CHRISTMAS MIRACLE: Chance treatment saves Christmas
THREE-YEAR-OLD twins Chloe and Zara Filtness have always been inseparable. Zara had forever been boisterous and full of beans but, recently, Chloe had become clingier. Nonetheless, together, they were a toddler tour de force to be reckoned with.
Their devotion to each other made their separation for periods earlier this year so much harder.
"We just kept on saying to Zara that Chloe's sick and needs some medicine from the hospital," the twins' mum Sally told news.com.au.
"Zara felt the brunt of it. Chloe was always with mum and dad and poor Zara, if she ever got a temperature she would be sent to gran and pops or to friends. She would ask, 'Where's my mum and dad? Where's Chloe?'"
Chloe was in The Children's Hospital at Westmead in western Sydney. When she'd first arrived, in February, her parents hoped the spots of blood in her nappy were just signs of a minor childhood infection.
It was far worse than that. Chloe had stage five Wilms tumour, a childhood cancer.
Sally, who lives with the girls and husband Tim in Beecroft in Sydney's upper north shore, told news.com.au about the time she realised something was wrong.
"Chloe sat on my lap and there was a bit of a lump that protruded on the left side. And we took her swimming and she started getting temperatures and then there were the drops of the blood in the nappy and we just started to be concerned.
"I thought it was just kids' stuff but my husband Tim was worried."
They went to their GP who asked for a urine sample. Instead of urine, all they could get was blood, so they took her to emergency.
"I asked the stenographer if everything was OK, can you find anything, and she wouldn't answer me," Sally said.
"So I asked the doctor and he said, 'We can't find her left kidney.'"
It was surrounded by a cancerous tumour.
"We were devastated. We thought it was a urinary tract infection - that they'd give us some antibiotics and send us on our way."
Wilms tumour, also known as nephroblastoma, is a cancer that begins in the kidneys and is most commonly found in children. Most Wilms' tumours have grown larger than the kidney itself before they are found. Usually it is discovered before it spreads to other parts of the body.
Chloe was not so lucky. Stage five meant it had already spread, in her case to the other kidney as well as her lungs and four lymph nodes.
The Filtness' have had a history with childhood illnesses. Sally's brother Christopher was born with his organs on the outside of his body and it was only after much surgery that he was able to lead a happy and healthy life going into adulthood.
Ever since then, Sally's mum Alison has been a fundraiser for the Children's Medical Research Institute which looks into childhood cancers and other conditions.
"We didn't really tell Chloe the reason why she was there. We called her central lines (catheters) 'spaghettis' and she would ask when she could get rid of her spaghettis," Sally said.
"She was pretty adult about it - matter-of-fact almost - there was no 'why is this happening,' it was more like 'let's get on with it'."
But while Chloe was stoic, her parents were struggling. They had been told the treatment could go on for two years.
Days before the diagnoses, they'd booked a family holiday to Thailand, to have Christmas in the sun. Now they didn't even know if Chloe would make it to December.
"Our darkest time was at the very beginning. We were in hospital for six weeks," Sally said.
When Chloe wasn't feeling well, or when Zara had come down with a bug, the twins were apart.
"They are best mates so it was hard, but when Chloe was well, Zara would come and do play therapy with Chloe. They actually looked forward to going to hospital.''
Three months of a hard-hitting chemotherapy followed which wasn't nice for Chloe - there was vomiting, of course, and she was rushed back to Westmead seven times after her temperature rose too much.
Then, in May, the left kidney was removed as well as part of the right. There was radiation therapy for two weeks and then maintenance chemotherapy every three weeks.
"The cancer is aggressive, but if ever there was a childhood cancer to get that's the one you want because there has been lots of research and they know how to grab it and get rid of it," said Sally.
On September 15, Zara joined her twin Chloe to ring a bell in the hospital together; a bell that marked that all the cancer was removed and she was in remission.
"I don't know if they actually understood what ringing that bell meant but they loved the night, they got all dressed up and they had lots of people smiling at them."
In early December, Chloe was back at Westmead. "I said 'we're going back to hospital to check whether you need more meds' and Chloe said 'I'm not sick again am I?' - it's very simplistic, just am I sick or not," Sally said.
Chloe isn't sick and was given the green light to head off on her big holiday with mum, dad and Zara.
"This trip will be our reward for a really bad year," Sally said.
While she has managed to bounce back something has changed with Chloe - for the better. She is less clingy now and has regained some of that adventurousness that Zara has always had. A spark has returned.
"Now both our girls are the same. We've got our Chloe back."