The Future Fund will attract more world-leading experts in children’s cancer to Newcastle, as well as helping to nurture home-grown talent. We find out how one young patient has been inspired to join in the fight against cancer by making a career from her experience.
Not only is Cleo Rimmer’s cancer treatment saving her life, but the man administering it is also inspiring her future – the 12-year-old wants to become a professor in cancer research when she’s older.
The focus of this admiration is celebrated children’s cancer specialist Professor Josef Vormoor, Director of Newcastle University’s Northern Institute for Cancer Research and Honorary Consultant Paediatric Oncologist at the Great North Children’s Hospital. He has been caring for Cleo since her leukaemia was first diagnosed in 2008 when she was six years old.
“Cleo jokes that she will one day take over Josef’s job,” laughs her mum Yvonne. “They have such a giggle together and she tells him that he can work for her as her cleaner when she’s got his job.
“She wants to be a professor after watching what Josef does and who knows, one day she might be. Experiences like this make you who you are.
“I didn’t even know what leukaemia was when Cleo was diagnosed but I’m almost an expert myself now! Having it all explained to you by someone like Josef really helps you understand what is going on.”
Cleo’s leukaemia was diagnosed when Yvonne took her to hospital in nearby Whitehaven after becoming worried about bruising to her daughter’s body, fatigue and her pale complexion. That same day she was transferred to the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle where tests revealed Cleo had developed acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), a cancer of the white blood cells, which is the most common childhood cancer.
She then began a six-month course of intensive chemotherapy but her mum explained there were many complications. “The worst point was when she developed a thrombosis in the brain and ended up on a life support machine,” Yvonne says. “We were at home at the time and so Cleo was admitted to Whitehaven hospital but the team from the Great North Children’s Hospital came to collect her – they were excellent.”
Despite the setbacks, Cleo responded well to treatment and her family were overjoyed with the news in 2011 that she was in remission. Two years later, however, they were devastated to find themselves again facing the challenges of chemotherapy after tests revealed the disease had returned.
Cleo is now halfway through a three-year course of treatment from Professor Vormoor and colleagues at the Great North Children’s Hospital.
“We thought Cleo was in the clear. We were just starting to relax and then two years down the line it is back again,” says Yvonne. “She had been doing great and then she developed this awful cough that just wouldn’t go away. When the doctor took her bloods it was clear the leukaemia was back. Obviously they are the words that you dread hearing. We were devastated.
“This time Cleo has needed a much more intensive course of treatment. It’s exhausting for her but at least this time around we know what to expect. Also, we are lucky because Cleo has been put forward to take part in a trial Josef is running which aims to reduce the side effects of treatment and so this time she doesn’t feel so ill.
“She isn’t in a wheelchair and she’s even managing to go to school and still see all of her friends despite her daily chemotherapy. She missed them so much when she wasn’t with them last time she was ill and even though she can’t always keep up with everything they do she is managing a lot.”
Professor Vormoor explained that the trial Cleo is taking part in is an example of the work that the new Newcastle University Centre for Childhood Cancer will focus on – to develop better therapies for its young patients. “The thrombus Cleo developed in her brain during her first round of treatment was a side effect of her treatment rather than her leukaemia and it nearly cost her life,” he said. “Cleo’s cancer journey also demonstrates that we not only need to identify less toxic but also more efficient treatments, particularly for those of our patients whose leukaemia responds poorly to standard chemotherapy.”
He said Cleo has been a star patient throughout her treatment. “Her positive outlook on life, her enthusiasm and sense of humour is an inspiration to us all,” he says. “She is a real fighter and I hope she continues to do well on treatment. We can learn so much from our young patients and Cleo is a perfect example of this. Some of our patients indeed go on to become nurses, doctors or researchers and join the quest to find better treatments for cancer.”
Yvonne is wholeheartedly behind the Future Fund’s aim to provide state-of-the-art facilities to bring together the specialists working to improve childhood cancer treatments and reduce their side effects. After witnessing the strain on her two other children, six-year-old Carl and 18-year-old Leonie, she is keen to reduce the impact of the disease on its young victims and their families.
She said: “The diagnosis is just the beginning. You have no idea what an impact it is going to have on the whole family and everyone’s lives. One of the hardest things for me has been the fact that I’ve had to see my little girl go through so much and at the same time I’ve seen so little of my other children.
“It’s like being split in half – you don’t know where to be for the best because your other children need you too. My son Carl was only seven months old when Cleo was diagnosed and I hardly ever saw him because he was passed around family so I could be with his sister. A positive to come out of this is that he has a very close bond with Leonie and that will be something special they have for life.”
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