Thursday 19 April 2018

When this Irish mother was told there was no hope for her son, they flew to Mexico for treatment

When a Co Armagh mother was told there was no hope for her sick child, she decided to look elsewhere. Cassie Finnegan tells Joy Orpen about their mammoth struggle to have her son Cameron's brain tumour treated in Mexico

Cassie Finnegan and Cameron. Photo: Mark Condren
Cassie Finnegan and Cameron. Photo: Mark Condren

When former chef Cassie Finnegan heard that her precious boy had a brain tumour, she was absolutely stunned. But then, her ever-practical, mothering instincts kicked in. "OK, so, what do we need to do to fix this?" she asked.

"You can't," was the chilling response.

This saga began in November 2016 when gently spoken, computer-mad Cameron, then 10 years old, began to get headaches. He was diagnosed with tonsillitis, and once that cleared up the headaches disappeared.

Soon after, Cassie and Harold (Hammy) Truesdale, her former husband and the father of her two eldest children, began to notice that Cameron was developing a squint. Given that Hammy had a similar problem when he was a boy, they weren't too worried. Nonetheless, they asked for an appointment with an eye specialist.

After that, life for Cassie resumed its hectic pace in her modest home in Craigavon, near Lurgan, Co Armagh. As well as Cameron, she has his sister Chloe, who is a year younger and spends every second weekend with him at their dad's. Cassie is remarried to David Finnegan, and they have two more children, Courtney (3) and Caitlin (10 months).

In January 2017, Cassie and Hammy, independently, began to notice that Cameron's speech was sometimes slurred, he occasionally lost his balance and he seemed to have too much saliva. "He was 11 by then," says Cassie. "So we thought it might be his age. None of the symptoms were that obvious. It was a lot of wee, tiny things, that only his dad or me would notice."

One morning in late January, Cameron was taken to the GP in his uniform, as his mum planned to drop him off at school afterwards. However, following the examination, the GP sent his young patient straight to the local hospital instead. "The doctor was calm," Cassie remembers. "So I still didn't think it would be serious. Even so, I picked up Hammy in Lurgan and he came with us."

Cameron was checked for balance, strength, and eye problems. It was then decided to do a brain scan. "We were really concerned," says Cassie. "However, my worst worry at that point was that he would lose his sight."

Some hours later, Cassie and Hammy were taken to a private room where they were horrified to learn that their son had a tumour called a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). "We were told there was no treatment for it, and that it couldn't be removed because of its position in the brain. We were absolutely shocked."

According to the UK-based Brain Tumour Charity, which funds research, DIPGs originate in the pons, an area deep within the brain. "The pons is responsible for a number of critical bodily functions, such as breathing, sleeping and blood pressure," they explain. "Surgery to remove the tumour may not always be a viable option, due to the dangers of operating on critical areas of the brain."

Cassie and Hammy also learned that chemotherapy was not an option. "They said Cameron would be given steroids and radiotherapy," Cassies says. "After that we could take him home 'to make memories.' I asked if we could get involved in trials for new drugs or treatments, but they said no, there was no hope."

It was an abosolutely devastating prognosis.

A few days later, Cameron began having out-patient radiotherapy in Belfast. Meanwhile Cassie went searching for other families dealing with DIPGs. She found a few in the UK. "Everyone was getting the same responses," she says, "that there was nothing to be done."

But Cassie wouldn't give up. "We had to look elsewhere," she explains. Soon, she began coming across families around the world who were having treatment in Monterrey, Mexico. So, she waited and watched. "One wee girl wasn't feeling well; but after a course of treatment, she was doing cartwheels," says Cassie. "There were others too who seemed to have good results."

Following his radiotherapy in Belfast, Cameron's symptoms disappeared, but not long after, they began to return. Cassie had already begun raising funds in case a back-up plan was needed. She researched the viability of treatment for Cameron in Mexico, and ascertained that, overall, it would cost more than £300,000.

That was a colossal sum for a family living on a modest wage. But nothing would deter them when it came to saving this special boy's precious life.

So, Cassie got in touch with medical staff at the hospital in Monterrey and five weeks later, the whole family, armed with Cameron's medical records, decamped to Mexico.

The first round of treatment was so complicated and intense, they needed to be there for three months to support Cameron through this very tough ordeal. While searching for accommodation, they encountered a local landlord who, when he learned why they were there, insisted on installing them in a secure, luxury apartment very near the hospital - rent free.

"What an amazing family," says Cassie. "They couldn't do enough for us." She says hospital staff, many of whom spoke English, were also exceptional, and were on call around the clock.

Cameron began by having four intense chemo and immunotherapy sessions, 17 days apart. It was a gruelling experience for him. But there were signs of improvement.

"His speech and his balance are greatly improved," says Cassie. "While the scans showed the tumour was shrinking slightly, or had stayed the same, which is amazing for such an aggressive form of cancer."

Cameron is now back at school in Co Armagh, although he has to return to Mexico soon for his eighth session and will probably need several more after that. He usually goes for five days, accompanied by his father, and is given intra-arterial chemotherapy.

"A micro-catheter allows chemotherapy drugs to be delivered directly to the tumour," Cassie says, while adding that even though some medical people in Ireland are sceptical about this treatment, she is hopeful that it will save her beautiful boy's life.

"While they say there is no guarantee of success, one family has just been given a NED [no evidence of disease] verdict. This is the first time one has been given [in this context] and that would only be allowed, following very careful assessment," she stresses.

In the meantime, Cassie has her hands full bringing up her four children, while simultaneously organising major fund-raising events such as a ball in Portadown. She also has to keep tabs on the many fund-raising activities, such as marathons, being organised by their many friends, her husband David's colleagues at Flogas, and Cameron's fellow pupils at Brownlow Integrated College, Craigavon.

They still need to raise about £125,000. It's a difficult goal and a punishing workload, but this brave mother is driven by pure love.

For more information, see cure4camfund on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and justgiving.com/crowdfunding/cure4cam

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