13-Year-Old Gemma Relapses After A Year of Being Cancer-Free

At the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, we see countless families experience hardships and trauma daily. For the Mills family, 2016 was not only the year they experienced adversity, it was also when their lives changed forever. After months of being sick and undergoing various tests, 9-year-old Gemma went for one more blood test on 28 December 2016. This is when she was diagnosed with Leukemia (a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow). The diagnosis created an emotional roller coaster for Gemma’s family, “It was a shock, I was horrified, I didn’t expect that would be the outcome,” says Deolinda, Gemma’s mom.

At the age of 10, Gemma had to endure her first unbearable treatment and protocol, which consisted of six months of intense day-to-day chemotherapy, masses of pills, and multiple injections. After undergoing six months of chemotherapy (a cancer drug treatment that uses powerful chemicals to kill fast-growing cancer cells in the body), she then went through two years of maintenance which consisted of more pills and lumbar punctures (a needle is inserted between two vertebrae to remove a sample of spinal fluid).

Gemma continued all these months of maintenance as an outpatient at the Oncology Unit at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. All this while still attending Springfield Convent School in Wynberg, Cape Town as a grade five pupil. Her family was her strongest support structure, and they were relieved when she went into full remission in early 2019.

However, amidst facing a global pandemic, the Mills family was hit with another obstacle in April 2020, when they received the news that Gemma had relapsed (when cancer returns after a disease-free period). “Right from the start, our mental attitude was key in coping with the news that Gemma had relapsed with Leukemia again. I calmly and positively told Gemma that we are going to cruise this time,” says Martyn, Gemma’s dad. Amongst the devastation, Gemma’s family had various ways of coping and staying positive, “On a chalkboard in our kitchen, I wrote at the top of the board START and on the bottom of the board FINISH. At the bottom of the chalkboard, I wrote Gemma’s, and my goal after this was all over. This was kind of a reward for getting through it all. Gemma wrote Disney World in Florida and I wrote a Walkabout in Australia. On the bad days, I remind Gemma and myself of what is waiting for us; it is our motivation and desire to continue to focus on the best outcome. It’s our final destination,” explains Martyn.

Gemma and her family were informed that she needed a life-saving bone marrow transplant and that a sibling match was her best chance of survival, yet, there was a 25% chance of a sibling match, so the next option was to look for a match on the International Bone Marrow Registry.

On 18 June 2020, Gemma and her family got great news – that her sister Kaelyn was an identical match for the transplant. “When I got told that my sister was a match, I was happy and surprised. God has things all planned out,” says Gemma.

Dealing with the impact of COVID-19, Gemma has taken extra precautions to stay healthy and live an ordinary life at home. She ventures outside with a facemask and Perspex visors on but due to lockdown regulations, she is currently not attending school. Nonetheless, when the weather is appropriate, she goes for short walks with her family around the neighborhood. Despite all the challenges they face, Gemma and her family remain hopeful throughout and foresee a positive outcome in her journey.

When asked if Gemma had any encouraging words for children living with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said, “At the moment everything that is happening in the world is scary and it’s okay for children to be fearful but they must trust in themselves and believe that their bodies immune system will be strong enough to fight it off, especially with the modern medicines available and the Hospital facilities that are in place to deal with this. Also, take comfort in your parents’ words that everything will be fine; trust and believe in them.”

“The Doctors, sisters, and nurses do an amazing job in the G1 Oncology Ward at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and are supported by a dedicated team of individuals in hospital management who work efficiently behind the scenes, making sure everything works and is in place” says Martyn.

“We know she is in safe hands at Red Cross”, he adds.

Gemma and her family have witnessed and benefited from the recent upgrades done to the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital’s Oncology Unit, improvements made possible by the generous contributions from kind donors.

“The new Oncology Unit looks bright, cheerful, and child friendly – inside the entrance to G1 are the plaques of all the people, companies, and organizations who have donated funds, it’s good to see that they care. The “Walk of Fame” in the outside corridor has all of the doctors, nurses, and admin staff who help make the Oncology ward a success – that’s interesting to see,” says Martyn, Gemma’s dad.


Tell us: What do you think about Gemma’s story?