By Oliver Spring
I’m a regular swimmer. I believe not only in its benefits as a form of low-impact cardiovascular exercise but also as a therapeutic retreat from the stress of work and study. Fin was receiving swimming lessons from his grandpa Jack in the lane next to me at the Adelaide Aquatic Centre.
I mentioned to Jack during his lesson that Fin was a strong swimmer. He replied, “He recently finished chemotherapy.” Fin was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma when he was five years old. He and his family were based in Malaysia at the time for his father, Glenn’s job as a geophysicist.
Around 40 children in Australia are diagnosed with lymphoma each year. Burkitt lymphoma is a rare, aggressive type of cancer which accounts for around 0.3-1.3% of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma cases in Australia. Lymphoma occurs in the lymph glands, and Burkitt lymphoma symptoms include rapidly enlarging lymph node tumor masses in the chest and or abdomen. It often spreads to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), liver, spleen, and bone marrow.
After learning of Fin’s serious illness I approached Eva, Fin’s mother, to ask if she’d take part in an interview about his illness.
“It’s the most aggressive form of human cancer. It has the ability to double in size in twenty-four hours,” Eva said.
“One-in-a-million children get it, completely out of the blue; no genetic component involved.”
He’d been sick regularly for a few weeks – Eva recalls sensing alarm bells during episodes of night sweats and vomiting.
“When it all started, it was a Sunday night. We were in the pool and he said he wanted to get out – that was a bit of an alarm bell because Fin loves the water.”
“We were making pizzas, he said he wasn’t feeling well and I just had a bit of a feel of his belly – because he was saying that his belly hurts.
“I found a lump on his lower right abdomen,” she said.
During the ultrasound, they were given the bad news.
“At the ultrasound, I remember this woman giving me this look and I thought ‘Yep it’s something,’ she said, ‘we’ve found a mass, it’s very big and the oncologist is on her way.’”
Eva said during those moments everything shattered.
“The options were to admit him straight away or to take him back to Australia. The nurse said, ‘I would take him back if he was my child’, so I called Glenn… and I had to tell him.”
Malaysia to Sydney
The aggressive nature of Burkitt lymphoma meant that 12 hours could dramatically affect Fin’s condition.
The family decided to fly to Sydney. Fin’s belly started to swell noticeably during the flight. Eva, a former flight attendant, directed the crew to call an ambulance to meet them on the tarmac at Sydney Airport. The ambulance rushed the family of four and their luggage from the aircraft to Sydney Hospital, where the oncologist was called and hospital admission began.
“That was a bit of a sight, all four of us packed into an ambulance with suitcases…”
Eva recalled the whirlwind of entering Sydney Hospital and learning that the disease had spread through the majority of Fin’s tiny abdomen.
“Over the next few days, we went through the process of getting him properly diagnosed.
“He had to have a biopsy of the main tumor site; a bone marrow biopsy; a lumbar puncture, to check whether the cancer had gone into the spine and the brain; and he had a central line put in, which goes in just below his right nipple to administer the chemotherapy,” she said.
Fin’s LDH blood test results were alarming. The LDH test can be used to determine tissue damage in the body – a normal reading is under 300. Fin’s results were over 1000.
“The oncologist put a copy of Fin’s scan in front of us and said, ‘Where the black is, is the cancer.’ His whole abdomen was basically black and up into his chest as well,” Eva said.
Fin bravely underwent chemotherapy.
“He didn’t understand. I remember having a talk with him and I put it in simple terms… I basically said to him that he had this germ in his belly and he needed medicine to make it go away.”
Fin’s first two-week round of chemotherapy shrunk his tumor considerably. He endured an aggressive four-month course of treatment, including scans to assess its results. The scans showed, to the relief of his family that Fin was responding well to treatment.
“He’s an amazing little boy – his strength of character is amazing. I think for him the hardest bit was having to go through it all being away from… his friends.
“He didn’t really understand why he’d found himself in a strange place all of a sudden…”
During his treatment, Fin’s parents made an effort to discourage visitors and keep him isolated from other patients due to his high risk of infection.
When reflecting on chemo, Eva said, “Our whole life basically got put on hold and it was just about Fin… We just kind of lived in our own little bubble.”
Midway through the treatment – with their entire lives still in Malaysia – Eva and Glenn decided to move back to Adelaide, permanently.
Fin completed his treatment in Adelaide and had a final scan to determine whether he’d need more. The scan showed a residual mass – an unidentified lump in his abdomen. To identify it, he underwent resection surgery to remove ten centimetres of his bowel for biopsy. The results confirmed that it was just scar tissue – great news!
After Fin completed treatment the family travelled back to Malaysia to say goodbye and provide some closure.
“We thought it would be important for Fin to have some sort of closure. He had all his school friends [in Malaysia], but Noah [Fin’s younger brother] wasn’t at school at that stage; he was more worried about Molly the dog”, laughed Eva.
“We all went back to Malaysia and he had a chance to say goodbye to everybody.”
Although the results of his biopsy gave them so much optimism, a tough six months still lay ahead for Fin and his family.
“The next 6 months was one of the hardest because we were waiting to see if he was free or if it would come back.
“They did tell us that if it comes back then it’s a much harder cancer to cure because it mutates and is much more resilient to the chemotherapy…
“He had a scan and an ultrasound every month… Then we got to a year and… he was fine. There were no signs of the cancer returning.
“During the treatment, he’d lost a lot of muscle and his whole immunity was wiped out. He had to go through all his childhood immunisations again.
“Since then he’s been getting stronger and stronger. If you look at him now, you can’t tell,” she said.
Eva said she believes Fin’s positive attitude played a major role in his success against the illness.
“Kids, in general, have a much higher rate of survival, not only because they are usually healthier (without the burden of other illnesses) but also because they live in the moment… they have a much more positive attitude.
“Fin just accepted what was happening and got on with it, always believing that this was temporary and he would get back to normal life soon.”
“Fin goes through different stages.
“After he’d finished, he didn’t want to talk about it; he didn’t want to think about it, he didn’t want to see anything to do with medications and things like that.
“He was almost like a rebellious little teenager, cross about it all. Then he went through a phase where he started asking lots of questions, and he wanted to know everything… He had very specific questions.”
Eva said Fin’s illness is now an open topic, and he takes a matter-of-fact approach to it.
“He wrote this story a while ago… the teacher handed me his book – they just had to write a story about anything – and the title was When I had cancer. It was, in his own words, what happened and it was very matter-of-fact.”
Fin turned nine in July. His favourite subjects at school are P.E. and Maths. He still swims every week and recently beat his freestyle record over 750-metres.
Eva said he has so much energy.
“He keeps saying he wants to be a doctor and cure kids with cancer. Noah wants to be a chemist and invent medicines for curing cancer and for curing car sickness,” said Eva; laughing because both the boys get carsick.
“It’s still very raw for me, in terms of how fragile things are. I still struggle with not being totally paranoid – I just feel like I want to wrap him up in cotton wool and not let him out of the house…
“I worry about the long-term consequences of what the treatment means for him – in terms of his future health… but underneath it all, I think that we’re definitely one of the lucky ones.
“I look at Fin now… that’s part of his history now and that’s part of who he is.
“He made it and he’s beautiful.”