Doctor's Diary - diagnosis

03 September 2014
Child in hospital with medical staff

By guest blogger, Dr Phil. Throughout Childhood Cancer Awareness Month this September, Dr Phil will share her weekly Doctor's Diary, focusing on the different stages of a child's cancer diagnosis. 

“Am I going to die?” That’s the worst possible question your child can ask you.  

More from Dr PhilDoctor's diary - treatment Doctor's Diary - side effects Doctor's Diary - survival

26th July 2006

“Am I going to die?”  Those words and that day are etched in my mind forever. That’s the worst possible question your child can ask you.  

“No” we emphatically replied.  

The family was on a much-needed holiday on the Greek Island of Zante, with our daughter and son. 

Our 13 year old son seemed well, maybe a bit tired, but the night before we had enjoyed a lovely restaurant meal all of us laughing and joking. The only thing we had noted were some small purple spots on his chest and legs. As a GP I knew they were a sign of bleeding into the skin, but I blamed knocking himself dive-bombing into the swimming pool. My husband, also a doctor, was more worried and suggested we took him to the local hospital for some blood tests. Our son thought we were making too much fuss.

Our 13 year old son seemed well, maybe a bit tired... the only thing we had noted were some small purple spots on his chest and legs. The small island hospital was chaotic, full of casualties. A Greek doctor tried to reassure us it was a heat rash so we really had to persuade her to do a blood test. The needle site oozed profusely after the blood was taken; we were really concerned. Did he have a problem with his blood clotting? We had to pay 66 euros for the tests before they could be processed and then delivered the samples ourselves to the laboratory. We wanted to wait but were told to come back after an hour, the longest hour I can remember. None of us wanted a drink but we sat in a small café opposite the hospital trying not to think the worst.

Back at the laboratory we were given the terrible news we were dreading, the white blood cells in his blood were very high and his platelets were very low (hence the purple blood spots and the prolonged bleeding from his skin). My husband phoned a doctor he knew in the UK for further advice and our son overheard him say possible “leukaemia”. That’s when he asked us that awful question. 

Thank goodness we had travel insurance but unfortunately we could not fly home that day so we were advised to travel to mainland Greece for further investigations.  

My husband phoned a Doctor he knew in the UK for further advice and our son overheard him say possible “leukaemia”. That’s when he asked us that awful question. That journey to Patras was awful, cramped in the back of a decrepit non air-conditioned ambulance with two really old patients with oxygen masks. It was an hour's ferry trip followed by a further hour drive to the hospital, the ambulance shaking as it travelled at 90 mph. My husband and daughter followed us, in the hire car, having no idea where they were heading. My son wanted me to hold his hand during the journey and to keep talking. I didn’t know what to say other than, let’s hope it’s an infection.  

Finally the hospital came into sight, thank goodness I thought, it looked large and modern. 

My 16 year old daughter remained amazingly calm, thinking that we were being overly pessimistic. Surely her brother would not have cancer. The repeat blood tests confirmed he did have leukaemia and that the white cell count had risen even higher.

Our son begged us not to cry as we were given the news, otherwise he would not be able to cope. 

27th July 

After a night of intra-venous fluids and a transfusion of platelets my son was flown back to the UK in a Lear jet, with a fully trained medical team. An ambulance was waiting on the tarmac in Bristol and we headed to the hospital to start his treatment.  

GP comment 

Approximately 30 families face the enormous shock of having cancer diagnosed in their child (0-14 years old) every week in the UK. That is one in 500 children.  

The incidence is rising but fortunately treatments are improving too so that more than three-quarters now survive. There are more than 33,000 people who are alive and well having had cancer as a child. 

A GP will only diagnose one childhood cancer in their career, but one thing I would say as a doctor and parent is, if you are worried please make an appointment to see your doctor. Most children with a worrying symptom will have not have cancer, but delaying a diagnosis can affect treatment and success of a cure. 

Read more: Childhood Cancer Awareness Month Patient stories | About childhood cancer | Cancer treatments

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