real life

'I'm shaving my head, so my grandson doesn't feel so alone.'

The World's Greatest Shave
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“There’s a phone call. Louise, it’s for you.” It was December 6, 2018, when teacher’s aide Louise O’Reilly received the message via a colleague.

“Me? No one ever rings me at school.”

By then there were six missed calls on the Sunshine Coast woman’s mobile phone, which lay buried in her bag, as it always does during class time.

When she answered the school phone, her son, Steve, was on the other end. It was about her young grandson, James.

“He said, ‘Can you grab the girls?'” Louise told Mamamia. “‘James has got Leukaemia and we have to go down to Brisbane.'”

Two words ran through Louise’s mind.

“F**k, and why? Why, why, why?” she said. “You look to see why this would happen to this little boy, this little eight-year-old boy that’s done nothing to anybody.”

James’ diagnosis was Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, a type of cancer that affects blood and bone marrow. According to the Leukaemia Foundation, roughly 300 Australians are diagnosed each year, and though the disease can affect people of any age, 60 percent of cases occur in children aged under 14.

While cure rates are more variable among adults, thankfully, the majority of children with ALL can be cured with proper treatment.

Signs and symptoms of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.

ALL is characterised by the overproduction of immature white blood cells, called lymphoblasts or leukaemic blasts. Because the bone marrow is unable to make adequate numbers of red blood cells, normal white cells and platelets, people with ALL become more susceptible to anaemia, recurrent infections, and can tend to bruise and bleed more easily.

For James, it began with a sore tooth. It was a Friday afternoon in late December when he first complained of it. Louise, who often cares for him and his twin sisters after school, had noticed that the young boy been more listless and irritable that usual, that he’d gone off his food.

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Antibiotics didn’t seem to help, so a dentist performed an extraction. Still his condition worsened. He skin became paler, yellowed. The doctor prescribed stronger antibiotics and, days later, performed a blood test.

By the morning of December 6, James was in bed, writhing in pain. That was the day the phone call came.

James was rushed to Lady Cilento Children’s hospital in Brisbane, where he has since undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy. For three weeks of intensive treatment, his parents were able to be by his side, courtesy of accommodation nearby provided by the Leukaemia Foundation.

It meant that James’ twin sisters, age six, could also visit their brother away from the ward, have cuddles and tickle time with their dad as normal, even enjoy Christmas as a family. A visit from Santa, and all.

“It was wonderful. Just getting out of that hospital environment makes the situation a lot easier,” Louise said. “When we were down there the units were full, and there were all these families there. Where would they be if it wasn’t for the Leukaemia Foundation?

“If I won the Lotto, I don’t think I could give them enough to say thank you.”

“You have to fight this.”

It’s because of that support, and most of all because of her love for James, that Louise is taking part in World’s Greatest Shave. She’s going bald to raise funds for the Leukaemia Foundation, and intends to keep it that way until her grandson’s own patchy hair regrows.

“I said to James, ‘If I could give you every bit of blood I had in my body, or every bit of bone marrow, or my left arm or my right arm, I would do it, darling. But I can’t. So yes, you have to fight this, but we’re there to support you,'” Louise said. “This is one of the ways I’m doing that.”

Close to two months on from diagnosis, James is back home on the Sunshine Coast, and travels to Brisbane each Friday for chemo. Doctors are hopeful that after this round, his bone marrow will start building healthy white blood cells.

Everyone is looking forward to the day when he is well enough to return to his normal self, when his cheeky smile will return as often as it should, when he can go back to school – the same one where Louise works. She will be there, proudly bald, in support of her grandson.

“Kids are kids. They’re going to ask questions, they’re going to laugh, they’re going to poke fun. But when they’ve got to a teacher’s aide with no hair walking into the classroom as well…” she laughed. “James is going to be the second butt of their jokes, isn’t he?”

To support the Leukaemia Foundation World’s Greatest Shave, get sponsored to shave or colour your hair this March 13-17 and help “shave the world from blood cancers”. You can also your support by donating to a shaver – someone like Louise O’Reilly.

For more information on ALL and other blood cancers, visit the Leukaemia Foundation website.

Mamamia has partnered with World’s Greatest Shave to bring you inspiring stories about living with cancer, before and after. View all of our stories here.

The World's Greatest Shave

You can help shave the world from blood cancer this March 13-17 - sign up today at worldsgreatestshave.com!

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