NSW girl, 11, had her ovaries harvested after mum mistook cancer symptoms for a stomach ache

When Kristie’s daughter Bridgette vomited at a sleepover and had to come home, she put it down to the 11-year-old having eaten too many lollies.

The mum-of-three had no clue that just weeks later her little girl would be heading into surgery to harvest her ovaries before undergoing 14 months of radiation and chemotherapy.

“You’re not even thinking about having children at 11, but she had to make the decision of whether we harvest her ovaries or not,” Kristie tells 9Honey.

It all started with a bout of vomiting at a sleepover, followed by Bridgette complaining of headaches in the morning before school.

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Kristie poses with her eldest daughter Bridgette.
Kristie poses with her eldest daughter Bridgette. (Supplied)

She vomited again but never had a fever or any other concerning symptoms, so Kristie assumed it wasn’t anything serious. Her GP suggested Bridgette undergo an MRI to be sure nothing was missed.

“She didn’t need to take a panadol or anything like that. I wasn’t too concerned,” she admits.

“I thought maybe she needs glasses, that’s why she’s vomiting. She’s been spending too much time on her iPad.”

When Bridgette told her mum she was seeing double while looking at a horse in a distant paddock, it seemed like Kristie’s suspicions had been confirmed.

Assuming there was no harm in getting her daughter’s eyes checked, Kristie took Bridgette in the day before her MRI was scheduled.

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The optometrist took one glance in the little girl’s eyes, then told her mum: “She’s got severe swelling in both her optic optic nerves. You need to get her to hospital now.”

Worried, Kristie called her GP who told her to wait for the MRI the following day for more information.

Less than 24 hours later, an MRI technician turned to Kristie and said, “there’s something there and it’s big”.

She was told to go home and pack a bag, then head straight to Wollongong Hospital, where Bridgette was transferred to Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick for more thorough tests.

“The pediatrician in the ER pulled me aside and said, ‘it’s with a heavy heart that I tell you your daughter has cancer’. She was 11,” Kristie recalls, her voice breaking.

Neurologists told her they would have to operate on Bridgette as soon as possible to remove the golf ball-sized tumor, so they could identify the cancer and figure out how serious it was.

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Bridgette had long brown hair before undergoing cancer treatment.
Bridgette had long brown hair before undergoing cancer treatment. (Supplied)

Within days of being admitted, Bridgette was wheeled into her first brain surgery.

Fortunately, surgeons were able to remove most of the tumor and 10 days later the family was called in to learn what the biopsy had uncovered.

“When you walk into a room full of people, you know it’s not good news. Still, I didn’t expect the news that we got,” Kristie says through tears.

Bridgette had a rare and aggressive brain cancer called an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor (ATRT), which can come on very suddenly.

Hers was a grade four, meaning it was malignant (cancerous) and fast-growing, but highly uncommon in a child her age.

“You can’t even put into words how it felt. My husband couldn’t talk,” Kristie says.

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Bridgette’s treatment, which would involve more than a year of chemotherapy and radiation on her brain and spine to kill the cancer, would need to start immediately.

Just 12 at the time, Bridgette had yet to go through puberty and the treatment would affect her fertility, so she had to decide if she would have her ovaries surgically harvested before it began.

“One of the first things she had to do was harvest her ovaries to freeze them so that if she wants to have children when she’s older, she can do IVF,” Kristie reveals.

Although Bridgette’s two younger sisters could potentially donate eggs one day, the youngster was determined that she’d have her own biological children.

“She was just like, ‘no, I’m not having my sister’s babies – I’ll have my own’,” Kristie says with a sad laugh. “She made that decision to have another surgery.”

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Bridgette with her team in hospital.
Bridgette with her team in hospital. (Supplied)

While Bridgette was making decisions about her reproductive health, Kristie and her husband were told they’d have to relocate from Dapto to Sydney for the first five months of their daughter’s treatment.

It was a terrifying prospect financially and emotionally. Could they afford the cost of accommodation in Australia’s most expensive city? Would they have to split the family up?

“Trying to pay a mortgage on top of accommodations long term, then you’ve got parking and eating out… financially it would’ve crippled us,” Kristie admits.

Fortunately, they were able to secure a family room with Ronald McDonald House, staying together for free during the first half of Bridgette’s treatment.

The 11-year-old was a trooper all through chemotherapy and radiation, even when her treatment was extended by several months while she recovered from side-effects.

After five months of weekly treatment in Sydney, the family was able to return home to Dapto and Bridgette only had to stay in Randwick once every three weeks for treatment.

Bridgette in hospital during her brain cancer treatment.
Bridgette in hospital during her brain cancer treatment. (Supplied)

After 60 grueling weeks – almost 14 months – the chemotherapy and radiation was finally finished, but her cancer journey is far from over.

Four months after Bridgette’s last treatment, the 13-year-old’s scans have all come back clear so far, but the last year has taken a huge toll on her body.

“She was in a wheelchair for the whole of her treatment and was NG (nasogastric) tube fed pretty much the whole time,” says Kristie, and the hair loss was traumatic too.

“Having an NG tube makes people stare at you and for a teenage girl, it’s not very pleasant.”

Bridgette will need to relearn how to walk after the muscles in her legs atrophied and months of invasive treatments have left her with panic attacks and an intense phobia of needles.

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Although Kristie has no doubt her daughter will improve with support from counselors and psychologists provided by Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation and Canteen, she fears the trauma will linger for years.

“Being young, she will recover. But I do imagine that it will have some sort of effect as she gets older,” she says.

For now, the family is focused on getting through the next four years, which will be a “critical” period as it is when a relapse is most likely to occur.

“We just have to cross that bridge when we come to it and it’s not something that you want to think about, but you have to prepare yourself,” Kristie says.

Bridgette will require regular check-ups, including a monthly MRI for the first two years, then one every six months before transitioning to once a year.

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Bridgette smiles at the camera after losing her hair to chemotherapy and radiation.
Bridgette smiles at the camera after losing her hair to chemotherapy and radiation. (Supplied)

She’ll have to remain vigilant for the rest of her life and more side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, which have already affected her kidney function, may emerge in the future.

Kristie is hopeful that with more research, no mother or child will ever have to experience what she and Bridgette have in the last two years.

That’s why the family are getting behind the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation to raise vital funds for in support of oncology clinical trials at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick.

“I think our experience would’ve been a lot different if we had gone to another hospital. The compassion, the hard work, the nurses and doctor team was amazing,” she says.

Sydney Markets Foundation held its 41st annual Cherry Auction on November 19, which helped raise $80,000 in support of Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation. You can donate here.

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