Gabrielle Alderson is fighting a rare form of cancer normally only found in children half her age. Her only hope may be a drug trial abroad. Catherine Scott meets her.
Just a few months ago Gabrielle Alderson was like all the other children about to start their final year of primary school. She was looking forward to moving on to secondary school, enjoying gymnastics and reading. She had her entire life ahead of her.
Now Gaby, 11, spends most of her time undergoing gruelling treatment for a rare and vicious strain of cancer, which affects just 100 children a year in the UK and normally children much younger than Gaby. Her future now hangs in the balance.
She has lost her hair and has to carry around a bag of goat’s milk which is fed directly into her stomach via a gastric nasal tube because she has lost her appetite and treatment left her with painful sores in her mouth.
But mention the words ‘bacon sandwich’ and her little face lights up and the beaming smile, which was Gaby’s trademark before her cruel diagnosis, returns. Gaby was diagnosed with stage four high risk neuroblastoma in September last year. Although she has undergone painful and intensive treatment including chemotherapy, the cancer is not responding as doctors would wish and the family fear Gaby’s only hope is treatment abroad.
“Treatment for neuroblastoma lags behind in this country,” says Gaby’s mother Vicki, who also has son Maxwell, six. “In America and Germany they have far more trial treatment options available.”
But the family will need to raise in the region of £500,000 to send Gaby for the potentially life-saving treatment. They are fund-raising through the Neuroblastoma Children’s Cancer Alliance, which advises families on treatment options both here and abroad. Gaby’s school and the local community have rallied round to help the little girl have a chance of life.
“So many people have been so amazing, holding fund-raising events, we have been really touched by them,” says Vicki
Vicki first noticed there was something wrong when Gaby’s energy levels seemed to dwindle during the summer holidays.
“Looking back she just didn’t quite seem herself, but I just thought she’d overdone it over the summer holidays, as she was always on the go,” says single mum Vicki from South Otterington, near Northallerton. “She started to struggle when she went to gymnastics. She’d always been so full of energy. ”
During a holiday with her father, Gaby complained of slight back pain and Vicki took her to the doctors, who thankfully decided to do some blood tests.
Just two days later, on September 4, Vicki received a phone call asking her to take Gaby to hospital as her blood tests revealed something was amiss.
Gaby’s parents were told that she had a mass in her abdomen which was likely to be neuroblastoma. Just one week later this was confirmed and it had spread to her bones. Neuroblastoma is an aggressive childhood cancer which affects just 100 children in the UK a year, mostly under five years of age. In most cases it is only diagnosed when it has already progressed to a late ‘high risk’ stage, like Gaby.
“Gaby had obviously had this for years but we never knew,” says Vicki. “You think, as a parent, that you should have known. How could I not have known? It is heartbreaking.
“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions since Gaby’s diagnosis. She’s been extremely courageous, taking everything in her stride. It’s really given us the strength to carry on and fight this disease. She was really worried about her hair falling out, but we’ve got her lots of different hats and scarves and she has dealt with it really well. It is also hard on Maxwell, he can’t understand why he can’t go and jump on his sister’s bed like he used to.”
During our interview Vicki received the call she had been dreading: the trial treatment Gaby had been receiving at Leeds General Infirmary had not worked sufficiently. The news was devastating for Vicki as it means that Gaby’s options are now very limited in this country.
Last week she had some of her stem cells harvested.
“We need the public to help us raise funds for potentially life-saving treatment, should she need it. I would therefore urge people to donate and give my caring, funny, beautiful daughter the best chance of beating this disease.”
The family has been overwhelmed by the support from the local community, which has helped give them the strength they need. “People have been very generous,” says Gaby with that smile again.
This weekend Mark Stokes and other dads from South Otterington School are taking part in Roll to Rock for Gaby. The event is a 108-mile bike ride across the Yorkshire Dales, including 7,500 feet of climbs that the Tour de France riders will face this summer, starting at 8am on Saturday.
They have set themselves the target of completing the ride in 12 hours, after which Mark will take to the stage at South Otterington Village Hall with his band Dad’s Army, in a musical festival nwhich includes other local bands.
“We wanted to do something a bit different,” says Mark. “I’ve got children aged ten and eight at the same school as Gaby, and it just makes you realise that this can happen to anyone. It is so important to try to help Gaby and also to raise awareness of this condition and to fight to make the best treatments available for our children in this country.”
www.ncca-uk.org or www.facebook.com/GabrielleAldersonsAppeal
For tickets to Roll to Rock email [email protected]