Antonio, our eldest son, was 14 when we first spotted a small, entirely painless lump in his neck.
Although he had no other symptoms, we made an appointment with our local GP. We were lucky: our brilliant doctor quickly recognised that the lump could be something more serious. And so it was that after an ultrasound scan and a biopsy Antonio was diagnosed in September of last year with stage 2 Hodgkin Lymphoma in his neck and his chest.
Like all parents who have a child diagnosed with cancer, our first reaction was an overwhelming, if irrational, wish to take the cancer away from him and take it on ourselves. But of course you can’t. You have no choice but to watch your own child battle through the heavy treatment, however much all your parental instincts wish you could take their place.
Find out more about supporting a child with blood cancer
The treatment he received in the NHS at the teenage cancer unit at UCLH was superb. Every single person working on the ward – from the reception desk to the expert nurses – was friendly, professional and compassionate. We were especially fortunate that Dr Stephen Daw, Antonio’s Consultant Oncologist, is a specialist in childhood and teenage lymphomas and leads research into improving treatments and outcomes.
Antonio had four monthly cycles of chemotherapy, undertook a course of very heavy steroids and was prescribed a barrage of medication including antibiotics and pills to tackle nausea. At one point his treatment meant he was taking over 20 tablets per day.
"For those who do make a full recovery, the treatments can nonetheless be very harsh and can have detrimental long-term side effects."
The side effects that he experienced were what you would expect, including complete hair loss, vomiting and extreme tiredness. At one point he was neutropenic, meaning that his body had no defences against possible infection.
But by the end, the treatment appears to have had exactly the effect we hoped for: Antonio is free of cancer, and his regular three-monthly checks have detected no return of the disease.
Not everyone is so fortunate. Hodgkin Lymphoma affects around 2000 people every year in the UK. The risks of the disease are highest amongst the elderly and young adults. It is rarer amongst children. For those who do make a full recovery, the treatments can nonetheless be very harsh and can have detrimental long-term side effects.
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So clearly there is scope to treat childhood blood cancers even more effectively. With the financial support of Bloodwise, Dr Daw is leading research to improve the recovery rates for Lymphoma - which are already high compared to other cancers - and reduce the unpleasant and long term side effects.
A new report from Bloodwise outlines an exciting range of research being undertaken to develop new treatment and kinder cures. Treatments which could lead to a reduction in radiotherapy and even chemotherapy and which no longer come with the risks of short or long-term life-changing, even fatal, side-effects. More research is needed to understand these conditions better and develop the way we treat them.
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We know how lucky our family has been. The experience of being a cancer patient changes a person forever, even if they make a full recovery. We are immensely grateful to everyone who helped Antonio. That is why we are proud to support the work of Bloodwise, and the research conducted by Dr Daw and others in his field, in helping to discover better cures for childhood blood cancers and in helping to save more lives.
Nick Clegg and Miriam González Durántez
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