‘You don’t choose to be in this family but once you geta diagnosis you’re in, but they hold your hand through everything’
A year to the day after moving home to Ireland from Australia and while 36-weeks pregnant with their second child, Eimear Hardiman and husband Cameron Gordon's world was turned upside down when they received the gut-wrenching news that their then 17-month-old daughter Clodagh had leukaemia.
Clodagh didn't have any major red flags and her mum Eimear told how she really had only displayed symptoms for about two weeks and she wasn't that worried during that time. Clodagh had been on antibiotics for an eye-infection that she was getting hard to shake. It was only when the toddler became very lethargic, and was sleeping most of the day, that Eimear became extremely anxious.
"The GP wasn’t happy with her lack of progress, so we were told to go to Drogheda or Temple Street. We chose Drogheda as it was local, and we thought we’d be home later that evening. Little did we know," recalled Eimear.
"Hours after being admitted to Drogheda our nearest hospital, and following numerous tests, five medical professionals brought Cameron and I into a small room and told us that Clodagh could have leukaemia. To confirm the diagnosis, we had to go to Crumlin. As I was heavily pregnant, 36 weeks at the time, they had to check the baby first as they were worried that the news might precipitate labour. The baby’s heart rate was high, so we had to wait for that to settle before we headed off to Crumlin in an ambulance.
"We arrived at 2.30 in the morning and within an hour we met the wonderful team of medics there. An hour later they returned to inform us that Clodagh had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and would spend the next ten days in Crumlin."
Within 18 hours of diagnosis, Clodagh had her first surgery to insert her Hickman Line, known as "Freddie", and had also had her first chemotherapy treatment.
What followed was a rollercoaster for the family and doctors paused Clodagh's treatment for two days to allow Eimear give birth to second daughter Teaghan, now six.
Clodagh underwent a two and a half year treatment plan, with nine months of intensive treatment followed by a maintenance treatment plan during which time she picked up several infections due to her low immune system that required many hospital visits.
She is now almost four years post treatment and Eimear said she is doing really well and they are blessed that she is absolutely fine. She will continue to have an annual check up in Crumlin until she is 18, which her mum said is very reassuring.
A first class pupil in Yellow Furze NS, Clodagh loves playing sports, gymnastics, swimming, hockey and tennis. She also loves crafts, writing and maths and Eimear said she loves to speak Gaeilge at home with her.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month and on Saturday, Childhood Cancer Ireland and CanTeen Ireland will host the Childhood, Adolescent, Young Adult Cancers & Survivorship Conference (CAYAS) in Croke Park, an event that both Eimear and Cameron will attend.
The event highlights the lived experience of parents, families, patients, and survivors by providing them with a platform to collaborate and connect with medical experts, health care researchers, and others. It brings to the fore the voice of the lived experience to ensure it remains central to policy and practice.
Throughout Clodagh's treatment and afterwards, Childhood Cancer Ireland has been hugely supportive to the Gordon family and the many parents and families dealing with a cancer diagnosis. On average over 350 children, adolescents, and young adults (aged 0 – 24 years) are diagnosed with cancer in Ireland every year.
Eimear said she cannot emphasise enough the incredible work that they do and many families don't even know they exist until they find themselves in that situation and that they offer both emotional and practical support to families.
They provide peer-to-peer support which Eimear said is hugely beneficial to talk to others who understand what you are going through. Other practical supports include access to play therapists in hospital. In Clodagh's case, she had been able to walk but lost the ability to walk and talk during her treatment so Eimear said the play therapists were "monumental" for them. For many families, they also find themselves in financial difficulty if parents have to stop working and the charity can also offer advice in that regard.
Eimear said she will also be doing a parents course later this month that is being run by Childhood Cancer Ireland. "They have psychologists and people to help deal with the emotional side of things and also help you deal with the practical side.
"They also help you deal with the fact that your world was turned upside down and you were in this terrible situation and now you have gone back to normal life and that is quite tough as well. It has its challenges but in a different way.
"The nurse in Drogheda actually said to me that day one and the last day of treatment are the two most traumatic days for the parents. Your world is totally different and you have to readjust or adapt.
"You don't choose to be in this family but once you get a diagnosis you are automatically in there and they will hold your hand right through different things."
Eimear said Clodagh is now seven and a half now and doesn’t remember very much from that time. "Because she was so young, she didn’t know that she had cancer and she doesn’t realise how sick she was. That’s a blessing, but at the time it was difficult because she couldn’t communicate or tell us what was hurting or what she’d like to eat or drink," recalled Eimear. One thing she can remember and still talks about is having her "Freddie" (Hickman Line).
Eimear started a blog charting their journey when Clodagh was diagnosed and says it was like therapy for her and also helps her to reflect on how far they have come from living a nightmare of uncertainty and survival.
The family welcomed baby Jasper a year ago. After missing so much time with Teaghan when she was born, Eimear said having another baby has been very healing for them all.
"It’s brought us full circle from our first born and all that she endured to a place of contentment. A place where we celebrate the ordinary everyday landmarks of a child’s development free from the shadows of an evil disease."