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Every cancer diagnosis is difficult. And being told that your child has cancer can be particularly harrowing. Four years ago Ruth and Ben Hillman were told that their baby daughter Georgia had a rare kidney cancer called Wilms’ tumour. Each year in Great Britain around 73 children are diagnosed with this cancer. The good news is that Wilms’ tumour is now curable in more than 9 in 10 cases.

Every one of these ‘9 in 10’ is a child with a family, not just a statistic. And each has their own story. This is Georgia’s story:

Georgia Hillman

Georgia Hillman

As Georgia approached her first birthday, she was just like any other child: bubbly, increasingly mobile, and seemingly healthy. But, one Sunday night in August 2008, after her bath I noticed her tummy felt firm as I was blowing raspberries on it. The previous Thursday I’d been at a coffee morning where I’d been tickling another boy’s tummy and noted that his was all squidgy. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but that night, alarm bells started to ring.

On Monday I called the health visitor and they said to take Georgia to Tuesday’s baby clinic. There they said it didn’t look quite right, and should be checked out by a doctor. I thought she’d maybe swallowed a toy as she was always putting something in her mouth.

The only appointment was for last thing the following day, but I still wasn’t comfortable so I called for an emergency appointment and went in at 8.30.

The doctor said there wasn’t anything wrong with her. Uncomfortable with this, I asked to be referred to a Paediatrician. I was told this could take up to six months. After speaking to many private hospitals that morning, I finally found someone who would see Georgia and called my doctor for a written referral. She finally agreed to phone the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy to discuss Georgia. I believe that Georgia was pretty much diagnosed over the phone as I was told to bring her in immediately.

When we arrived at the hospital, they immediately took her down for an x-ray. I remember being chaperoned everywhere; everything moved quickly and a nurse wouldn’t let us out of her sight. My husband, Ben, was working in Birmingham at the time, and I asked whether I should get him home. Initially, I was told to wait and see. Then she had an ultrasound and I asked the nurse again ‘should I get my husband back?’. I remember her words vividly: “I’ve never seen a child rushed through x-ray and ultrasound quite so quickly in all my years as a nurse; if it were me I’d be getting my husband back straight away.” He was on the next flight home.

Later that afternoon I was told there was a large mass in her tummy. They were fairly confident it was coming from her liver, but they would not indicate whether it was benign or malignant. We were told to report to Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children the next morning, and to take overnight clothes and accept that we might not get out for some time. Georgia and I went home, I somehow managed to get her fed and to bed, and waited for Ben to arrive home. We spent a sleepless night, scared, tearful and bewildered. We had gone from the excitement of organising her first birthday to potentially having a sick child in the space of a couple of days.

No-one had warned us we were going to an oncology ward at the ‘Sick Kids’, and walking onto the ward the following morning and seeing children undergoing treatment and fighting for their lives, was a massive shock. We felt complete frauds with our bouncing baby who had no signs of illness apart from a well-fed tummy! Little did we know how this ward would become a place of refuge, understanding and support over the coming year.

Georgia during treatment

Georgia during treatment

On that first day on the ward, they redid the x-ray and ultrasound. They confirmed that the tumour was coming from her kidney, and was spreading out into her abdomen, pushing all other organs aside. The next day she had an MRI scan and biopsies of the tumour.

Three days later we celebrated her first birthday. All of the family flew and drove from afar to ‘celebrate’, worried that this was the only birthday we would celebrate with her.

The following day we then returned to the hospital for her biopsy results and received the news that we had dreaded; it was cancer and, worse, it had spread. Our lives were turned upside down.

They told us they were confident it was either neuroblastoma or Wilms’ Tumour. A port – a tube to give chemotherapy – was inserted, and chemotherapy was planned for shortly after that. At this stage we didn’t have a definitive diagnosis, but the tumour was too large not to start treating. A second, surgical, biopsy was also arranged prior to the chemotherapy starting. Weeks later we had confirmation that Georgia had a stage 3 Wilms tumour.

The plan was to give her six weeks of chemotherapy to shrink the tumour before surgery that would remove both tumour and kidney. Shortly after diagnosis they decided to introduce a third, intensive drug, doxorubicin in the hope that Georgia could be treated without radiotherapy, which would have such a profound long-term effect on her wee body. It was a blow – we had done our research and it was a drug we wanted to avoid, but the tumour reacted dramatically and I swore I could see her stomach shrinking before my eyes at every nappy change.

Her first dose of doxorubicin was given to her when her white blood count was very low and she became ill with hand, foot and mouth disease. For any other child this is easy to shake off but not for Georgia, who fought against an unrelenting high fever in hospital for ten nights.

When her health improved, chemotherapy recommenced and, the day before my husband’s birthday in November, she had a seven-hour operation to remove the tumour and kidney. When the doctors met with the surgeons, they couldn’t believe they had managed to do it through keyhole surgery. In two months it had shrunk from the size of a football to that of a satsuma. After an amazing recovery from major surgery, she was discharged after less than 48 hours.

The pathology of the tumour was positive, and it was agreed that Georgia would be treated with another seven months of chemotherapy. We then had to make the decision of whether or not to consent to radiotherapy. They were fairly convinced that they had removed the entire tumour in her operation and we trusted their instinct, and decided against putting her through radiotherapy.

During the administering of the chemotherapy drugs, Georgia didn’t understand what was going on but somehow grasped everything that should happen. So, if the nurses didn’t complete a procedure properly she wouldn’t clap…as soon as they did she would clap and smile. She was clapping people who were in the short term making her sick.

When she was not sick, she was a very bubbly, happy child and so very brave. She would never cry or whinge. I know Ben or I would never have coped half as well.

I remember on my birthday in December, she was sick nine times. My husband was upstairs ill in bed and I remember blubbing away, forcing myself to eat some tea in my pyjamas, as I had no clean clothes left. It wasn’t one of my finer birthdays!

Georgia first day at school

Georgia ready for her first day at school

Early January, Georgia had a peg inserted for feeding and anti-sickness drugs. This provided a welcome relief for Georgia from all the vomiting, though amazingly she never needed it for feeding. Shortly after, the peg became more trouble than it was worth and became chronically infected. In late April the infection became so bad and internal, she spent a week pretty much fighting for her life.

After fighting this off, in June 2009 she completed her treatment, and in July we were told that she was in remission. She has gone from strength to strength ever since. People are amazed by Georgia when they hear what she has been through. She’s a happy, healthy, cheeky…normal…child with nothing to show for her ordeal other than a few scars on her tummy.

We feel so very lucky to have Georgia still with us and certainly could not be prouder parents of a lovely little girl who has achieved so much in 5 short years.

She’s just started school, four years to the day after she had her first MRI and biopsy, and is loving it. Another milestone ticked off! Another milestone that we thought we’d never quite reach.

Ruth Hillman

Thanks to advances in research, Georgia’s story of successful treatment for Wilms’ tumour is the norm, not the exception. While just 59 per cent of children survived their disease in the early 1970s, 95 per cent now survive.

Cancer Research UK funded scientists and doctors played a key role in a number of clinical trials that have contributed to this improved survival. For instance, it was Cancer Research UK funded work that led to children like Georgia being given six weeks of chemotherapy to shrink the tumour before surgery, reducing the number who need to be treated with radiotherapy. 

And in the last couple of years Cancer Research UK scientists have discovered genes that are involved in the development of Wilms’ tumour, which could lead to new and improved treatments for the disease. 

But there’s so much more to do – for the 5 per cent who don’t yet beat Wilms’ tumour and for all children who are diagnosed with cancer, whichever type.

With your help, we can and will do more to ensure as many children as possible survive their disease.

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Comments

Sorcha February 28, 2013

wow these are such amazing and tragic storys. at least every one survived! good luck in the future geogiaa!

maggie February 27, 2013

My daughter Kimberley had a wilms tumour, when she was 6 and 3/4. thats 21 yrs ago now.. she is 28 in March. we had fabulous care at Ninewells Dundee and Sick Kids Glasgow. She had 7 weeks chemo and an op. to remove her kidney then 3 weeks more chemo. 5 years later she was also given the all clear. Just after she finished her treatment she won a giant swiss chocolate easter egg in an asda competition. Which she took to her local school and shared with everyone. x

Oliver Childs November 27, 2012

Thank you so much for sharing your story Joanne (and others too who have commented). We will pass it onto Ruth, Georgia’s mum. We hope that Hayden’s treatment continues to go well and you get the news you want to hear next February.

Oliver Childs
Cancer Research UK

joanne whitbread November 24, 2012

hi my 6 year old son hayden is currently having his treatment for wilms tumour he was diagnosed after taking ill on a family holiday in wales, we the same as your family noticed haydens stomach swelling and his lack of appetite and knowing something wasnt right took him to the emergency clinic, where we were referred to our local emergency hospital we too had gone from being on half term holidays and having lots of fun to be ushered to a room full of doctors to be told our little boy had a tumour and we would be referred to the Royal manchester childrens hospital, we were transferred the next day, walking onto the oncology dept hit us like nothing i had ever experienced i had never even been around anyone with cancer let alone sat on a ward with all these children that were so poorly and had no hair..we have 5 other children including haydens twin and having to tell them when we didnt even know ourselves that hayden was going to be poorly for a while and it couldnt just be fixed with 1 dose of medicine was one of the worst experiences. hayden like georgia had chemotherapy for 6 weeks after a biopsy and had a hickman line put in and i know what you mean when you say you could see the lump go down before your eyes, hayden had his kidney removed in august and had 14 days intense radiotherapy before starting on another 6 months chemo programme, we have seen hayden go from strength to strength and has been so brave attending school from september almost every day (except long chemo sessions and hold ups on the day care) we have chemo up until feb and fingers crossed we will then be given the news we want to hear georgias story has given me a cry remembering all the things that our babies shouldnt have to have gone through but also has given me the hope that this part of haydens life will soon be over and he can get on with leading a normal life again without constant medication, temp checks and hospital appointments and that worry everyday, thank you for giving us that hope by telling us how georgias story and how brave she has been and is continuing to be good luck for your future georgia x

suellen October 19, 2012

Our little girl ashantai had bilateral wilms tumor, and has been in remission for 2 years now, we hope this continues, and these stories have lifted our spirits and hope more, thank you for sharing your stories, is great to hear from other parents, and the positive stories. I understand the hard times and stil the thoughts that we have as parents. But it is great to see the strength of our children, and nothing deters them. They can teach us alot. I hope cancer research is able to keep up its great work, we are very thankfull. suellen smith

samraj October 2, 2012

New inventions leads to Science Updations the specialized areas within, there is a strong need to share knowledge and give access to Science Updates to the general public.

Jenifer Hillman September 30, 2012

Having watched from a distance the whole ordeal of Georgia’s illness it feels like a miracle that she is such a healthy and normal child. Thanks to the incredible support that she and her parents received from both the doctors and nurses of edinburgh Sick Kids and Clic Sergeant who kept them all going when it got tough. A very proud Auntie Jen.

Gillian Foreman September 28, 2012

My child also had a Wilms tumour and he is now an airline pilot with a son of his own which we never thought possible