Real Life

Caiden’s parents’ desperate plea: ‘we feel so helpless’

The Auckland boy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at just five years old
Images: Little Lovely Photography

When Caiden MacGibbon wakes each day and is greeted by his adoring parents Jasmine and Karl, there’s always one thing the six-year-old asks to do. He wants to go and sit among the peaceful flapping of colourful wings in his outdoor aviary, where the West Auckland boy has more than 100 beloved pet birds.

The 5m-long aviary was installed in his backyard last May by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which granted bird-loving Caiden his dream gift after he was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a terminal brain stem tumour, in November 2022.

“Caiden loves nature and has an affinity with birds,” says Jasmine, 42, also mum to Bianca, 19, and three-year-old Kaylee. “His favourite is a cockatiel. When he’s out in his aviary, it’s like an escape for him and brings him joy.”

“He’d be petrified to think he’s going anywhere away from us,” says Caiden’s brave mum, who prays for a miracle.

Despite being given a prognosis of less than a year when he was diagnosed 15 months ago, Caiden’s still happily planning his ideal bucket list, which includes rides on a boat and a double decker bus, plus visits to Auckland’s Sky Tower and the Tip Top Factory.

Caiden’s parents also help him to sell baby budgies and other birds on Facebook, along with bird toys and perches that he makes together with his builder manufacturer dad, 37, who has stopped working to fit in quality time with his son.

“Caiden was our miracle baby boy, our first try with IVF after three years of attempting to conceive, and he was one of the best grade eggs you can get,” recalls Jasmine, who is also a grandmother to two-year-old Kaisyn.

“Everything went so well and Caiden was absolutely perfect when he was born. Now he has a big heart, and is sweet and bubbly. He’s also cheeky and likes to get a good bite out of people for a reaction to make them laugh.”

Making every day special for Caiden: Jasmine and Karl with (from left) Bianca, her son Kaisyn and Kaylee.

Caiden was five when he was diagnosed with the aggressive form of cancer, which usually affects children between the ages of four and 11. He started experiencing random vomiting and drooling, plus choking episodes from not being able to chew properly.

Jasmine and Karl took him to three doctors, who all said it was likely sleep apnoea or ear, nose and throat issues. But when the primary schooler couldn’t climb into his car seat one morning, followed with neck weakness and a couple of falls, his mum headed to Auckland’s Starship Hospital. Within an hour, Caiden was having a CT scan that found a brain stem tumour.

“I felt like my heart dropped to the floor and I couldn’t breathe,” shares Jasmine, who was devastated to learn her son’s cancer had a zero percent survival rate. She began searching for scientific research into a cure but realised other cancers took precedence over DIPG since it was labelled incredibly rare.

“[Astronaut] Neil Armstrong’s daughter was diagnosed with DIPG and passed away aged two, which was 62 years ago,” says Jasmine. “There’s been no advancement in treatments or a cure since then!

Karl’s stopped work to spend precious time with his boy.

“There was another boy across from Caiden in hospital who was diagnosed with it at the same time. If two kids are in the same room and both got the same diagnosis, that’s not rare. DIPG is the most deadly childhood cancer, but it doesn’t get the funding.”

Jasmine hopes the Australian government’s donation of 20 million dollars to DIPG research earlier this year will encourage Aotearoa to follow suit.

“The only gold standard treatment offered to children fighting this horrible disease is radiation, which Caiden is undergoing again since his brain tumour started growing,” she tells. “It’s something that’ll hopefully prolong his life, but it’s not a cure. You feel helpless and, as a parent, it’s your job to protect your kids, but we can’t this time.”

With radiation also comes risks and side effects, which has been difficult for Jasmine and Karl when choosing treatment options for their son, who put on 26kg in six months because of medication.

“We’ve been to hell and back trying to make the best decisions for Caiden. We obviously want him with us for as long as possible, but his quality of life is paramount.”

The aviary is Caiden’s happy place.

Jasmine and Karl are also giving Caiden natural supplements to build his immune system, including turkey tail mushroom sourced from the US and CBD oil, which the family has a medical certificate for. Since alternative medicines are non-subsidised and costly, they’re partly funded by donations through a Givealittle page.

“In a way, I wish Caiden was older so we could discuss his cancer prognosis on a deeper level,” Jasmine shares. “But we can’t be 100% honest with him because he’s only six. He’d be petrified to think he’s going anywhere away from us.

“We just have to do what we think is right and it’s devastating. But we live each day to make Caiden and the other kids happy. We just put one foot in front of the other and hope miracles happen – and he’ll be one of them.”

Visit Caiden’s givealittle page to make a donation.

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