Tummy pains would sometimes wake five-year-old Kristy up screaming. To mum Allison they “just seemed like random pains that passed quickly. Children with common colds come across as sicker than she was.”
But things escalated quickly after a visit to their GP who suggested an ultrasound just to be sure Kristy was all right. Instead it clarified the opposite.
A day that began with hospital tests in Burnie in the northwest of Tasmania ended with the family driving south to arrive at midnight at the Royal Hobart Hospital. That mad dash reflected the urgency of Kristy’s diagnosis: stage 4 neuroblastoma, a form of cancer made up of cells found in nerve tissues. A tumour in Kristy’s left adrenal gland had already spread to her lymph glands and it couldn’t be treated in Tasmania.
The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) is recognised as an international leader in the research and treatment of childhood cancer which meant the Loring family had to separate. Brothers Adam, eight, and Cameron, three, stayed with their grandparents while Kristy flew into Melbourne with her mum and dad Pete on AFL grand final weekend for a week of clinical tests.
“Coming into the hospital for the first time was both surreal and frightening,” recalled Allison. “We saw all of these sick kids on the ward and it was scary to think that this place would be home for us.”
After CT scans, MIBG whole body imaging, bone marrow testing and a tumour biopsy, a central line was put in and Kristy began chemotherapy immediately.
“They didn’t sugar coat anything,” said Allison. “They told us what Kristy had, what kind of treatment she’d need and what to expect over the coming months.
So far Kristy has undergone surgery to remove the tumour in her left adrenal gland and the five surrounding affected lymph nodes. She’s also been through five cycles of chemotherapy plus high-dose chemotherapy which wipes the system in an effort to eradicate the cancer. Prior to this, doctors extracted some of Kristy’s stem cells so they could be re-implanted after the high-dose chemotherapy to help her system recover and reboot.
“The staff here are incredible,” said Allison. “The nurses are all so experienced and know exactly what to look for and how best to take care of Kristy. The doctors give such great care and are so good at explaining everything in a way you can understand. They were so happy to answer any questions of which we had many.”
And when Allison says ‘we’ she’s referring to the whole Loring family, reunited and all settled in Melbourne since March.
Meanwhile Kristy is undergoing immunotherapy. Through six cycles of antibody treatment, the body’s immune system is trained to recognise and kill cancer cells. This involves one week in hospital receiving antibodies then three weeks off per cycle. It’s a new treatment approach that makes Kristy feel very unwell but her mum describes her as very easy going and resilient.
“We’re so proud of her for how she’s handled this whole experience,” said Allison. “She’s cheeky. She calls her oncologist Marty Campbell ‘Smarty’. She’s very creative and loves crafting, dancing and cooking and wants to be a vet when she grows up.
“I hope she has a normal life and can be everything she wants to be.
“You don’t think of this kind of thing happening until it happens to you. The hospital has helped us out so much and we are so reliant on the RCH.”