RCH Nora

Little Nora has so much courage

Family’s rollercoaster in their brave daughter’s cancer battle

As Nora arrives for her big day at The Royal Children’s Hospital, she’s bouncing around the corridors with excitement.

“They’re taking my lump out today!” she exclaims.

“Lump” is quite the understatement. It is a whopping 17cm-long tumour filling most of her torso.

When her top flies up momentarily, the tumour can be seen protruding from her belly. But Nora is thrilled her “lump” is coming out today after it appeared out of nowhere weeks earlier.

“I can’t wait to get rid of it – because it keeps stealing all of my Pringles!” she’s been telling everyone, with a four-year-old’s whims­ical take on the world.

Only seven weeks earlier, Nora was a bubbly kindergarten kid without a worry in the world, living in Ballarat with her mum, dad, and baby brother, Axel. Hours after that first enthusiastic declaration, Nora is being prepped for surgery.

She’s clinging to her pink fluffy bunny, who’s wearing a hospital bracelet to match her own. Mum and Dad tell her it’s the Easter bunny, so Nora declares it has a chocolate Easter egg inside.

“It’s got to get its lump out today, too – the Easter egg!” she says.

The doctors and nurses at the RCH are masters of distraction. In between yucky medicines and pre-surgery checks, a steady flow of stickers and animated discussions about Disney characters and favourite pets keeps the atmosphere light.

While Nora is mostly enjoying the moment, the day did not begin quite as excitedly for her parents, Dana and Nick Seeary.

The couple spent the night with Nora at the Larwill Studio hotel adjoining the RCH – and started the day with “a little bit of a cry”.

It’s easy to understand why.

In December, the young family of four were no different to any other – happy, healthy and looking forward to the excitement and silliness of Christmas.

Then Nora began having abdominal pain. She had X-rays, which found nothing.

But in late January, Nora’s parents noticed her abdomen was severely swollen and took her to the local hospital emergency department, even though she seemed well.

Doctors believed it was only constipation, but Nora’s parents were convinced it was more serious.

“They were going to send us home,” Mrs Seeary says.

“And I said ‘You know what, I’m not leaving here until I get an X-ray’. So they started doing the X-ray and ultrasound, and words like ‘mass’ were being thrown around, and ‘can’t find her kidney’ and ‘can’t find her spleen’.

“We basically sat in emergency for 13 hours.”

After what felt like “40 million tests”, Nora was rushed by ambulance to the RCH, where it was confirmed she had cancer.

“We went from constipation to a cancer diagnosis in less than 24 hours,” Mrs Seeary says.

Within another 48 hours, Nora began six weeks of chemotherapy that caused fevers, leading to weekly hospital admissions.

Doctors hoped the chemo would shrink the tumour before surgery. It didn’t work.

The chemo did, however, slightly shrink other tumours found on Nora’s lungs. After shedding a few tears on the morning of surgery, Nora’s parents are trying to draw strength from their daughter’s incredible enthusiasm.

“She’s so strong and tough,” Mrs Seeary says.

“She’s definitely showing us how to be strong. She’s just the brightest little sunshine.”

But it’s hard anywhere, let alone in the midst of a hospital cancer ward, to escape the agonising reality of a cancer diagnosis.

“It’s life-crushing,” Mrs Seeary says, through tears.

“You never want to think of your child having cancer, not to mention a thing of this size that has been hidden for God knows how long.

“When you think of an adult, you think 17cm, you kind of go, yeah, but when you look at her as a child, that’s huge. It just kills you as parents to think that you could wake up tomorrow and not have your child.

“Or every photo that we take, every memory that we have, every video, is that the last one?”

In theatre, the huge size of Nora’s tumour becomes starkly apparent when it is seen on the CT scan propped on the wall as surgeon Michael Nightingale begins the intricate operation.

Speaking afterwards, Dr Nightingale, the RCH’s director of pediatric surgery, compares the tumour in size to a small football.

“It was up underneath her ribs and it was down into her pelvis, so it was big,” he says.

“It was almost the whole length of her torso.”

The tumour and kidney tissue weighed 1393g, with the vast majority of that being the tumour. A biopsy confirms what type of kidney tumour it is – Wilms – and the prognosis is good.

RCH consultant oncologist Michael Sullivan says the pathologist’s evaluation of the tumour shows high-risk features, and Nora will need more intense chemotherapy and radiotherapy to be cured.

Nora began 34 weeks of chemotherapy a week ago, and will also need surgery for the cancer in her lungs.

“We would say her chances of achieving a cure are still very good,” Professor Sullivan says. “And we also have options for further treatment should the disease come back in the future.”

The Seearys will be among thousands of families to benefit from this year’s regional expansion of the Good Friday Appeal.

For the first time, $2.5m will be shared among several regional hospitals, including the family’s local hospital in Ballarat, so children can get world-class care on their doorstep.

Mrs Seeary says regional hospitals desperately need the funding, and hopes they will try to make their pediatric wards more child-friendly.

“They just need more things to make it more comfortable for the kids and more exciting for the kids to be in hospital,” she says.

Ten days after Nora’s original surgery, the family is back having emergency surgery after complications.

In yet another setback, tests revealed a mass removed from Nora’s other kidney is also cancerous.

For Mr Seeary, the ordeal has been a “rollercoaster”.

“We just have to take this one day at a time,” he says.

While the family’s lives revolve around the RCH right now, Nora has big plans for her post-cancer future.

There’s the family trip to the Gold Coast theme parks and the simple act of returning to kindy for her favourite activity – “colouring”.

“I miss my kinder friends so much,” she says.

Her first big goal is the pure joy of “ringing the bells”.

At the RCH, the sound of bells echoing through the corridors is cause for celebration because it means a patient is officially in remission.

So what does Nora plan to do to those bells once her treatment is done and dusted?

With her customary enthusiasm, she shouts: “Smash them all!”

Written by Jen Kelly
Images by David Caird
Published in the Herald Sun 29th March 2024

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