Struck by Wilms tumour at an early age, these children fought the battle against cancer bravely. With the help of Parkway Cancer Centre’s doctors, they persevered – and emerged victorious.

Effort for recovery

Tisha Emmanuella, Indonesia

It happened two days before her first birthday in April 2009.

Tisha was not even one year old when she was diagnosed with Wilms tumour. She had been ill for some days, and her pediatrician had thought that she had a gastric problem. But her mother Toety felt it was something else.

“Every time she took some food, she vomited,” she recalls. “I brought her to hospital and told her doctor that there must be something wrong with her stomach, and she needed an ultrasound scan.”

True enough, the scan revealed Wilms tumor in Tisha’s right kidney. She was referred to Dr Chui Chan Hon and  Dr Anselm Lee in Singapore, where an operation was done soon after. Not long after, Toety received the first of many lessons on helping her daughter recover.

“I still remember the nurse Pearlyn advising me to take Tisha to walk five times a day for her recovery,” she says.

Tisha underwent chemotherapy, which caused her hair to fall off, but she recovered. Now nine years old, she is attending school, and according to the mother, loves dancing, singing and drawing. The treatment has not affected Tisha’s activities, says Toety, though she takes extra care of her daughter because she has only one kidney.

“She must lead a healthy life because I don’t want the tumour to come back again,” she says.

She adds that knowing other parents in similar situations helped in their dealing with Tisha’s cancer.

“The only way we can manage is putting in the effort for good health,” she says. “We also encouraged the kids to learn about preparing healthy food.”

My child, the warrior

Ralph Ong, Singapore

Ralph was a healthy baby who showed no signs of any serious illness until one day in 2016, when his mother Sandy was carrying him and noticed a hard lump below his ribcage. When that lump grew, Sandy decided to take him for a medical check-up.

An ultrasound scan revealed a big mass in Ralph’s right kidney, and he was diagnosed with Stage 2 Wilms tumour. A week later, surgery was done to remove the kidney, and Ralph was put on a 19-week course of chemotherapy, which was administered via injection.

Fortunately, the side effects weren’t drastic. “We had to be very patient in making sure he ate enough,” recalls Sandy. And when his hair fell off in the last few weeks of treatment, Ralph’s father shaved his own head to make Ralph feel better. The one-year-old was also unable to start playgroup as his immunity was very low, and his parents avoided taking him out to crowded places.

Ralph is now four years old and in kindergarten. Sandy says that what helped the family through this journey was joining a support group online. “I got a lot of support from people worldwide as they shared my anxiety, queries and worries,” she says. She also advises parents to “ask the doctor lots of questions to clear your doubts”, and to prepare their children for what’s coming next so they know what to expect.

“Be strong for your child and win the cancer battle,” she says. “I’ll tell the child that he is a warrior, and Mummy and Daddy are going to win this battle with him as a team.”

‘Hold on, baby!’

Anna Drokova, Russia

When Anna was about 18 months’ old, her parents noticed that her tummy seemed to be growing bigger on the left side. Suspecting that something was wrong, they took her to see a doctor, who gave the bad news: Anna had nephroblastoma, or Wilms tumour. A CT scan and bone marrow aspiration was done, which confirmed that the girl had Stage 3 nephroblastoma of her left kidney.

Doctors immediately put Anna on four cycles of chemotherapy, then removed her left kidney, and followed up the surgery with another 11 cycles of chemotherapy. Altogether, the treatment took six months. It was a tough time for the little girl. The treatment affected her appetite, caused her hair to drop, and made her very tired. She also couldn’t go out because of the risk of infection.

That was in 2012. Today, Anna is a healthy, normal eight-year-old in primary school. Her recovery has changed her parents’ perspective of life. “We started to treasure life and act more consciously,” says her mother, Elena. And when they see other children suffering from such cancers, they try to encourage their parents to hold on to the hope that their children will recover, just as Anna did.

“The treatment is a long and tough period for the parents, but we need to focus on good outcomes and to fight for our children no matter what,” Elena says. “I would say to the child, ‘Hold on, baby! You need to go through it to see the big, lively world. You must see it!’ ”

Hope in Singapore

Polina Gerasimova, Russia

The first sign that something was wrong with Polina was on her second birthday, in May 2010. Despite the happy occasion, the two-year-old didn’t want to eat, looked sad, and kept pointing at her tummy. Up till then, Polina had never been ill.

The next day, she was worse and her parents realised she had pain in her stomach area. They took her to hospital, where doctors told them that Polina had a tumour in her tummy.

An emergency laparotomy was done, and she was put on chemotherapy for three months.

But her situation didn’t seem to improve, so her parents decided to go to Singapore to see  Dr Anselm Lee.

In Singapore, Polina underwent another surgery followed by radiation therapy. This required Polina to stay still, but it was impossible to explain this to the two-year-old, so Polina was given sedation.

While the treatment gave Polina’s parents hope, they had to deal with several scares. After the radiotherapy, their daughter’s tummy began to grow because of water retention, and she couldn’t breathe normally because her tummy was pressing on her diaphragm. She also couldn’t stand up because she was too weak.

“It was a terrible period,” says her mother Alyona, “she couldn’t even lie down comfortably. That was the way we were living for about two months.”

Polina also had multiple infections due to low immunity, which saw her being rushed to hospital several times.

“I was very scared,” recalls Alyona. “The fever was so high that Dr Lee had to come to see us even at midnight. One time, Polina had a chest X-ray in the room because of the risk of pneumonia.”

Some seven months later, however, a CT scan showed that Polina was healthy.

“We were able to go back home and live our life happily!” exclaims her mother.

Now 10, Polina goes to school and faces no restrictions in lifestyle. “She likes dancing, painting and singing,” says her mother.

‘Our daughter is dying’

Emily Uzhegova, Russia

That was the only thing Emily’s mother could say when she called her husband to tell him about the doctor’s diagnosis for their 16-month-old baby.

Emily had Wilms tumour (or bilateral nephroblastoma) – tumours in both kidneys; it was the last thing her parents had expected when they brought her to the doctor after she kept getting fever and lost her appetite in September 2012. The little girl’s tummy had also been growing, and they noticed a smell coming from her mouth.

Doctors in Russia, where they lived, laid out treatment plans for Emily. Treat the Wilms tumour with chemotherapy first, and if this didn’t work, remove both kidneys and follow up with a transplant.

While Emily started on chemotherapy, her parents looked for other treatment options overseas, and eventually decided to go to Singapore to see Dr Anselm Lee.

Here, Dr Lee suggested a biopsy, pre-operative chemotherapy for six weeks and surgery, with the possibility of radiotherapy and more chemotherapy.

More bad news came during the operation in mid-November. The surgeon tried to save as much of Emily’s kidneys as he could, but found tumour cells at the margin of resection, which meant that cancer cells were still in Emily’s body.

After the operation, Emily developed high blood pressure because of problems in her kidney blood vessels, which required another operation. The surgeon took this chance to trim off more kidney tissue, which ensured that there were no more cancer cells on the margins. Emily was then given six sessions of radiotherapy to target any cancer cells left behind. Her parents were also assured that this would not affect Emily’s ability to be a mother in future.

While the side effects of treatment, including vomiting and fatigue, were challenging, one of the hardest things to manage was her emotions, say her parents. She missed her two elder siblings, who had to remain in Russia.

“Every day, she talked to them via Skype and all of them were crying,” recalls her mother. “It was very heartbreaking to watch siblings separated. She found some friends here in Singapore, but the treatment made her tired very quickly. Also, because of low immunity, she couldn’t play with the other children as much as she wanted.”

Emily, however, recovered well, and today, it’s hard to tell what she went through – now seven years old, she is very social, curious and talkative. However, she has some limitations in diet and activities. In July 2018, after five years of follow-up care, she was discharged.

Her parents have learnt to appreciate every moment with their children.

“When your baby is sick, everything becomes upside down in life,” says her mother. “Especially when you know that treatment is only the beginning of the journey. But you also know that there will be a future. When Emily asks us to play with her or to swim, we feel like everything around us stops for a while, to show us that life is very fragile and gentle, and we will do everything to see how our baby smiles.”