It was May 2015 and my girl had been complaining about it all week.
‘Let me take a look,’ I said. Mum to Rhianna, Tydan, eight, and Taleisha, 21 months, with another one on the way, I was exhausted and hadn’t taken Rhianna’s pain too seriously. But when I tried to lift her left arm up, I realised she couldn’t even get it past her shoulder. And looking at her armpit, I noticed a red rash and lump had appeared too.
‘This is a bit strange,’ I said. ‘Let’s get you to hospital.’
I started to worry even more when a doctor advised me to take her to Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital.
‘If it was one of my children, I’d go immediately,’ he said.
There, a doctor inspected the rash and said it was a cat scratch and it must have infected the lymph nodes.
‘But we don’t have a cat!’ I told her.
Rhianna was given antibiotics through a drip and two days later she was discharged.
But I felt uneasy, like there was more to it. When her arm was no better a week later, I took her back to hospital, where I found myself hearing the same as before – cat scratch.
'Are you sure it’s not cancer?’ I worried, when she was given antibiotics again. ‘It’s very common on her dad’s side of the family.’
‘No, we’ve already ruled that out,’ the doctor said.
Leaving the hospital, I couldn’t shake the doubt from my mind. Three days later, I went with my gut feeling and took Rhianna back to the hospital for a third time. To be taken seriously, I told a little white lie.
‘The lump has got bigger,’ I told them.
As I sat with Rhianna in the waiting room, an advert came on the TV for lymphoma. A cancer of the lymphatic system, it can cause lymph nodes in the underarm to become enlarged.
That’s what she’s got! I thought to myself.
‘My daughter’s got lymphoma!’ I told the nurse. ‘It’s just a cat scratch,’ she told me.
Frustrated, I knew there was only one thing to do.
‘I’m using Ryan’s Rule and I demand that you give my daughter a biopsy,' I said.
A Queensland-only health protocol, Ryan’s Rule allows people who do not think their health concerns are being taken seriously enough to call upon extra help. Guilt began to seep in when I saw they weren’t happy I’d invoked the rule.
But I knew deep down I was doing the right thing. They did a biopsy and we went home. A week later, I got a call with the results.
‘We don’t usually open on Thursdays,’ I was told, ‘but we’ve made a special allowance to see your daughter tomorrow morning.’
They refused to give me any more information over the phone. That’s when I knew things were bad.
Why else would they open just for us?
Just then, Rhianna caught me crying on the living room floor.
‘Am I going to die, Mummy?’ she asked, tearfully.
‘Of course not,’ I said, pulling her into a big cuddle. But the truth was, I had no idea what we’d be told. In the end, I made them tell me and it was confirmed – Rhianna had anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL), a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
At her next appointment, we were told she’d need a six-month course of chemotherapy.
‘Her chance of survival is pretty strong as it’s been found early,’ the oncologist explained.
Thank God I pushed for the biopsy, I thought. It was heartbreaking watching my little girl go through so much pain. And when Rhianna’s beautiful wavy hair started to fall out, I was as distraught as she was. All that remained were 20 strands of hair, which Rhianna insisted she kept and wore in a ponytail.
When not in hospital, Rhianna still wanted to go to school when she felt up to it.
‘You’re so brave,’ I told her. After she’d been having treatment for three months, my due date was looming. So my midwife arranged for me to be induced at 37.5 weeks, when Rhianna wasn’t having chemo.
‘You can choose the baby’s name,’ I told her. When I gave birth to a little girl, she opted for Harper.
‘I love her so much,’ Rhianna cooed, cuddling her. Luckily, Harper was such a well-behaved baby, she would sleep at the hospital in her big sister’s bed. One day, Harper was lying on Rhianna’s chest when tears fell down my big girl’s cheeks.
‘I just want to go home, Mum,’ she wept.
Finally, on November 27 that year, the nurses bought Rhianna a bell.
‘This symbolises the end of your chemo,’ one said. ‘Give it a ring.’
I felt utter relief as the noise rang out on the ward. Afterwards, she was just so happy to be home with her siblings. Now, Rhianna’s been free from cancer almost three years and is big sister to my new bub Chelsea. Every day I’m so grateful. Getting the proper diagnosis was a long process but I’m glad I didn’t give up.
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