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Three-year-old Annie faces two-year treatment

With three kids under three, the Pender family already had their hands full before a shock diagnosis thrust them into the whole new world of childhood blood cancer.

The Pender Family
The Pender Family.

In November 2020, the young family were living a peaceful life in country Victoria when then two-year-old daughter, Annie started getting ear infections and high temperatures.

“Our twins, Max and Nellie, had just had their first birthday and we had recently sent off my partner, Tom to a great new job opportunity,” said mum, Shauni.

“I was at home in Portland, Victoria by myself with the three kids.

Annie had to be airlifted to Melbourne for urgent treatment
Annie had to be airlifted to Melbourne for urgent treatment.

“I had to take Annie to the doctor multiple times before we finally got referred to a bigger hospital for blood tests.”

Within two hours, Annie’s reoccurring ear infections had progressed to a very serious leukaemia diagnosis.

“I was distraught and said to the medical team, ‘I need someone here’,” said Shauni.

“I remember Tom and my mum finally walking through the hospital doors an hour later – it was the longest hour of my life.”

Annie and Shauni were airlifted to Melbourne so she could begin treatment immediately.

“Annie thought it was a big adventure, but I just remember getting in the air ambulance with the horrible feeling that we weren’t returning home anytime soon,” said Shauni.

When they arrived at the hospital, Annie took one look around the oncology ward and said, ‘oh, there’s babies’.

“We had to explain to her that they’re not babies, but their hair had just gone on holiday,” said Shauni.

Annie spent Christmas day in hospital
Annie spent Christmas day in hospital.

Shortly after arriving in Melbourne, Annie’s diagnosis was confirmed as Pre-B acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and she started chemotherapy.

“Annie’s disease was classed as low risk which we were absolutely relieved about,” said Shauni.

“The treatment team were fantastic, explained everything and assured us her type of ALL was one of the best types to have.”

After the first month of Annie’s treatment, the whole family moved into a Leukaemia Foundation Patient Accommodation Centre, a few minutes’ walk from the hospital.

“It was just before Christmas that we were able to move in,” said Shauni.

“We were so incredibly grateful as we still had rent and bills to pay back home and didn’t have any income coming in with Tom having to stop work.

“We were able to bring the twins to Melbourne, make it our little home and have enough space to set up the Christmas tree.

“The staff went above and beyond to make sure we had everything we needed and the other day we even arrived home to three little teddies at our door.

Annie with dad, Tom feeling her new do'
Annie with dad, Tom feeling her new do’.

“Little touches like that makes it feel like a real home, it’s a wonderful environment.”

Annie spent both Christmas and her third birthday in hospital after she developed meningitis and an infection on the brain.

“An MRI picked up that she had swelling all through her brain,” said Shauni.

“She couldn’t speak, move, sit up in bed or anything. I remember breaking down and saying to her treatment team, “I feel like she’s fallen away”.

“Thankfully, she pulled through and was able to start chemotherapy again.”

The strong chemotherapy has also taken a big toll on Annie and Shauni said her little body ‘turns off completely’ when having treatment.

As well as having a weakened immune system, Annie’s bone and muscle strength has been affected.

“A common cold could destroy her, she weakens easily and starts to get quite nauseous,” explained Shauni.

Annie celebrated her third birthday in hospital
Annie celebrated her third birthday in hospital.

“We’ve been told to be careful with things like riding a bike or jumping on a trampoline as she could easily break an arm or leg.”

The family now expect to be in Melbourne until May 2021.

“After this initial nine months of treatment, we’ll hopefully be able to wind back to monthly checkups, and then continue maintenance treatment until she’s five-years-old,” said Shauni.

“While we have a while to go, I think she’s just looking forward to being able to go on the swings outside again, like she used to do with her dad every afternoon.”


Shauni’s advice for parents:

  1. Trust your gut. We got turned away quite a few times with Annie but as a mother you know your child best.
  2. Try to be open-minded about procedures and stay calm. Having to hold your screaming child down so they can get a cannula put in is always going to be heartbreaking. But the calmer you are, the better environment you will create for you and your child. It needs to happen so they can get better so there’s no point in getting upset.
  3. Talk to other parents. I’ve met a few mums on the ward or back at the Leukaemia Foundation accommodation. I’ve found it so helpful and comforting to connect with other families going through a similar experience.