Jake Oliver from Ballymena is just five, but since being diagnosed with aggressive T cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, he has been in and out of hospital undergoing aggressive forms of chemotherapy, often lasting hours at a stretch, leaving him weak, tired and listless.
His mum Karen, 31, was first alarmed when her son developed a wheezy chest that persisted and GPs and A&E doctors dismissed his symptoms as those of a chest infection before rounds and rounds of antibiotics proved ineffectual and Jake was finally taken to paediatrics at Antrim Area Hospital and then to the cancer unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital, where a serious cancer diagnosis was confirmed after a biopsy, x-ray and other tests.
“The doctor finally told me Jake had a 15 cm mass on his chest covering his lungs and his heart which was cutting off his blood and air supply so that he was really struggling to breathe.
It was then established via a biopsy and lumber puncture that he had aggressive T cell lymphoblastic lymphoma.
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“It was so hard for him to breathe that he had to sleep upright,” said Karen.
“Because the mass was situated over his lungs and his heart they couldn’t operate so Jake was put on steroids which helped make the mass smaller so that breathing was easier for him. Then he started on chemotherapy treatment plans, the first months of which were aggressive.
“He developed a lot of ulcers in this mouth and throughout his digestive system from the treatment, which was very painful for him and there were days when he was actually too sick to have chemotherapy.
“There were two or three weeks when he was so ill that he didn’t eat, drink or talk.
“Intense chemotherapy took us nine months to do and that finally finished in June and then he had to start into chemotherapy maintenance plans, where he does cycles on and off, and at the moment we are into cycle three. He won’t complete treatment until 2024.”
But throughout it all plucky Jake has kept his spirits defiantly high, as has mum Karen and his eight-year-old sister Emelia, who tries to help him take his various medications at home when they are not bickering as brothers and sisters always do.
“He’s real wee fighter and has been through so much and through a lot of pain. I just have to keep going and try my best to amuse him during hours of chemotherapy at the Royal Victoria Hospital. That isn’t always easy. But the Children’s Cancer Unit is amazing because they have play specialists and all kinds of activities designed to keep the children entertained and distracted. That all helps keep Jake’s mind off things.”
Before his devastating diagnosis Karen describes a rambunctious little boy who was “always on the go. But he was and still is this fun wee boy. Before all this he ran about a lot more, and was always up to something, he loves playing football, using his tablet and watching his favourite TV programmes. He loves going to the park, but sadly has not been able to since he started treatment because it is just too dangerous.
As he became more tired I just had to give up taking him out because he was too tired and that is difficult for any child or for any mother to deal with, but I have no option and I fully intend to keep going for Jake and Emelia.”
Though things have been immensely challenging for Jake, he was given a moment of pure delight several weeks ago when he received a special Charlie Bear Toy from Cancer Support UK.
“Around three weeks ago Jake was due to go to hospital for a lumber puncture ahead of chemotherapy through his spinal cord. But he had been battling the cold for several weeks so they had had to cancel it. So Michelle, the play specialist told me Cancer Support UK had a special bear that they would like to give to Jake to cheer him up.
“Charlie Bear is amazing because he’s scented with lavender and when Jake gets home he puts him in the microwave to warm him up and then cuddles up with him under his wee blue blanket. He loves it. It gives him so much comfort and puts a huge smile on his face, he was just delighted because he loves something to hold on to.
“He’s been going through the hardest time, but even when he’s hooked up to a drip in a hospital bed he’s still smiling. And I think of that as his victory smile. And now he has Charlie Bear beside him.”
Cancer Support UK is aiming to send 1,500 of these gorgeous cuddly bears, just like the one bestowed to Jake, to children’s cancer wards across the UK including Northern Ireland, to help make Christmas extra special for children like Jake battling cancer this festive season.
Jake and his mum Karen are supporting the charity’s Cuddles for Christmas appeal. It is aiming to send 1,500 bears to cancer wards across the UK, to help make Christmas extra special for these children.
The heatable Christmas teddies can bring a child comfort when they need it most and Cancer Support UK has been busy contacting hospitals and hospices to arrange for the bears to reach children that need a cuddle.
It was caring staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Belfast, alerted Cancer Support UK to Jake’s case and they swiftly provided him with a special bear hug – right now when he needs it most.
Gemma Holding, Cancer Support UK’s CEO, said: “When we heard about this brave little boy, Jake, who has had a really tough ride with cancer, we knew we wanted to do something sooner rather than later. So, as our Cuddles bear drop isn’t due to take place until towards the end of December, we decided to send him an early surprise gift in the shape of Charlie, our Cancer Support UK bear ambassador.
“One of our admin managers also knitted Jake a little hat and a scarf.”
Gemma Holding spoke more broadly about the Cuddles for Christmas appeal: “The concept for this campaign was born last year in response to the reality that children with cancer who were in hospital were only really allowed one visitor, which is especially horrendous over Christmas. The restrictions imposed, while necessary, made the festive period for children hospitalised while undergoing cancer treatment so much worse. The appeal was so popular that we decided to run it again this year because the children just loved getting these bears which are scented with lavender and you can put them in the microwave to warm them up, and that is particularly helpful to children undergoing chemotherapy, because one of the side effects of that is that it can leave them feeling very cold.
“So these bears are soft and cuddly and warm like a hot water bottle.
“Anyone can buy a child a bear this Christmas, so please donate and help spread the joy among children who need it most.
“Sometimes parents will buy bears for other children and get their child to write a message to them saying ‘Thinking of you, you’re really brave, hope you have a lovely Christmas.” It’s incredibly heart warming. For a child to know that somebody they have never met really cares about them, that’s a wonderful thing.”
Karen Oliver added: “The campaign run by Cancer Support UK is just amazing and I think every child battling cancer deserves one of these delightful bears, because whatever we can do to put a smile on their faces, we should not hesitate to do it. It might not seem like very much to others, but to a sick child it is an immense source of comfort. Children love bears, so please donate that £10 and help lift the spirits of children like Jake who are battling cancer this Christmas.”
Cancer Support UK is asking people to donate £10 to help send 1,500 teddies to hospitals across the UK. Visit www.cancersupportuk.org/cuddles on how to donate.