It was February 2017 and Sydnee’s mum Amanda Clifford was on a cruise with her sister and parents to celebrate her Mother’s 75th birthday when she received the news that Sydnee was sick. Sydnee, who was four-and-a-half at the time, had developed a low-grade temperature not long after Amanda left for her Melbourne-bound cruise. Her dad Brendon had given her some Panadol but Sydnee didn’t come right.
Concerned, Brendon took Sydnee to the doctor. The doctor performed some tests and detected stress on Sydnee’s liver so she was referred to Starship Children’s Hospital for further blood tests. Brendon was told it might be leukaemia. Shocked, Brendon updated Amanda. She couldn’t leave the ship mid-cruise and had to wait for it to dock in Melbourne before she could fly back to Auckland.
Brendon and Sydnee were taken to level seven of Starship. Amanda arrived back from Melbourne shortly after Sydnee was admitted and more tests were carried out. It appeared as if she had a virus as the initial bone marrow result was not conclusive, so she was discharged at lunchtime.
Relieved, the family started packing their belongings into the car in the hospital carpark and were waiting for the final paperwork when their doctor came over and broke the news that additional, newly released tests pointed to a possible diagnosis of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL). Stunned, the family unpacked their belongings again and headed back up to level seven.
Over a period of ten days, the hospital ran more tests including a lumbar puncture and a repeat bone biopsy. X-rays were also taken. The Cliffords feared the worst but once ALL was confirmed by these later tests, the doctors were quick to tell them that ALL is one of the most common cancers and has a high survival rate. Sydnee’s treatment was highly structured and she began receiving chemotherapy almost immediately.
It was a real rollercoaster. Sydnee had been healthy and happy, and then suddenly she was really sick. After all the tests and confusion regarding her condition, it was in a way a relief to finally know what was wrong with her.Amanda, Sydnee's mum
Life for the family changed overnight. After ten days of treatment at the hospital, Sydnee was sent home but she couldn’t attend day-care. Amanda and Brendon had to decide if they were going to continue working full-time. Amanda is a pilot and Brendon was working at Southern Cross as a Project Manager and Engineer at the time so they were able to work around each other’s hours. They also engaged the services of a nanny, which enabled them to keep working full-time.
Sydnee’s treatment regime spanned two and a quarter years. She was due to start school in July but Amanda and Brendon couldn’t send her to school with a weakened immune system. Amanda and Brendon didn’t want her mental wellbeing to suffer though so they arranged weekly visits with close friends when Sydnee was well enough to see them. Amanda also kept in touch with Sydnee’s teacher once a week and the government paid for home schooling sessions.
Sydnee’s treatment went along without any major medical setbacks other than the usual issues says Amanda. As is the case with most children on treatment, Sydnee lost her hair. She had to stay in hospital overnight once at short-notice and only went to the emergency room a handful of times with a high temperature and suspected Chickenpox. At one point she struggled with mouth ulcers after receiving chemotherapy. She couldn’t eat and had to be given morphine.
“Overall, we were relatively lucky,” says Amanda. “We saw how other families struggled with so many other issues. Sydnee responded really well to her treatment. Her bubbly personality and the fact that we had such amazing friends and family and the support of the Child Cancer Foundation also helped us through the rough patches.”
In November 2017, Sydnee was well enough to start year one. Many of her friends from daycare were in her class so she settled in quickly. Happily, Sydnee recently received her purple heart bead which signifies the end of her treatment and hopefully the end of her experience with cancer.