It was a long weekend in October 2016 when two-year-old Mason Millan woke up with a high fever. Concerned, his parents Ivan and Victoria took him to an A&E as Mason’s usual GP was away. The doctor diagnosed a common virus and Mason was sent home with a script for some Pamol.
After a few days Mason seemed better so he went back to daycare but 48 hours later the fever returned and he was sent home again. Ivan and Victoria took him to see another doctor who also attributed the temperatures to a virus and prescribed Pamol again.
This cycle continued. Just when everyone thought Mason was better, the fever would return the next day. Over a period of two weeks Mason saw four different doctors over six visits and was even put into observation at a local emergency department. Mason seemed generally well and happy during these visits so the doctors didn’t suspect anything other than a common childhood virus.
During the following week Mason became increasingly lethargic and started to develop bruises on his legs. Mason’s GP ordered throat swabs and stool samples but when those tests came back clear Mason’s parents asked for a blood test. The family were told they would be contacted in a couple of days with the results.
That night, Mason was back to his usual active and cheery self, so Victoria and Ivan put him to bed feeling somewhat assured that he was on the mend. They settled in for the evening, unaware of what was about to unfold.
At 11pm, Ivan and Victoria were startled by a loud knock on the front door. Two police officers and an ambulance had arrived at their home to advise them that Mason’s blood counts were dangerously low and he needed to go to Starship immediately.
Shortly after, Mason’s GP drove across town to their house to deliver a handwritten note to give to the emergency department upon arrival. Mason appeared alert and well enough to be driven to the hospital by his parents, who quickly packed an overnight bag and headed into the city.
Mason was admitted to hospital and given a blood transfusion within minutes of arriving. Within 48 hours his condition deteriorated. Victoria remembers how quickly dark bruises developed under his eyes and how pale he became.
Mason underwent a number of tests including a bone marrow aspiration. “The hardest part was waiting for the results,” says Victoria. On the 9th of November, Mason was diagnosed with standard-risk B-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL).
Says Ivan: “It was a massive shock. One month we had an energetic, healthy little boy. The next, he was incredibly sick in hospital. When you hear a diagnosis of cancer you fear the worst. Thankfully, the doctors reassured us that there was a treatment plan in place and he had a good chance of recovering.”
Over the next week, Mason received his first rounds of intensive chemotherapy before being discharged. “It was like bringing a new-born home for the first time,” recalls Victoria. “Mason’s immune system was severely compromised by the cancer and the chemo so we had to be so careful with everything he did. It was daunting and scary at the same time.”
After 28 days of chemotherapy, Mason achieved remission. He continued to make good progress, so after two months at home his parents decided to send the very sociable and active Mason to a home-based educator and they both returned to work. The educator only had one other boy in her care and she was so mindful of Mason’s health that he never caught any illness during the most intensive phases of his treatment. “It was like a second home”, says Victoria.
Victoria and Ivan have both been able to continue working ever since with the incredible support of their family, friends and colleagues. Victoria works in advertising and Ivan is a firefighter, so they have been able to juggle work commitments to take Mason to his appointments. Ivan’s fellow firefighters volunteered to cover his shifts for the first two months so that he could be by Mason and Victoria’s side and Victoria’s employers have been incredibly supportive when she’s needed time off work.
In July 2017, Mason started the maintenance phase of his treatment and was cleared to return to his old daycare so he could be back with his friends. His parents continue to monitor his immune system and they work closely with his very supportive daycare to manage any risks.
Mason stayed relatively well during treatment until he contracted Chicken Pox during the last summer holidays. His immune system struggled to fight it and he spent two weeks in Starship. It spread to his lungs and he developed pneumonia.
“Mason was the sickest we’ve ever seen. He couldn’t talk and lost his appetite. He had a temperature over 40 degrees for ten days and lost a lot of weight. We thought we might lose him this time,” his parents say.
At one point, the doctors indicated they might need to insert a feeding tube. In a bid to avoid the tube and get Mason eating again, Ivan made a deal with him. He promised Mason that if he started eating and got better, Ivan would take him and his two best friends, Zane and Liam, to Rainbow’s End.
Suitably motivated, Mason made a concerted effort to start eating and drinking again. He quickly recovered and was able to go home with his parents in time for Christmas. Not long after, when Mason was well enough, Ivan kept his side of the deal and took a delighted Mason and his friends to Rainbow’s End.
Throughout his treatment, Mason remained stable but he still endured some of the typical issues that come with ALL, such as having to be isolated when his neutrophil count was low. On one occasion he got a port infection and it had to be replaced. As a side effect of his treatment Mason also suffered from foot drop, but his parents say that keeping him active with bike riding and swimming has helped to keep this manageable.
‘Steroid week’ is the hardest, says Victoria. “It affects his mood and his energy. He can fly into rages and doesn’t understand why he can’t control his emotions. He craves food like hot chips, sausages and potato sticks at all hours of the day and night. He gains lots of weight, which then drops off as soon as the steroids stop. It’s getting slightly easier as he gets older but we still dread it.”
During Mason’s treatment he received regular visits from his Child Cancer Family Support Coordinator Franziska who gave him almost 600 Beads of Courage® for the treatments and procedures he’s had. The family received a wellness pack and a Christmas hamper not long after he was diagnosed. The family also make good use of the Auckland Family Place and have attended various events arranged by the Foundation including movie nights, parents’ events and Christmas parties.
Mason is now five-years-old and started school in July 2019. He’s also started playing junior ripper rugby for the Massey Rugby Football Club and loves hanging out with his dog Thor. Throughout his treatment, Ivan and Victoria have tried to keep his childhood as normal as possible and they’re grateful to be able to do so for as long as Mason’s health allows. He is due to finish treatment in January 2020.
It’s so inspiring how he faces his treatment. One thing’s for sure, I’m going to have one crazy story to tell at Mason’s 21stIvan, Mason's dad