Parents’ desperate bid to save five year old diagnosed with tumour wrapped round heart
Poppy Bailey was like many four year olds, obsessed with Disney princesses and playing in the park with friends. Her parents, Claire and Ross, knew they wanted to give her a sibling, and thought all their dreams had come true when Claire fell pregnant again. “Poppy was so excited to become a big sister,” says Claire, from Lavendon, Bedfordshire.
Claire gave birth to a boy, Oscar, in April 2020. “The country had just been put into the first
lockdown,” she says. “But everything went smoothly and Oscar was perfect. The family felt
complete.” But around the same time, Poppy started complaining of pains in her leg. She seemed tired, gradually started eating less, and became clingy and depressed. “At first, we put it down to jealousy over her new brother,” says mum Claire. “And the world was suddenly in lockdown due to Covid. We thought she was just going through a tough time.”
But when Poppy’s leg pain got worse, Claire contacted her GP, and was given a telephone appointment due to Covid-19 restrictions. A blood test was arranged which confirmed Poppy had an iron deficiency. “We hoped that explained everything,” says Claire. But a few days later, Claire received a phone call from their GP. He had reviewed her blood test results in more detail, and wanted to see Poppy in person.
After checking her over, Claire and her husband told to take Poppy straight to a local hospital for more tests and scans. There, a chest X-ray revealed a large tumour wrapped around Poppy’s heart and pushing against one of her lungs. Her parents were told straight away it was cancer.
“Our world came crashing down around us in seconds, unable to comprehend what was
happening. We refused to believe it at first, insisting that our little girl who always been the picture of health couldn't possibly have cancer,” said Claire.
Poppy and her dad Ross were sent in an ambulance that night to Addenbrookes Hospital, while mum Claire stayed at home with baby Oscar.
“I didn't sleep a wink that night,” says Claire. “It was the worst night of my life.”
A biopsy and scans revealed the cancer had spread all through Poppy’s bones and bone marrow, and she was officially diagnosed with stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma just weeks before her fifth birthday.
Neuroblastoma is a particularly aggressive form of childhood cancer, and the most common
cancer outside the brain in children under 5-years-old. Treatment began immediately, and over the course of the last year Poppy has endured 13 rounds of chemotherapy at Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge, with side effects including sickness, hair loss, hearing loss and muscle damage. “She absolutely loves Rapunzel,” says Claire. “Someone donated a knitted Rapunzel wig to her ward at Addenbrookes, which has helped her deal with losing her hair.”
Poppy has also had countless injections and cannulas, CT scans, MIBG scans (which involve lying still for 30 minutes), bone marrow biopsies (under general anaesthetic), surgery to remove an ovary (for future fertility) a stem cell harvest, dressing changes and blood tests, Covid swobs, and she relies on tube feeds as her main source of nutrition as her appetite has decreased and she often feels nauseous.
“Ross stopped working because we were doing constant trips to and from hospitals all over the country,” says Claire. “There are times when Poppy’s treatment has left her radioactive, making it too dangerous for her to be around her baby brother. So we are often separated as a family. The longest period Poppy and Oscar have spent apart is six weeks, which was heartbreaking on top of everything else. I’m still breastfeeding, so I spend the spare time I have expressing milk for when I’m away from Oscar. It’s exhausting, emotionally and physically. But we have to keep going for Poppy.”
Despite all the treatment she has endured, Poppy’s cancer has remained stubborn. Her doctors decided to enrol her in a clinical trial in London, where she received two rounds of high-dose radiation, which required her to be treated in an isolation for 10 days with only minimal contact allowed with her parents. “No matter what we throw at her, Poppy is still the cheekiest, happiest most caring soul, and makes everyone laugh wherever she goes,” says Claire. “When we’re in hospital, she helps the nurses man their desk - they even made her her own ID badge.
We’re so proud of her inner strength and resilience at having to cope with things that no child
should ever have to go through.” Once enough cancer cells have been cleared, Poppy will require surgery to remove her main tumour, high dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue, high-dose chemotherapy with stem-cell rescue, radiotherapy and immunotherapy. But even after all of this, her parents will face a nail-biting wait to see if the cancer returns, which sadly happens in almost 50 per cent of children.
If this happens, less than one in ten will survive. “We can’t just focus on getting Poppy better once,” says Claire. “We know in the back of our minds we also have to raise a huge amount of money for further treatment. Our goal is now to raise £250,000 which would enable us to access treatments abroad to try and prevent a relapse. But we will do anything we can to give Poppy the bright future that she deserves,” says Claire.
Claire and Ross have started a fundraising campaign, and are desperate to raise the amount
needed to continue Poppy’s treatment. You can support Poppy's campaign by donating
through her fundraising page https://justgiving.com/campaign/princesspoppy,
or by texting ‘POPPYB’ followed by any whole amount (up to £20) to to 70085.