DIAGNOSED with brain cancer at a young age, she was determined to fight the disease.
When Vanessa Priscilla Gimmi began to lose her appetite and weight at the age of eight, cancer was the last thing on her parent’s mind. They took her to several hospitals in the Philippines, where doctors diagnosed her as having gastritis, anorexia nervosa and other conditions.
Dissatisfied with the diagnosis, Vanessa’s parents insisted that their daughter undergo an MRI scan of her brain, which appeared to show a cyst. By this time, her weight had plummeted to 18 kg; a healthy girl of her age should weigh 35 kg.
In February 2008, wanting to seek another opinion, they decided to take their daughter to Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore. After more scans were done, doctors gave them the news: Vanessa had brain cancer.
“We were devastated,” recalled her mother Melinda. “We were crying, and my body was shaking.”
Dr. Anselm Lee, senior consultant of Paediatric Haematology and Oncology at Parkway Cancer Center (PCC), was one of the doctors who treated the lovely teenager. He remembered how neurosurgeon Dr. Tang Kok Kee took a small biopsy that allowed the doctors to diagnose the cancer as germinoma.
Germinoma, Lee explained, is a highly malignant tumor and is rare in children. But it also had a high rate of cure. “In our experience, more than 90 percent of the children affected are cured,” he said.
Vanessa’s parents, however, remained determined to fight the cancer. They wanted to know only one thing: Could she be treated?
“My reply to them was ‘Yes,’” Lee said.
Lee, Tang and radiation oncologist Dr. Lee Kim Shang then recommended a combination of chemotherapy and TomoTherapy radiation. Using chemotherapy to treat the brain germinoma would allow them to reduce the dose and extent of radiation treatment that would follow.
The mother also recalled what the chemotherapy was like for her daughter. “When I saw her losing her hair, I was so sad for my daughter,” she said. “But Vanessa was very brave and joked: ‘It’s okay, we can save on shampoo.”
The first stage of treatment proved to be a success. After two cycles of chemotherapy, the young girl’s tumor practically disappeared, and she started to show an interest in food.
Lee said: “She was locked inside herself when I first saw her in the intensive care unit. After this, she unlocked herself and became Vanessa again—the Vanessa that her parents once knew.”
With the tumor melting away, doctors could now move on to the next stage of treatment, TomoTherapy. This involves the use of a precision machine that allowed Kim Shang to target radiation at only the ventricular regions instead of covering the whole brain. This lasted six weeks, and was followed by another two cycles of chemotherapy.
“We had a hard time making Vanessa comfortable wearing the mask,” mother Melinda said of the time the young girl was undergoing TomoTherapy. “But the nurses at the radiation department were great, “ said Kim Shang.”
Six months later, Vanessa completed her treatment. By this time, her body weight had risen to 28 kg. “We told ourselves that finally we could see hope,” said the mother.
What had helped their daughter through the ordeal, Melinda added, was the constant presence of her “angels.” These were CanHOPE counsellors, Nellie and Dianah, who were among the first PCC staff to receive the family when they first arrived at the hospital.
“Because of our PCC angels, Joey Tan and James Tan, and all of the doctors, our journey was manageable,” said Melinda. “They helped us a lot—physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally.”
In March 2015, Vanessa celebrated her 18th birthday. Watching her was Lee, who had travelled to the Philippines to join in a very special party for her. According to her mother, the teenager is doing well. She can now eat everything, and she has the energy to pursue her hobby of cooking.
While children who suffer from brain tumor will have to deal with several complications, they have a good chance of cure, said Lee.
In Vanessa’s case, the brain germinoma had eaten into parts of her brain that secreted hormones, which means that she needs hormone replacement to keep her body growing and functioning well. Such hormonal problems affect up to a third of brain cancer survivors. Some children also face learning disabilities.
But Lee stressed: “This does not mean that children affected by brain tumor can’t lead normal lives. One of my ex-patients with brain cancer is now practicing medicine as a doctor.”
Melinda said: “Cancer is not a death sentence. If treated properly and by the grace of God, a cancer patient can be well again and enjoy normal life.”
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