Brave girl, 2, finally home after 200 days fighting deadliest children’s cancer
This time last year shattered mum Nicky Foxley was dreading the year that lay ahead – because she didn’t know if her daughter Elara would survive 2020.
The hell of Covid-19 had yet to emerge, but she was already facing her own private nightmare after her two-year-old girl was diagnosed with the deadliest of children’s cancers.
Strange bruises that had appeared on Elara’s face had been diagnosed as advanced neuroblastoma – and doctors warned single mum Nicky not to Google the condition.
They immediately put the tot on chemotherapy – and when Elara handed her mum a clump of her hair in hospital on Christmas morning 2019, the full horror of what was happening hit home.
“Elara was obsessed with fairies and princesses, so I said it was the ‘cheeky fairies’ who’d taken it,” said Nicky, who had to fight back tears behind her reassuring smile that day.
“I told her Tinkerbell would bring it back next year with her ‘magic dust’.”
All Nicky could do was pray for a miracle – and, against all the odds and after seven months of gruelling treatment, it happened.
Scans showed Elara was free of cancer in October – and now she’s back at home after a year her mother will never forget.
“For most people 2020 was tough, but I find it hard to put into words how horrific it’s been for us,” said Nicky, 37.
“Now 2021 will be our best ever year. Elara starts kindergarten next month. She’s bouncing with energy and we have a future. This Christmas was the miracle I thought would never happen.”
It’s all a far cry from December 2019 and that visit to her GP in Henley-on-Thames over Elara’s bruises.
The doctor referred her to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford for scans – and on December 10 Nicky was told to bring Elara back in as blood test results were abnormal.
“I passed out and woke up on the floor thinking it had been a bad dream,” said Nicky. In hospital a consultant checked Elara’s abdomen and told her he thought it was cancer, later confirming it as neuroblastoma.
“I’d not heard of it. He said it was hard to treat, but that they’d made big advances in recent years.
“I broke down, crying ‘my baby girl can’t die’. I promised him I wouldn’t Google neuroblastoma.”
Elara started her induction chemo three days later. Nicky never left her bedside, but admits she cracked and looked up the disease, horrified to find just 43 per cent of children up to four years old survive past five.
“My world fell apart,” she said. “I couldn’t bear the thought this would be our last Christmas, surrounded by machines and with my little angel feeling so horrible. It was soul-sapping putting on a brave face when she asked me if she’d be OK.”
Nicky knew Elara would lose her hair, but it wasn’t until Christmas morning that it happened – and she came up with her fairytale answer to soothe her daughter.
“In the darkest of hours, it’s amazing how you manage to cope, to put a smile on someone’s face when they’re going through hell,” she said.
Together they made the most of that Christmas, with a little artificial tree in Elara’s hospital room, and joining in Christmas activities put on by nurses and charities.
After having chemo every 10 days until the end of February, Elara had her tumour removed in March. The surgeons believed it a success.
Nicky said: “I’d described the tumour to Elara as ‘a little monster’ ruining the party in her tummy
that had to come out.” From then on, Elara proudly called her operation scar her ‘monster mark’.
But Nicky knew they still had a long way to go – as the cancer had spread to her bones, and the chances of it coming back were high.
Just as she was preparing for the next battle, Covid hit – meaning no visits from family and friends, and endless hours sat alone by Elara’s bed, praying for a miracle.
This time Elara had even stronger chemo after having healthy stem cells removed. “The doctors wanted to reboot her body. It meant unbelievable pain,” said Nicky.
“The chemo stripped the lining of her stomach and mouth. She couldn’t talk and eating and drinking was almost impossible.”
In the run-up to Elara’s third birthday this June, they were still in hospital. Desperate to keep her spirits up, Nicky gave her a present every day for the two weeks running up to it.
“On her birthday she looked worse than ever, so thin and in so much pain,” she said.
“She didn’t have the energy to blow out her candles.”
After nine weeks in isolation because of Elara’s impaired immune system, she slowly regain-ed strength. Next came a 30-day course of radiotherapy at University College Hospital in London.
Then scans showed all signs of cancer gone. “Hearing the words ‘no evidence of disease’ I broke down – we’d made it,” she said.
“But I knew it could easily come back, so she started immunotherapy treatment, effectively teaching the body to fight the cancer if it returned.”
Elara now wears a special backpack to dispense the medication into her body 24-7, giving her the freedom to leave hospital and be home at last.
“It’s a miracle seeing her now, laughing, dancing around the room,” Nicky said.
“A few months ago she couldn’t walk and talk. We’ve created such amazing friendships at hospital, and I know how lucky we are. Sadly, we lost one little friend there to cancer. It ripped us to pieces.”
Elara will finish her immunotherapy in April, after which she will have regular scans. “This Christmas at home with her was the only gift I wanted,” said Nicky.
“And of course Tinkerbell will be sprinkling her magic dust on her head at night so her hair comes back.”