Patrice Dougan is the Herald's education reporter.

Auckland toddler Chelsey Cheng diagnosed with rare, aggressive form of cancer after daycare spotted lump

A 2-year-old Auckland girl has been diagnosed with a rare aggressive form of cancer after her daycare spotted a lump on her neck.

Chelsey Cheng, who turns 3 on Boxing Day, will spend the next two months undergoing intensive chemotherapy treatment after being diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer in which malignant cells form in muscle tissue.

She has been given a 20 per cent chance of seeing her fifth birthday, but mum Michelle says her girl is a fighter.

"Our whole family is fighting for that 20 per cent. We think she's a strong girl ... We really hope," the 32-year-old daycare worker said, giving her daughter a kiss.

It's been a whirlwind six weeks for Michelle, Chelsey and her brother Dallas, 5, after teachers at Angels Daycare in New Lynn spotted the lump on the right side of her neck and took her to the doctor.

There had been no indication she was so seriously ill, head teacher Amanda Langton said.

Chelsey had been "clingy" and not herself for about a week. Then one day she woke from her afternoon nap and there was a lump on her neck.

Michelle said her daughter had been complaining of an itchy shoulder for a little while, and had started to wake in the night. But she didn't think it was anything serious.

After the lump was discovered, medical staff were initially unsure of what it was, giving her antibiotics, then it was suggested it could be the mumps.

But when the lump grew larger, causing Chelsey pain and affecting her right arm, Michelle went back for a second opinion and was referred to the specialists at Starship children's hospital.

"Straight [away] the specialist and her boss saw it and they said, 'it's cancer'," Michelle said.

It hit her like a crash, she said. But worse was to come.

After X-rays, a CT scan, an MRI and a biopsy, she was told it was stage-four cancer, and it had already spread into little Chelsey's bones - in her spine, her legs and arms.

She was taken to surgery in the adult hospital, to remove a 2cm part of her spine at the back of her neck, where the cancer had grown so large it was beginning to restrict her blood vessels.

Then the doctor broke the "very bad news".

An X-ray supplied by Starship hospital showing the tumour on Chelsey's neck.
An X-ray supplied by Starship hospital showing the tumour on Chelsey's neck.

Chelsey had alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, the rarer, and faster-growing type, more commonly found in older children and teenagers.

"At that point I don't know what to say ... I was trying to be strong at the time, but later on in the night I was just crying by myself on the bed," Michelle said.

"I can't believe she only has less than 20 per cent chance for two years survival. She's just 2.

"I can't imagine later on what's going to be. It's just too hard, really hard."

Chelsey is now in her fourth week of chemo - visiting Starship every day this week. She's happy and positive most of the time, but scared of the needles.

Her hair has started falling out, and she gets frustrated that she can't go outside and play as much as she wants. But the lump on her neck has dramatically reduced in size.

What was a lump the size of Chelsey's fist, grew to "a huge one" by the time she went into Starship, Michelle said, but now it's barely noticeable.

Even if she beats the odds, Michelle has been warned the radiation treatment will have detrimental side effects for Chelsey, including possible damage to her neck, throat and vocal cords.

"I [said to] the doctor, if she can stay for that long I don't mind, at least she can survive," Michelle said.

"I just really hope she can go through all her treatment and have some amazing thing happen to her."

Michelle has had to give up work to look after Chelsey as she faces a daunting 12 weeks chemo, before possible surgery and weeks of radiation. She's expected to undergo 43 weeks of treatment in total.

Michelle's colleagues at Angels Daycare have rallied to her side, visiting them in hospital and at home, bringing presents and food parcels. Last week they organised a charity auction and have set up a givealittle page, raising almost $11,000.

The staff and other parents at Angels Daycare were "quite heartbroken" by the news Langton said, and wanted to "join together" to be there for Michelle, and lighten the financial load on the solo mother of two, who also supports her parents.

The support had been overwhelming, Michelle said, as she was kept in the dark about the fundraising.

"I don't know what to say, but I feel really nice and warm in my heart, and I feel thanks to them because without their support I don't know what's going on."

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CHILDHOOD RHABDOMYOSARCOMA:
• It is a an aggressive type of cancer which is found in soft tissue like muscle, connective tissue like tendons or cartilage, or bone.
• It is a relatively rare cancer, but the most common soft tissue cancer found in children.
• Rhabdomyosarcoma accounts for 5-8 per cent of childhood cancers in NZ.
• There are three types of rhabdomyosarcoma - embryonal (the most common type, and more often found in young children), alveolar (more commonly found in teenagers) and anaplastic (rarely found in children).
• Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma is rarer, and tends to grow faster than embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma and usually requires more intense treatment.
• It is most commonly found in the trunk, arms or legs.
• Only 25 per cent of people diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma will have Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.

- NZ Herald

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