An inspirational girl from Derry, who has survived cancer was surprised by an off-duty visit from Santa at an extraordinary party to celebrate the courage of children and young people diagnosed with cancer.
Ten year old Brooke McClafferty was a guest of honour at the Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens Star Awards party, supported by TK Maxx.
The magical winter wonderland themed party was held at Santa’s ‘summer home’ in central London. It gave children and their families - some of whom have missed out on festive celebrations in the past due to cancer treatment - a memorable experience together.
Brooke enjoyed taking part in a variety of winter themed games, arts and craft activities, including making glitter baubles in an elf’s workshop.
She was also given the exciting opportunity to spend time with Santa in his grotto, where she received an early present from the man himself and met other characters from the North Pole.
21 children and young people from across the UK, who have been affected by cancer, joined Brooke for the fun-filled day which also saw a performance by the hugely popular children’s TV presenter Mister Maker.
They all received a special award to recognise their strength.
At just 10 years old, Brooke has spent most of her life in hospital.
When she was just seven weeks old, Brooke was diagnosed with an extremely rare type of cancer called retinoblastoma and it was a series of remarkable coincidences that led to this diagnosis.
Mum Elaine, 42, said: “It doesn’t even bear thinking about where we might be today or how things could have turned.”
Elaine and her husband, 41 year old Seamus, had just welcomed their third child into the world, but within a matter of weeks they had noticed something unusual in her eye.
However, they didn’t give it much thought until Seamus happened to come across a newspaper article on a youngster in America who had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma.
“It was all about a little girl in Florida, called Rowan, whose mum had become friends with a lady in Manchester through social media,” explained Elaine.
“When Rowan’s mum sent a photo of her to the lady in Manchester, she noticed something strange in her eye and knew it was a sign of retinoblastoma, so she immediately advised her to have it checked out.
“It turned out Rowan did have retinoblastoma. For some reason this story caught Seamus’ eye and, as we had noticed something similar with Brooke, we made an appointment with our GP.”
Within 48 hours, Brooke was referred to Altnagelvin Hospital and diagnosed with retinoblastoma in both eyes.
“It was such a shock,” said Elaine, who is also mum to 23 year old Jade and 18 year old Cianan.
The following day, Elaine and Sean travelled to Dublin with Brooke, where they were told she would need chemotherapy.
Brooke began her treatment in Belfast, while also making regular visits to Dublin.
“This was really difficult,” recalls Elaine “as we felt we had to be there for Brooke, but that meant we had to leave Jade and Cianan with family.”
Unfortunately the chemotherapy had no effect and a decision was made for Brooke to undergo laser treatment and more chemotherapy.
They travelled to Dublin every fortnight for Brooke’s consultant to carry out laser treatment on her tumours whilst also attending regular hospital appointments in Belfast and it was at this time that doctors delivered the devastating news that they wanted to remove Brooke’s right eye.
“They said there was a risk that the tumours could spread backwards into her brain,” said Elaine
“We were devastated, but we knew there was really no alternative, so the operation went ahead even though she was just two years old.
“It was horrific, something we found very difficult to talk about. In fact, it is only now we can really talk about what happened.”
The second bout of chemotherapy was much stronger than the first and Brooke was very sick and lost all her hair. She also had to be tube fed and every night her mum and dad had to make sure the tube was in the right position and not in her lungs.
“This was added stress,” Elaine explained “as she was fed overnight and you would be lying in bed worrying in case the tube would move and go into her lungs. It was a real struggle for us.
“Brooke’s left eye has been badly damaged by the laser treatment, and as she only has peripheral vision, she is actually registered blind.
“She is getting to the age now where she is starting to ask questions about cancer and what it does, so we try to manage that as best we can.
“But overall, it is Brooke who has kept us going. She really is our hero. Her strength has given us the strength we needed to get us through this.
“I had no idea that a baby can be born with cancer, so we want other people to be aware of the symptoms of retinoblastoma and the fact it can affect new born babies.”
During Brooke’s treatment Elaine managed to track down the mum of the little girl in America using Facebook. Seamus and Elaine decided to arrange the holiday of a lifetime to America and meet with the family whose story helped to save Brooke’s life.
“It really was incredible to see the two girls together,” continued Elaine.
“Brooke has been through so much and she still hates going to hospital. Thankfully her visits over the last two years have been fewer and we are finally getting a bit of routine back.
“It is all about building her confidence now. When we are out of the house she will hold on to us, but we want her to realise there is nothing she can’t do.
“After everything she has been through, this is her time to shine.
“Brooke had an amazing time at the party,” said Elaine, “in fact we all did. She had so much fun especially when Mr. Marker got her dad on stage as part of his act and made him be a circle. She thought it was hilarious.
She was also delighted to Meet Hannah, an amazing young lady who had retinoblastoma as a child and now works in Parliament as a researcher for an MP and invited us along to see inside parliament. That was an extra treat for us as Brooke was also celebrating her birthday that day. Hannah is eager to keep in contact with Brooke, which will really boost her confidence.”
The Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens Star Awards celebrate the courage of all children and young people in the UK who have been diagnosed with cancer. Every child and young person nominated receives a trophy, a t-shirt, a certificate signed by celebrities and a £50 TK Maxx voucher.
Jean Walsh, Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens spokesperson for Northern Ireland said: “It is an absolute honour to be able to recognise the strength of youngsters like Brooke who have been through so much at such a young age. She is a real ‘star’.
“Cancer can have a devastating impact on children and young people, so it was a joy to see Brooke’s smile light up as she met Santa and took part in our winter wonderland themed party. And there was more celebration to come as Brooke celebrated her birthday the day after the party.
“It was a pleasure to meet Brooke and her family – we hope they’ve had a fantastic day creating special memories together!”
The vast majority of children diagnosed with an eye cancer called retinoblastoma now survive. Our research has been at the heart of this success, as we developed a test for a faulty gene for children with a family history of the disease, meaning they get early treatment when it’s more likely to be successful.
“Every year, around 60 children are diagnosed with cancer in Northern Ireland* (age group 0 – 14). Our mission is to help save the lives of more youngsters and reduce the long-term side effects they may experience, by finding new, better and kinder treatments.
Cancer Research UK’s research has helped transform survival for children’s cancers. In the UK in the early 1970s, 4 in 10 children with cancer survived for at least five years. Today, that’s more than 8 in 10.**
The Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Belfast is one of the many centres across the UK taking part in ground-breaking clinical trials coordinated by Cancer Research UK’s Children’s Cancer Trials Team. These trials make innovative new treatments available to children with cancer in Belfast.
However, there is still more to be done to bring forward the day when every child survives cancer and does so with a good quality of life.
TK Maxx’s support of the Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens Star Awards is part of a year-round fundraising partnership including its clothing collection campaign, Give Up Clothes for Good, which takes place again this September helping to raise vital funds to help beat children’s and young people’s cancers.
Since 2004, the retailer has raised over £32 million to support Cancer Research UK’s work into children’s cancers.
For more information about the Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens Star Awards or to nominate a star, visit cruk.org/kidsandteens