- Ice Cream for Breakfast
In June of 2011, on a warm sunny day in Toronto, Canada, my partner and I brought our daughter Stella into the local hospital emergency room for what we believed would be a routine check–up. She had been exhibiting worsening clumsiness and limping for the previous two weeks and we thought it would be easier just to get her seen and have whatever it was dealt with rather than wait two months to see a specialist. My partner and I believed it was likely a severe ear infection, or maybe Lyme disease from a recent camping trip. We each called our workplaces and said we would be an hour or so late. Nothing could have prepared us for the news 22 hours after arriving at the hospital, that Stella had a cancerous mass in her brain. After a biopsy three days later to confirm the diagnosis, Stella was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), and given less than a year to live.
Parents most often describe DIPG as “a monster.” The tumour saturates the pons and shuts down nerve pathways one at a time. In no particular order, and in no particular time, sufferers (most often young children) lose the ability to walk, sit up, hold up their head, speak and see. The pons is also responsible for breathing, swallowing and regulating the heartbeat, so death can come in many forms at any given time. Though it destroys the brain’s ability to command, the person continues to think and understand as the main part of the brain is untouched. Different from most cancers, chemotherapy and radiation have almost no effect on DIPG; even trials with the most toxic chemotherapies do not slow its progress.
My partner and I were shaken to the core at this diagnosis. Looking at our energetic, redheaded [End Page 31] mop–topped little imp, it was impossible to fathom that she had just been given a fatal diagnosis. Yet we knew the doctors at the hospital were among the best and most sought–after in the world, so denial was never a part of our mantra.
A week after Stella was diagnosed, we met with a neuro–oncologist to discuss our plans. The only treatment that is slightly effective for DIPG is focal radiation, which can stall the tumor’s growth, granting what is known as a “honeymoon period” of no new symptoms. The honeymoon lasts approximately six months, but there are no guarantees. Twenty percent of children get no honeymoon whatsoever after radiation, and others get only weeks. The doctor we met with confirmed radiation would not be curative, but would “buy time”. He explained that radiation involved six weeks of treatment, seven days a week. Following the six weeks of treatment, there would be a period of anywhere from one to six months in which Stella would likely be asymptomatic. However, at some point, the symptoms generally return and when they do, children deteriorate relatively quickly. Sometimes it takes a month or two, but on occasion there is as little as two weeks between progression and death.
As Stella’s parents, we were not convinced that the prescribed radiation was something we wanted to subject Stella to. Because she was only two, and a very spirited and energetic child, it would have been virtually impossible to have her lie quietly on the table in hospital each day for six weeks while radiation was put behind her ear. The neuro–oncologists’ solution was that Stella be sedated for each daily radiation treatment, which would make her groggy for a big part of the day and necessitate needles and IV. As parents, we were presented with an impossible gamble. Do we risk taking away six weeks of her still somewhat symptom–free life for a possible extra three to six months later? And the timing was difficult as well. It was late June. If we chose to radiate it would mean spending the entire summer shuttling her between hospital and home with no weeks at the cottage, and much less time to attend neighbourhood BBQ’s, parties, trips to the park, the library, science centre and zoo...