Guardian Lifestyles Reporter
Published: Aug 14, 2012
Learning to live everyday like it’s the last is a lesson that many people may never learn in life, but it’s a special and rare occasion when that lesson can be learnt from a child. This was the case for Veronique Turnquest, a single mother of five who had always put off doing what she dreamt about in hopes of waiting until things got better. But the single mother changed her attitude when her daughter, Myah Turnquest, got deathly ill and many times looked as though she wouldn’t make it.
When Myah was born six years ago on October 14, 2005 she was a blessing in the eyes of her parents Turnquest and Steve Smith. They said she was a beautiful and affectionate baby, and they could only see a bright future for their bundle of joy. But everything changed in the blink of eye when a few months shy of her third birthday Myah alarmed her mother when she started showing signs that something was wrong with her health.
“It all happened so quickly... one moment Myah was fine and the next she had a little fever and a sore throat that wouldn’t ease. I took her to a clinic and was told that her lymph nodes were enlarged and I would need to go the hospital to get it checked out properly.”
Myah took several tests, including a bone marrow aspiration and it was found that Myah’s white blood cell count was critically low, but her mother was told that there was not an identifiable cause for the abnormality at the time. Myah was hospitalized in isolation for two weeks in hopes of making her better. But her cell count continued to drop. By the time pediatric hematologist and oncologist Dr. Corrine Sin-Quee was called on to do a second bone marrow aspiration on Myah, her neck had swollen on both sides where her lymph nodes were and her spleen, liver and stomach were also enlarged.
“I was glad when she got to see Dr. Sin-Quee who specializes in cases like hers, but had been off the island during all of this,” said Turnquest. “After [Dr. Sin-Quee] did the bone marrow aspiration on Myah, we found out that our worst fears were true. Myah had leukemia (cancer of the blood).”
The diagnosis made Turnquest’s heart drop. Her initial thought was to question why this was happening to her young child and how long would Myah have before she succumbed to the disease. But luckily, the form of cancer Myah had — acute lymphoblastic leukemia — was one that was treatable, required no surgery and treatment could be administered locally. This was a small comfort to the mother.
Myah started treatment the day after her third birthday on the October 15, 2008. She had to do almost two years of treatment with chemotherapy, radiation and regular medical examinations. She finished her treatment in October 2010.
But just as the family was getting ready to celebrate one of Myah’s first treatment free Christmases the little girl suffered a setback. In December of 2010 her right eye started to turn red and swell. Turnquest immediately took her daughter to an opthalmologist who told her that it looked like Myah had relapse. She immediately took her to Dr. Sin-Quee who confirmed that the disease had returned to Myah’s eye and would spread to her blood again. The doctor recommended that Myah undergo radiation treatments everyday for three weeks to get a jumpstart on fighting the spread of the disease.
We had to live
“Just when I thought everything was going so well with Myah, things just went downhill again. She wasn’t feeling like herself at all and it was a little distressing. While I was worried for her, I realized something as well ... Myah just may not make it and all this time that she was sick the first time I had been saying we would do more things or get this or that when she was better. But I realized I had to stop thinking like that. We had to live and let loose so that in case she didn’t make it there would be no regrets,” said Turnquest.
After she came to that realization, the mother said she and daughter were able to experience some of the greatest miracles in their lives, including having sponsors like the Royal Bank of Canada and the government donate to defraying the cost of Myah’s medication, which was arranged by Dr. Sin-Quee. The youngster had an allergic reaction to her medication during her first bout of treatment and had to use a specific kind of drug only found in the United Kingdom which cost $10,000 for 10 injections. Myah needed 12 sets of the injections the second time around which meant her family would have to find more than $100,000 just for treatment alone.
Because of her daughter, Turnquest said they’ve learned to live from day-to-day and that blessings have just been pouring in ever since. She said Myah is almost done with her treatment this time around, and is looking forward to going to school for the first time.
Her experiences with Myah’s illness have taught the mother to take life less seriously and not stress over the little things. She indulges all of her children as often as possible even though she may not have a lot. And she strives to ensure that Myah never feels different.
“Leukemia is a cancer that affects the blood and is known to affect different blood cells in the body, but in Myah’s case it is targeting her white blood cells — the cells that fight infection. It is specifically attacking her lymphocytes. And although this is a treatable cancer Myah has unfortunately relapsed or had a reoccurrence of the leukemia soon after she had completed three years of chemotherapy. She presented with the relapse affecting her eye, a known sanctuary site for relapse. She has since received chemotherapy and radiation therapy and is showing good response,” said Dr. Sin-Quee.
The pediatric hematology and oncology expert said although people seem to think that cancers like leukemia affect other people like the elderly, she said that it is not so. And that the cancer Myah suffers with is the most common form found in children. She calculates that it can affect about two to four children per year in The Bahamas’ population size.
Although the statistic may seem low, the doctor said parents should not let their guard down and she urges parents to be vigilant with their children because successful treatment for the illness works best when it is caught early.
“The more common symptoms and signs of leukemia include persistent or intermittent fever with no good explanation, easy bruising or bleeding (nosebleed, gum bleeding), swelling of lymph nodes, liver and spleen, and bone pain with even refusal to walk,” said the physician.
Dr. Sin-Quee said despite popular belief, all age groups are affected, with the most common ages of presentation being between two and five years old.
“There are certain conditions in which we see a higher incidence, and that includes patients with Down's syndrome. Although there is a very slight increase in having leukemia in an identical twin, there is no higher risk in families if another member has leukemia (unlike breast cancer).”
The doctor said the prognosis is good for the commoner form of cancer with a five-year survival rate of over 95 percent (for low risk) and 30 percent for high risk patients. She said several factors are taken into account to determine the risk, including age, white cell count, special lab determinants and time of response to treatment.
Treatment for this cancer is straightforward. Patients undergo chemotherapy, and in some instances radiation therapy. No surgery is needed, other than a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy for establishing the diagnosis. Placement of a port-a-cath also helps in aiding access for chemotherapy administration.
But at the end of the day, no matter how people feel about cancer, Dr. Sin-Quee said it can happen to anyone — and that cancer knows no barriers — whether a person is young or old, as can be seen from Myah’s case, she said children are also affected.
“We see about four to 10 new cases of cancer in children per year in The Bahamas. In addition to leukemia, other cancers include brain tumors, kidney tumors (Wilma tumor), muscle tumors (Rhabdomyosarcoma) and bone tumors (Osteogenic sarcoma),” said the physician.
While symptoms and signs vary depending on the type and location of the cancer, the doctor’s advise to parents is to know their child and to take the child to a doctor whenever there are symptoms and signs that are worrisome, like persistent unexplained fever, weight loss, easy bruising or bleeding and unexplained lumps and masses, especially if they are hard and growing. Persistent headaches, abnormal gait or weakness she said are also signs parents should look out for.