Down Days

“I’m sad mummy” he says whilst curling into my arms. This has been the much-repeated soundbite of my day today.

Now Joshua is in his long-term maintenance phase, once a month he has to take a five day course of the potent steroid – dexamethasone. This psychotic mood-altering drug induces depression and anxiety.

It becomes progressively harder to get him interested in things he usually loves.

I see my little child change. He sinks from bouncy and adventurous into clingy and miserable. Even his face changes; his eyes become dark and hollow and there are no smiles. He just wants to lie down on my lap and will scream at the slightest mishap.

What can I say to him when he asks plaintively: “how can you make me better?” My only solution is to offer endless cuddles and we have a lot of time slouched on the sofa.

There is a time lag with this drug hanging around in his system; so his normal, buoyant personality doesn’t appear again immediately.

I worry about the future mental health of a child who is regularly being forced into a pit of despair.

I still can’t quite believe he will have to tolerate this drug for years. Every month. It’s a tough week for all of us. I feel like I’m staring at a long road up a craggy mountain path. I keep thinking: “how will we trudge through this?” And then I answer my own question to the universe: “well, we just will.”

Potty Training

In amongst cancer treatment there is that strange thing called normal life that has to fit around it.

Back in the spring, Joshua was beginning to argue about wearing nappies; his legs kicking me during bum-changing, and then ripping the nappy off immediately afterwards. I could see potty training looming in to view, and I love life without nappies. But his treatment was about to get heavy, so it didn’t seem sensible to have poos plopping on to carpets and urine flowing everywhere.

One of the worst stages of potty training is being trapped in the house for the first week while they learn to manage their uncontrollable bodily functions. But we were stuck in the house anyway due to the international pestilence, so by May it was time to abandon trousers.

For anyone that has forgotten about this business, the quickest route to success is to remove everything and go bare-bummed. They can then see the torrents of wee running down their legs and make the connection. Otherwise there will be endless trouser-washing.

[We had worked out in February that Joshua has good bladder control. Back then we were in hospital and the doctors were wondering why he had a temperature. Maybe it was a urine infection: “can you collect a sample of his wee in this pot please?” Errrrrrrrr. How?

After waiting for two hours to catch this, Ben turned his back and Joshua peed all over the mattress. To ensure that we didn’t miss it next time, we had to wait with his pecker in a plastic pot for THREE WHOLE HOURS. And he wasn’t exactly making this easy; standing up, dancing and parading about. My arm was aching and I was utterly losing the will to live from following his giblets around. And then he let rip like a racehorse. Turns out he didn’t have a urine infection.]

Anyway. In May, the weather was dry and sunny, so we could be in the garden with no pants.

On day one, I was outside with Joshua and turned around to see him weeing into a watering can. After the morning’s continual chat about wee, and that it had to be put somewhere, he just seemed to instantly get it. Three months later and there hasn’t really been any potty training.

There isn’t much that’s been easy in our lives right now, so to have problem-free sailing into toilet-use has been unexpectedly pleasant. But also a bit disappointing! I’d been such a slayer of joy around Ben with my faecal forebodings about how awful potty training was.

I went through it alone with Louis. A week at home with incontinence and then another month of “getting there”. Taking four pairs of trousers to toddler groups and then leaving when we had wet through the final set. Sitting on plastic bags in car seats and buggies. Scrubbing up accidents from the cream carpet. The seemingly endless washing of sheets.

Johsua has had so much to cope with, but on this particular issue, he’s embraced the idea positively and got on with it. So I’m actually pretty proud of him for that. Despite dramatically yelling “I need a WEE!” every day at tea-time; just as we’ve all sat down and the first bite of food is about to touch my lips.

And I can’t blame him for thinking yesterday, that jungle poos in the garden are as legitimate as jungle wees…

Treatment Update

*Joshua celebrating (with apple juice, not sherry…) the end of his intensive phase in June.

After nearly nine months (has it been this long?)… it’s not surprising that a few friends are asking how Joshua’s treatment is progressing. In the first few days of November, one of the most relieving statements made by Dr Rachel, was that they were aiming for a cure. But this comes with the stinging caveat… that this isn’t something they can guarantee.

As I’ve described HERE, he is on a well-trodden pathway with a treatment plan that is split into 5 phases. He is male, so has to be treated for three years (unlike girls who have it for two). If they stop earlier than this, there is a risk that the disease will return.

As he is only 2yrs old, Joshua began on regimen A which is the lowest intensity, offered to children under 10. If they can’t eradicate enough leukaemia cells after the first month, children will be moved up to regimen C, which is the highest intensity.

On 12th December 2019, after the most turbulent and upsetting month of our lives, Joshua was carried into the operating theatre to have a minimal residual disease test (MRD). This is where they remove a small sample of his bone marrow from the back of his hip.

A week later we got the result that the number of leukaemia cells left in his body was under their threshold.. *insert some mathematics here from Dr John that I don’t fully understand*. This was good news because it meant that Joshua can remain on regimen A. Consequently, phase 2 in January was three weeks long not nine, with only two drugs.

Anything involving a little boy taking less drugs and less time having them, was a massive relief to me.

Coming into January and February, we should have been having an easier journey at this point, but as I’ve talked about before, we were having problems with seemingly relentless infections, which meant yet more week-long stays in hospital.

And then of course, humanity’s Covid-curveball hit us all in March.

Given how little the world understood the virus at that time, it was incredibly daunting to be plunging Joshua into his intensive phase during the lockdown. This upsurge in treatment is intended to hammer his remaining leukaemia cells with different heavy-duty drugs.

It seemed like the country was being put on a war footing in late March. So it felt weirdly cavalier to be subjecting him to this, but the oncology team reassured us that other countries (ahead of us in the pandemic) had concluded that the risks to immuno-compromised children from Covid, were not great enough to justify delaying essential cancer treatment.

In June, he moved into the last phase: long-term maintenance. Now, there are (presumably) negligible levels of leukaemia cells left, and the continuing treatment is to keep it that way. There is a risk of relapse. But I don’t want to think about that.

He will still have oral chemotherapy every day (and other things). This relatively small dose suppresses his bone marrow enough to stop it making leukaemia cells, but still enables it to make enough normal blood cells. It’s about getting the balance right. They don’t want to give him too much; that will cause him to become vulnerable to infection (and consequently become ill). But he obviously has to have some. We are still finding the right levels for him.

Our nurse visits us at home each week to take blood, which monitors everything. This is the loathed finger prick test, where they squeeze out a few drops of his blood in to a small vial. Poor Jaydene does not get a welcome reaction to her arrival. “OH NO. NOT JAYDENE! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA”. Every. Week.

I wish I could rationalise with him that of all the things he’s had to endure, this is actually quite trivial. But that’s 2yr olds…

Overall, it is welcome to have entered this more manageable phase and with lockdown loosening up (rightly or wrongly) our every day life feels easier. He is now zooming around trying to discover new, imaginative ways to injure himself.

Which is good. Kind of..

The Tube

Joshua calls this his pipe. He shouts: “my pipe! my pipe!” if it gets caught on a button or dangles out of his shirt. He’s had this up his nose everyday now for 8 months. It’s become such a part of our life, having this unruly tube swinging around his neck constantly.

Unwell adults don’t usually have nasogastric tubes, because they are capable of swallowing medicine and not gobbing it in your face. Joshua has oral drugs every day; this tube enables us to bypass his mouth and administer them, whether he wants to or not. Getting it installed was the key to us being able to leave hospital after the first few weeks and be independent at home.

Unfortunately, Joshua wasn’t exactly on board with this idea.

His first tube was inserted whilst he was under general anaesthetic. He woke up snorting and pulled it out after about thirty seconds. So for the first week we just muddled along with trying to get the meds into his mouth.

Joshua concluded that he wasn’t terribly keen on taking medicine, so would clench his teeth together to prevent us sticking the syringe into his trap. He quickly mastered tantruming with his teeth clamped shut.

Eventually though, he couldn’t contain the protesting screams and would open up his mouth. The syringe would be waiting, poised for this fleeting moment, ready to squirt the drug in. The nurses taught me to press his cheeks together to try and prevent him spitting it out. This stressful process could sometimes take half an hour with some of it dripping off my top. Some drugs are not critical, but when it’s steroids, we need to know he’s had the correct dose.

And chemotherapy drugs are toxic, we can’t have that splattering our skin. (But it’s ok to put it in my child’s mouth. Still can’t get my head around this)..

My heart was sinking because I knew the nurses would have to insert a tube. And do it with him awake, so he knows what’s happening; which might help him to accept it. But having it put in is a pretty unpleasant procedure.

I mean, would you want a pipe stuffed in your nose, down your throat and into your stomach?

After the event, we had to hold his arms down for hours, whilst he cried, thrashed about and eventually fell asleep. We put mittens on his hands to help stop him getting hold of it. When he woke up, it was like we had broken his spirit. He looked away; just quiet and disengaged.

There was some trouble with it being the incorrect length. It was obviously irritating him, so that required adjustment. To cheer him up we had a short break from hospital and wandered to WHSmiths to scavenge some new Wallace & Gromit DVDs, having exhausted the ones at the unit. Unexpectedly he was sick, whilst in his buggy. Ben saw this unfolding, dealt with it and then had to dash off to locate the shopping centre toilets. I was just stood there in Smiths, gawking. So don’t come to me in a crisis.

I mention this incident, firstly because it shocked me at the time, and secondly because the tube came out with it.

He then had to go through the tube-fitting-trauma all over again.

After a few days, Joshua got used to it, but was continuously pulling an odd face with his lips and talking with a strange ssshing sound. Now it’s just part of the apparatus of life. He still protests a bit when cold water goes down it.

But, he accepts it. When I see him now, a little 2yr old child… diligently tucking his tube back into his top… I have a little gulp of sorrow.  He has so much to accept.


Joshua had bright, flaxen curly locks. His wild, white hair was often one of the first things to be commented on by people. I really loved it. Probably should have trimmed it a bit more than I did, but who cares when you’re 2.

In western culture, lustrous locks are symbolic of health, wellbeing and a quick way to identify someone. Blonde Ruth has been my moniker since the 90s. (I’m not actually blonde anymore. But that’s beside the point, ok?)

Losing your hair, represents a loss of that health and loss of identity. (My thoughts are just straying to the army, and prisoner camps; two places where shaven heads is a bit of a thing…)

Despite everything that was about to happen to Joshua, knowing that his hair would fall out, made me very sad. It’s part of him, part of his personality. It vanishing is a visual reminder of all being so very not well. I did keep arguing with myself. It’s only hair. It will grow back.

When we first arrived at hospital in the dark night; I caught glimpses of other children in their rooms on the ward. Pale, lying in beds, with wispy bald heads. To me at that time, through the glass in the gloomy light, they appeared like haunted, tragic figures. In stunned shock, I couldn’t quite believe that we belonged there. That this was our life now.

During our first few weeks on the unit, I would gently snip out a few of his curls from the back. I felt strangely reluctant, which is odd given that they were due to slowly fall out anyway. I felt like I had cut off loads of them, but now I realise that I hadn’t. It’s a strange unwillingness to be complicit in his impending baldness.

His hair falling out was quite a protracted process; it wasn’t here one day and then gone the next. In December last year, he spent a lot of time sat on my lap; I kept finding lots of strands of hair stuck to my jumper, getting in my mouth or wafting across the kitchen table.

He had scraps of hair for a while. And then he went through treatment intensification, which wiped it all out.

Before Covid arrived, we would be out together in the park or on the school run. And I became very aware that people notice the bald child. The eyes flicker; the pitying glances that last a bit too long. They know something of your situation because of how he looks. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that he was so obviously sick. The tragic figure.

It’s growing back now. It’s a few millimetres long and I find my hand stroking it when he’s flopped across my lap; it’s silky soft. Like moleskin.

I have no idea what it will look like. Whether it will be blonde. Or curly.

But with its re-growth is a sparkly sense of renewal and quiet relief. It feels like something positive. A return to normal, even if that normal is really still years away.

Last June

What a difference a year makes.

Last June, we had recently moved in to our new house. The family home; the one for the kids to grow up in, the one we hoped to be in until we are wrinkly and rattling around. The boys were enjoying exploring the extra space. I was content seeing trees swaying out of the windows and watching the robins and wrens. Our bedroom faces tall London planes and when it’s inclement weather, their bowed branches rustle and howl in the wind; it’s a bit like camping, but with a more comfortable mattress.

When you step out of the front door, blue tits are twittering about, flitting from the cherry tree to the Scots pine in the park. Coming from a practically bird-free-zone in our last house, it felt like we had come to live in an aviary.

The hum-drum of normal life pottering along, felt quietly full of possibility. Of positivity.

What a difference a year can make.

Infection (III)

When we think about a child having cancer, we focus our thoughts on the disease being the bad bit… and isn’t it a good thing that they can access potentially life-saving treatment. But during this process, what you are often relentlessly managing, is the (sometimes quite serious) complications of actually receiving the treatment.

The third part of this saga is that Joshua has regularly had high temperatures, which is probably due to an infected port. But either way, a temperature of 38 degrees, means that we immediately go trotting off to A&E and will then be living in hospital for a minimum of 48hrs.

As soon as possible, he gets IV antibiotics, despite it not always being clear what the cause of his infection is. This is because even if it is a virus, he is at risk of complications, like secondary bacterial infections (pneumonia).

We have now surpassed the hat trick of all school holidays spent in hospital – Christmas, Easter, February half-term, and recently the May half-term. (But we had such plans for our lounge-based activities!)

In February alone, we had three admissions in what was supposed to be an easier few months of treatment.

Strangely, he is mostly not that unwell in himself with no outward sign of illness (snotty nose, cough etc..) The nurses will take blood samples, which get cultured in a lab and these consistently reveal the presence of a bacteria. When they know it’s staphylococcus, they can then tailor which antibiotics to give.

After much musing (because it keeps happening repeatedly) the consultants have concluded that somewhere inside the port it is probably a bit gummed up with the presence of bacteria that when you are not really ill, your body can tolerate. When he gets neutropenic (*where he has low levels of white blood cells, which makes him very vulnerable to infection*) the presence of this bacteria can cause systemic infection in his body. Hence the spike in temperature. I’m sure our consultant would raise her eyebrows at my simplistic scientific overview of all this, but it’s the best I can do without making it confusing!

The consequence of all this is relentless stays in hospital, which is bad at the best of times. And it is not the best of times in Covid-saturated-Britain.

The long-term solution is to have his port removed in surgery, and a new one put in at a later date. The short-term solution, is to do line-locks. This is where they send him home, but leave a small dose of antibiotic sitting in the port (instead of flushing it clear with saline). This means that once we’ve returned home, the CLIC-Sargent nurse will come out to us every day for two weeks, to refresh the antibiotic.

As you can imagine, Joshua is overjoyed about this; when Jaydene arrives, he screams in her face, shouts “oh no.. not you” and runs off…

Port Problems (II)

(*I debated with myself about including this image because Joshua looks in distress and Ben is gently restraining him. We have done this procedure countless times and this is the only image I have of it. I took it to record our life. I’ve decided to keep it in, because it’s real and this is what happens regularly.)

When ports work, they are great; instant delivery of medication. When they don’t, it causes a lot of head-scratching, investigations and more time hanging around in hospital.

Joshua’s port has unfortunately been relentlessly troublesome.

For reasons I’m not that clear on (maybe his weight fluctuating?) accessing it is often a problem. Accessing is where the nurse sticks a needle into his chest, sucks on the syringe which gets it to easily bleed back into the attached tube. This indicates that it works correctly.

I’m probably making this sound a lot more complicated than it actually is.

It’s 4am. Joshua has a temperature of 39, is angry and also tired because it is the middle of the bleddy night. I’m not overjoyed about it either. We’ve been sat in a side room in A&E for… ummm… a while. He’s been checked over by the nurses and now they want to access his port to administer antibiotics. I quietly enquire about whether they are used to doing this. Maybe we could ask an oncology nurse to come down? Because I know his can be tricky.

Lots of smiling and confidence. “Oh no no, it’ll be fine.”

Three attempts later, flush-faced and flustered they divert to a cannula in the hand instead. I’m grateful for that because Joshua is now in an elevated state of distress.

Cannulas aren’t a good option for more than a day. At Christmas, when we were in for a week, the cannula would fail eventually and get changed over to the other hand.. then his elbow… and possibly a foot as well. In the middle of the night. When he’s asleep.

Two year olds just don’t like being stabbed with needles. Can you imagine waking up to that drama when you’re a child who doesn’t give two shits about why we need to do this?

Eventually on Boxing day, with different senior nurses coming in and trying their luck, Joshua was wheeled off to have his chest x-rayed to see if that would reveal the problem. It did demonstrate that the needle wasn’t in properly. But it has still continued to be tricky, even though they’ve solved that bit.

I guess some things will remain mysterious. And annoying.

What is a Port? (I)

This device is an essential component of Joshua’s treatment. It was inserted into his chest under general anaesthetic on day 2 of being in hospital, back in November 2019.

Children who are regularly given A LOT of medication (such as antibiotics and chemotherapy) and need blood tests relentlessly, have one fitted. This port gives instant access to a large vein. It is under the skin, you can’t see it and it can remain there for years.

This is supposed to make life easy. But Joshua is 2, and nothing is apparently easy.

Above his nipple is a small metal chamber. To access it, the nurses stab through Joshua’s skin directly into this chamber. It probably is an unpleasant sharp sting; but the way he reacts, you’d think he was being tortured. He has to be pinned down on my lap (arms and legs flailing) whilst he is screaming and sweating. I have lost count of the times we have had to do this, but I have a silent sigh every time, because he gets so upset.

(In this picture you can see the plastic butterfly clasp that the needle is attached to, all stuck down to his skin with a sticky patch.)

Joshua doesn’t have his port accessed all the time. The needle and catheter hanging off it, only last about a week. And then it has to be changed for a fresh one. When we’re at home, I’m not very relaxed when the needle is attached because he has an extremely cavalier approach to health and safety.

His currently favourite hobby is standing on the arm of the sofa and dive bombing on to cushions. If it gets dislodged, that’s an instant trip to hospital. And bath time is fraught because he likes pretending to swim; you can’t immerse this in water (especially water that you wash your dirty bum in.)

My resting heart rate is lower, when it’s been removed. Ahh and breathe…


Help, we are infested with rodents!

Louis has badgered me about a pet rat, for nearly a year. I was finally starting to come around to the idea because if you can’t have a pet when you’re 7, when can you. Plus they only live 2 years, which I was seeing as an upside.

And then came cancer and coronavirus.

A local lady rat-lover had recently rescued a bunch of them from destination python food. I had agreed to take two females, just as the lockdown was starting. That, plus Joshua’s treatment escalating, made me hesitate. But then, no time is a good time at the moment, so we did a socially-distanced handover 2 weeks ago.

I wanted to do something, just for Louis. We have been trying to insulate him from the impact of Joshua’s leukaemia, but it is a bit impossible. Life has dramatically changed. From the things we can do, to the things we talk about. We haven’t been away for 7 months; enriching outdoor fun has stopped. Christmas day morning was quietly just me (trying to make it seem exciting) and Louis. Fortunately we had the magic of Santa’s visit to fill the family vacuum.

Back in November, his life had suddenly become extremely odd. The house had fallen silent. Our chaotic existence with the usual screeching, fighting and laughing just… stopped. His parents weren’t at home. A small army of different people were picking him up from school every day. Every weekend was a sleepover at Auntie Sophie’s.

Eventually, with my throat tightening, I had to explain that Joshua was ill. We read a book together that the hospital had given us, called “My Brother has Cancer”. I think it helped him to understand in simple terms, some of the big things that were happening. And sadly, to my surprise, he nodded and pointed to the sentence where the boy didn’t think his mummy loved him anymore.

Louis is a paternal, gentle big brother. He’s happy to drop his complex play requirements to toddler level because that is apparently better than having to amuse yourself. Before treatment – amongst the punches – they would happily goon about, hiding in the wardrobe and ruining my mattress with “belly-schlops and woly-polies”.

So it’s been hard and bewildering for him, witnessing the various changes to his little brother, who at one stage couldn’t walk and was so crushed by drugs that he didn’t speak either. Louis would exclaim at night-time, with his face in his hands, that “I don’t like his tube. I don’t want him to have the tube; it makes him look weird”.

Six months later, and things are a bit easier now. He’s got used to the tube and it’s nice to see them needing each other again. They’re currently in the garden, arguing over a watering can.

And the rats. They’re a good distraction, and quite cute actually.