Body & Fitness

Kiwi mum and daughter duo battle cancer together

Baby Bella endured aggressive treatment for neuroblastoma – and Katie’s own breast cancer fight was to follow soon after.

Watching your tot compete in their first school sports day is a milestone moment for every proud parent. But as little Bella Sharples sprinted down the home straight last October, mum Katie knew she was watching a miracle.

The mother and daughter have both battled cancer: Bella was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2012, aged just 13 months, and two years later, Katie was hit with the news she had breast cancer.

In a heart-wrenching Facebook post at the beginning of their journey, Katie wrote: “I wish to see you run, no tubes to hold you back. I wish to hold you tight, to never let go. I wish to turn back time, to how life used to be. I wish cancer gone, to know you’re safe and free.”

There had been few signs the wee tot was so sick. The youngest of Katie and her husband Reuben’s three children – son Josh is now 11 and daughter Ava is nine – Bella had the normal first-year colds and sniffles.

“There was nothing out of the ordinary,” tells Katie (35), “until one time when the whole family got a virus. It was three days of feeling awful and high temperatures – but Bella’s lasted for 10 days.”

The family doctor initially thought she had an enlarged spleen. But an ultrasound revealed the bubbly one-year-old had aggressive stage 4 cancer – a fist-sized tumour growing in her abdomen – and would need equally aggressive medical intervention to treat it.

Katie and Reuben with their brood Bella, Ava and Josh.

And so began the Auckland family’s “hardest and most hideous” year.

Starship children’s hospital became their second home, with Katie and Reuben (40) taking turns to stay with Bella as she had six cycles of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, radiation therapy and immunotherapy, all the while hooked up to a tangle of tubes.

Katie chokes up as she recalls the heartbreak of watching her desperately ill baby vomiting almost daily; of not being around for Josh and Ava, even missing Ava’s first day at school; and of the nights she and Reuben spent rocking Bella to sleep amid their own exhaustion.

“For two weeks during the bone marrow transplant, she was being fed through her veins; her whole insides got ripped up. For two weeks, she wouldn’t open her mouth – she had sores in her mouth and all the way down her oesophagus. For a whole year, she didn’t ‘eat’ at all.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing your child going through something like that. I was sitting with my dad a few days after the diagnosis and he was giving me a hug and I just sobbed, ‘Make it be me instead’.”

They were prophetic words considering Katie’s own diagnosis, which came just as Bella was finishing her treatment and family life was returning to “sort of normal”.

“I’d felt a lump in my breast and thought, ‘It can’t be. We’ve already done cancer, it doesn’t happen twice,’” says Katie.

But it was cancer – she had five tumours. It was another terrible year. Katie underwent a double mastectomy followed by breast reconstruction, chemo, radiation and treatment with the drug Herceptin.

“The side effects of chemo are hideous,” says Katie. “It gave me a huge appreciation of what Bella went through. It blows me away when I look back now. She was amazing – this smiley little baby attached to all these cords and tubes, playing with her tea set.

“I feel like a bit of a chemo failure. I was horrible and miserable. I didn’t do well at all and was in a very dark place.”

Like Bella, Katie suffered extreme nausea during chemo and lost her hair. But the brave mother had previously participated in a “shave for cancer” event, so throughout the time Bella had no hair, Katie kept hers shaved.

“So losing it was a bit like, ‘Oh, yeah…’”

Katie says the journey was just as tough on Reuben, Josh, Ava and their extended family.

“They had to watch Bella going through it and then me go through it all over again. Reuben was our rock.”

She’s also full of praise for their school community and the Child Cancer Foundation (CCF), who were hugely supportive, with the student council collecting and donating goods “from complete strangers”, and the foundation providing petrol vouchers and accommodation for a much-needed family break.

Katie finished her treatment last year and her most recent Facebook post reads: “My baby girl, we did it, we beat this big old beast… We’re free from lines, we’re free

from tubes. We’re free from cancer’s grasp. We have you home where you belong, and childhood is yours.”

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