cancer can return at any time.

Michelle says: "It's like a book that has been opened and which is never going to close. We are always going to have that fear that this thing could come back.

"It can be so rapid and aggressive that we will always have to be on our guard."

Life has returned to some normality for Peter, who has just started primary four in St Brigid's Primary School in Glassdrummond and is happy to be back out on the family farm helping his daddy out.

But psychologically the effects of his ordeal are still with him.

"He hates going to the hospital, even for a routine appointment," says Michelle.

"When he knows there is an upcoming hospital visit he is like a different child. There is always a fight about it. He won't eat any of the food while he's in there as he associates it with a place that made him feel sick.

"We have to tell him two weeks in advance of an appointment and just hope that by talking about it a lot, it will make it easier for him and everybody. We try to explain that it is only for a check-up but his experience has left him frightened of hospitals."

During the difficult months of the last two years, Michelle and her family were indebted to the Cancer Fund for Children for their support.

The family enjoyed a therapeutic short break with the charity which gave them the chance to meet other families in a similar situation and chat to people who understood what they were going through.

Michelle says: "It helped us to relax and recharge which was something we badly needed."

But it was the one-to-one support given to Alannah to help her to understand what was happening for which Michelle is especially grateful.

Struggling herself to come to terms with the trauma that had engulfed their family, Michelle found it particularly difficult to try and explain to her young daughter what her brother was going through.

She says: "The Cancer Fund for Children was absolutely brilliant.

"Our specialist, Lynn Wilson, was fantastic, and Alannah loved her one-to-one sessions. She felt a bit left out when Peter was ill but the time spent with Lynn was 'her time'. Lynn was someone she could talk to about anything. It helped her cope and feel included.

"I didn't know how to answer her questions and so it relieved the burden on me to know that someone was there helping Alannah get through it too."

Alannah adds: "It gave me a chance just to talk to Lynn about anything that was worrying me and we did fun activities."

Lynn, who has been working with the Grant family since Peter was diagnosed, is part of Cancer Fund for Children's team of dedicated specialists, who are there to listen and help families cope with the impact cancer has on their lives.

Lynn explains further the benefits of one-to-one support: "Activities provided an opportunity for Alannah to talk about her experiences and to express her feelings and emotions while Peter was on treatment and while the family was isolated.

"The Grant family's story illustrates how childhood cancer is not just a medical issue but one that affects the whole family."

She adds: "Some issues families may face throughout a cancer journey include isolation, psychological problems and financial hardship. Cancer Fund for Children understands that long-term effects do not stop just because treatment is completed.

"Our specialist team offers dedicated one-to-one, sibling and bereavement support as well as free therapeutic breaks to help rebuild a shattered family life."

How you can support families too

  • Every week in Northern Ireland three children, teenagers or young adults, aged between birth and 24 years, are diagnosed with cancer
  • Cancer Fund for Children is the leading local cancer charity that provides practical, financial and therapeutic support to children, young people and teenagers living with cancer and their families
  • Treatment generally lasts two-three years and can be aggressive and in some cases can cause lifelong health issues
  • In 2012/2013 the charity delivered 198 specialist one-to-one sessions, 195 therapeutic short breaks and 28 residential weekends
  • The charity works with around 350 families at any one time
  • You can support Childhood Cancer Awareness Month by wearing a gold ribbon which can be purchased from Sainsbury's Forestside branch, Ulster Bank, Progressive Building Society, A McLean Bookmakers, and Mount Charles canteens. You can also show your support and donate £3 by texting DAISY to 70555
  • If you are affected by childhood cancer and need help or advice you can contact Cancer Fund for Children, tel: 028 9080 5599
  • For more information on the charity and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month visit http://www.cancerfundforchildren.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/NICancerFund

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