It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Something you’d never imagine could happen to your family; to your child……let alone your five-year-old, who’s only just learnt how to tie his shoes.
You want to be helping him get ready for his first day of school; asking what he wants in his new Disney lunchbox and talking about the things he’ll do today. You want to be walking him to the gate on his first day and crying (happy) tears as you watch him start his big school adventure.
Instead, you’re navigating specialist visits and chemotherapy treatments and weeping silently as he lays quietly on a big white hospital bed; his face pale, his favourite toy clutched tightly in his hands…
When children are fighting cancer, they miss out on some of the most important moments of their childhood.
For Gabe, the cancer battle began when he was just five years old.
He was getting ready to start school for the first time when suddenly, his – and his family’s – world was turned upside down by a life-threatening diagnosis.
With the support of his parents, three siblings and doctors at The Sydney Children’s Hospital, he eventually beat cancer and life returned to normal. He started going to school, made new friends and felt just like any other child his age.
Then, the unthinkable happened. His cancer returned.
“You want it to be you,” his mother Marshia remembers thinking. “You don’t want this for your child and you’d do anything to take it away from them … [But] you just have to pick yourself up from the mess that you find yourself in. You need to for your child.”
Now aged eight, it was clear being away from normal life was going to be even harder for Gabe this time. He loved school, he had lots of friends, was active in his school community and was at the point where what he was learning at school was critical for his future.
But Gabe’s hopes and dreams were dealt a crushing blow by the need for grueling and prolonged treatment. As it turned out, it would be an entire year and a half before he got back into the classroom. He also faced 100 days of isolation after a bone marrow transplant and months without seeing anyone other than his family.
Gabe desperately needed to ensure his education stayed on track. He’d also need something to hold onto while he fought for his life – again.
That is exactly what our education support program, Back on Track, is all about. Through a mixture of face-to-face sessions and online learning with a dedicated teacher, Back on Track provides schooling to children like Gabe when they can’t physically be in school. It provides a lifeline to normal life and gives them something to hope for; something to work towards. Most importantly, it keeps a child’s education on track, so that when they do return to school – some months, or even years later – they aren’t behind their friends.
“It meant that he didn’t miss out on a whole chunk of school,” Marshia says. “He also had the experience of dealing with one teacher all the time, which is very similar to what school is like. His teacher [Trisha] got to know him; she tailored his lessons around the things he was interested in but still went through the syllabus.”
Our teachers also know that it’s not just the lessons that make school, well … school.
“Trisha would tailor the lessons to include other children on the wards as well, so it was kind of like a classroom situation. I think they were all really competitive, so she’d do spelling tests – just things that were ‘normal’ but not for them.”
Even when Gabe faced that 100 days of isolation to protect him – with nothing but the four walls of his house or hospital room to look at – he had Trisha on the other end of a Skype call, regularly checking in on him. Making sure he was doing his schoolwork. Asking if he had understood the latest math problem she’d assigned because maths was Gabe’s favourite...
Having something to work towards – and ‘normal’ things like schoolwork –
kept life together for Gabe and his family when everything felt out of control.
Marshia says when it came time for Gabe to return to school, there was nothing holding him back.
“When he went back to school, he wasn’t really behind … He certainly didn’t have a fear of going back. He was certain that he hadn’t missed out and that he was just transitioning back now into normal school life. “[There was no], ‘Will people like me?’ ‘I look so different.’ ‘I’ve had different experiences.’ He was so well prepared, that kind of melted away.”
Gabe’s positive experience returning to school is something that, with your help, I want to be able to give other children like him. I know what happens when they don’t have it.
Without support for their education, it’s easy for children fighting cancer to become isolated and withdrawn from those around them. Life just becomes a constant blur of hospital rooms and treatments and there’s little else to hope for, or hold onto.
Months, or even years, out of the classroom causes these children to fall further and further behind in their studies – and where their friends are. When they do eventually return to school, it’s really hard for them to engage with their lessons and their classmates. And they often have to drop class levels; making the trauma of their return that much harder.
Trauma that can cause life-long problems. Trauma that can take away the future they would have had, if it weren’t for the fierce battle they had to fight when they were just a child.
There are some 950 young Australians, aged 0-19, diagnosed with cancer every year. With your support, I want each and every one of them to have the same opportunities Gabe did.
Cancer causes enough pain and suffering for children and their families. Your support can make sure that the devastating loneliness and fear for the future goes away when the cancer does.