REAL LIFE

Youngster battling cancer has Willy Wonka dream come true

When Danielle’s baby boy was diagnosed with cancer, a very special character helped him through
Before and after photo of boy recovering in hospital and dressed as Willy WonkaSupplied
  • When Danielle Searle, 33, from Perth, WA, took a snap of her happy bub, Hunter, she noticed something strange. 
  • What looked like a white reflection in his eyes turned out to be a cancer called bilateral retinoblastoma.
  • The youngster was captivated when Danielle showed him her favourite childhood movie, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.
  • Now free from bilateral retinoblastoma but battling osteosarcoma – bone cancer – Hunter was able to spend a magical day at Willy Wonka’s factory thanks to Make A Wish.

Here Danielle tells her story in her own words.

Putting our four-month-old son, Hunter, down for the night, I took a quick snap as he giggled for the camera.

But looking at the photo with my hubby Adrian, 34, my heart sank.

I’d used the flash, and in the image Hunter’s pupils glowed white.

‘There’s something wrong with his eyes,’ I fretted.

Quickly, we realised our worst nightmare might come true.

Aged one, Adrian had survived a battle with bilateral retinoblastoma, meaning he had cancerous tumours in both eyes.

Adrian lost sight in his left eye and has a prosthetic, so we knew there was a chance that the hereditary disease could be passed on to Hunter, or our twin boys, Alex and Connor, then three.

And we knew one of the warning signs was a translucent glow, which can be caught on camera.

Photo of boy recovering in hospital diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma
Hunter in hospital (Credit: Supplied)

‘He’s going to be okay,’ Adrian reassured me.

Next day, the GP confirmed what we already knew.

‘The white eyes are a symptom of bilateral retinoblastoma,’ he said.

If caught early, it was curable.

But the cancer could spread and be deadly.

Sitting on the edge of my chair with Hunter in my arms, I felt my heart break.

Hunter was admitted to Perth Children’s Hospital the very next day, and we watched helplessly as he had his first round of chemo.

‘You’ve got this,’ I whispered, lying beside him.

Photo of mum and son in hospital shortly after losing hair to chemo
Me and my brave boy (Credit: Supplied)

Over 10 months, they tried three different chemotherapy drugs and six rounds of chemo with no effect.

‘If they don’t respond to treatment, we might have to remove both eyes,’ the doctor said, gently.

My heart shattered.

Praying for a miracle, we stayed positive and kept strong for our brave boy, who spent days at a time in hospital.

Adrian and I tag teamed between the ward and home with the twins.

Passing time during treatment, Hunter loved watching movies.

Choosing one of my childhood favourites, I put on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – the musical about a little boy visiting an incredible chocolate factory.

Hunter was captivated, and together we’d watch the movie every chance we got.

Boy dressed as Willy Wonka holding a golden ticket
Hunter with the golden ticket (Credit: Supplied)

When he wasn’t in hospital for treatment, he was in hospital battling fevers and infections.

Doctors also began laser therapy as well as cryotherapy to freeze and destroy cancer cells.

As a result of the strong chemo drugs, sadly Hunter went blind in his left eye.

But eight months on, when Hunter was nearly two, we received amazing news.

‘Hunter is officially in remission,’ nurses announced, excitedly.

‘I thought this day would never come,’ I cried, happily.

But he still loved watching Willy Wonka on repeat.

He was transported to a place of wonderment, magic, hope – and lots of the sweet stuff!

Photo of young boy making desserts alongside Willy Wonka
Hunter and Willy Wonka (Credit: Supplied)

In fact, Hunter was obsessed with all food!

He loved watching cooking shows, and baking cakes.

‘When I grow up, I want to be a healthy pizza chef,’ he’d say, proudly.

Last year, aged six, Hunter was happy, healthy and cancer free.

But we still had monthly checks at the hospital to make sure he stayed that way.

Stumbling across a Make-A-Wish brochure, Hunter had an idea.

‘I want to meet Mr Willy Wonka,’ he beamed.

So we contacted the incredible Make-A-Wish Australia team, and they were thrilled to help make his dream come true.

Waking up to three parcels on our doorstep, the boys discovered Wonka bars with golden tickets inside, inviting them to the chocolate factory!

Then, three days before the special visit last November, an Oompa Loompa even ran into Hunter’s class!

Photo of school boy with oompa loompa
Hunter and an Oompa Loompa (Credit: Supplied)

‘Oompa loompa, doompadee dee, I’ve been sent by Willy Wonka,’ the volunteer sang.

High-fiving the Oompa Loompa, Hunter’s face was pure joy.

The night before the outing, he was so excited he slept in his Willy Wonka costume.

On the day, a purple stretch hummer, with two Oompa Loompas as escorts, drove us and some of Hunter’s friends to the Crown Metropol Perth, which had been transformed into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

And Willy Wonka himself was waiting outside!

Signing a giant contract on arrival – like Charlie signed in the film – my boy’s day played out like a scene from the movie.

Dressed in his chef’s outfit with a huge grin from ear to ear, Hunter, along with the others, not only met Willy Wonka, but cooked with him too.

Designing their own chocolate bars with lollies, sprinkles and pretzels, cake pops and chocolate dipped strawberries, they were literally kids in a candy shop.

Photo of kids and helictoper
Hunter and friends with the WonkaCopter (Credit: Supplied)

‘This is the best day ever,’ Hunter said, running over with a treat for me to try.

We even got to fly over Perth in a special chopper called the WonkaCopter!

All day, Hunter had the biggest smile.

Willy Wonka even gifted Hunter his cane, which my boy often walks around the house with, while wearing his Wonka costume.

The day still brings Hunter joy, which is especially important now as he faces a new health battle.

In January, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, after complaining of pain in his right leg.

Kids with inherited retinoblastoma have a higher risk of developing the condition.

Battling cancer for a second time, Hunter is facing three rounds of chemo and will most likely have surgery to remove the bone from his femur and replace it with a steel rod.

We’re tackling this new battle the best way we know how – as a family.

And thanks to Make-A-Wish, we have some sweet memories to savour.

Related stories