Oliver McDermott was diagnosed with a brain tumour just before he was two and doctors feared he may not survive. Catherine Scott catches up with him as he turns six.
When any child starts school it is a very emotional time for the parents. For Tracy McDermott it was more emotional than most.
It was a day that she feared she may never see as her son Oliver was diagnosed with a brain tumour just before his second birthday in March 2011.
But Tracy was also sad to see him go as the bond that had grown between mother and son over the months of painful treatment and surgery meant she knew she would miss her little boy terribly.
“We have spent so much time in isolation, just the two of us, that it was heartbreaking at the time, but he loves it.”
Tracy and her husband Tim, who have two other children Evie, 11 and Ruby, nine, knew something was seriously wrong with Oliver when he started to vomit.
“Oliver’s grandma had said he had developed a squint but it was so slight I didn’t even notice it. My brother had a squint and so I didn’t think much about it. He was bit wobbly on his legs, but again we thought that was just because he was a toddler,” recalls Tracy from Horsforth, Leeds.
But when Oliver started to vomit his parents knew something was wrong.
“We took him to the doctor but he pretty much dismissed it as a viral infection,” adds Tracy.
A week went by and despite Oliver returning to the doctors no-one referred him to hospital.
“In the end my husband asked to see to another doctor and she sent us straight to the hospital,” says Tracy.
Oliver underwent numerous tests at Leeds General Infirmary as no-one was sure what was wrong with him.
“The only thing they found was his blood pressure was raised, which is unusual in children.”
A CT scan of his brain revealed a golf ball sized tumour which was blocking the flow of cerebral spinal fluid and causing all the problems.
“We realised something must be wrong as he was in the scan for such a long time and they had said it wouldn’t take long,” says Tracy. “Then we were taken into a side room with a neurologist and told what they had found. It is impossible to put into words how we felt being told our little boy had a brain tumour.”
Oliver’s brain tumour was found to be malignant and a second one had developed and even worse the cancer cells had started to spread to his spine.
“They were very honest with us and they gave us a pretty grim prognosis, especially as it had spread,” adds Tracy. “This type of tumour is so rare, they were talking to America to decide the best way to treat it. There is so little research into brain tumours, although it is the biggest killers in the under-40s.”
The position of Oliver’s tumour, close to his brain stem, meant that surgeons said it was unlikely they would be able to remove all of it without causing him serious brain damage.
“They were right. They removed as much as they could but then Oliver had to have five lots of chemotherapy in the hope that would get rid of the rest of the tumour,” says Tracy. “He had to have very aggressive chemotherapy as they didn’t want to have to give him radiotherapy because of the side effects. We were with him all the time which was difficult as we have two daughters.
“We were a bit of a tag team for the first five weeks. My sister moved in to look after the girls, grandparents were doing school runs but it was difficult for the girls. Often they didn’t know who was going to pick them up from school or where they would be going. They were great but it was very disruptive for them.”
Despite the aggressive nature of the chemotherapy the tumour wasn’t responding, so Oliver’s parents wanted to give him an even stronger type of chemo. “It was frightening, we just didn’t know if he would come out of it,” adds Tracy.
Oliver did pull through but, although he did respond to the treatment, doctors decided they needed to give him radiotherapy – something they had tried to avoid.
“Radiotherapy is very bad for the developing brain and can have bad side effects, but when you are told it is your son’s only hope you’ve no option,” says his mother.
Oliver under went radiotherapy and his treatment finished in January 2012. Since then it has been good news for the McDermotts as he has remained cancer free for the last three years. However, the radiotherapy has left Oliver with problems. He needs a hearing aid, has to be fed through a tube directly into his stomach and will be left with learning difficulties, although as yet the extent is unclear.
He has a teaching assistant at school and still has to go the hospital regularly, although he now receives a lot of his treatment in the community. He is on a whole host of medication and even now his future is uncertain.
“Oliver has a lot of needs, but at least he is here with us and there were plenty of times when we didn’t dare dream that,” says Tracy. “He is an amazing little boy. He is so funny with a wicked sense of humour and a huge character. He just loves life.”
Throughout the dark times there have been moments of joy.
Last year Evie and Ruby organised Tracy and Tim’s wedding after applying to CBBC show Marrying Mum and Dad. They chose a superhero- themed wedding and organised the entire thing. “It was amazing,” says Tracy. “The girls worked so hard to make our day so special.”