Weeks, not months — that was the daunting life expectancy given to Alesha Begovich when she was told her 7-year-old son had stage 3 cancer.
The only hope for Latham, her active, outdoorsy eldest child, was immediate, intense rounds of chemotherapy at Auckland's Starship hospital, 160km away from the family's Matamata home.
Begovich and her husband, Hayden, also had a preschooler, owned two businesses and had the support of extended family in their small south Waikato town.
There was no question that Latham, now 8, would go to Starship, where he would receive the equivalent of a year's worth of chemotherapy in just three months for the aggressive and fast-growing Burkitt's lymphoma.
But his mum, dad and, at times, other family members, would have a bed at Ronald McDonald House, which supports families when their child is in a hospital away from home.
Begovich is sharing her family's story to support the charity's Family Appeal week beginning Friday, which is aiming to raise $320,000 to keep helping families such as her's, who were among more than 4300 provided with free accommodation and support last year.
The mum-of-three, who would find out she was expecting 3-month-old Willow two weeks after Latham's diagnosis, was in Ronald McDonald house a day after the cancer was detected.
"Without chemo we were told [Latham had] weeks, not months. It's the most aggressive cancer — with Burkitt's the tumours can double in size in 24 hours."
Latham began chemotherapy within 24 hours of being diagnosed, just as his family secured a room at Ronald McDonald House.
"In fact, the only reason they let us go home for 24 hours was there were no rooms free [immediately] at Ronald McDonald House. It's sad there's so many families are in need."
The three months of Latham's treatment were tough for all — Begovich put her business on hold while her husband juggled his with time between Matamata and Auckland. Their eldest daughter, 4-year-old Eden, sometimes had to stay with family.
"She would ring and say 'When are you coming home from holiday?'. She thought we'd gone on holiday without her. It was heartbreaking."
But having a space to retreat to and the support of the charity, from offers to buy needed groceries, an on-site visit from a hairdresser, visiting celebrities, volunteer-cooked meals and "distraction therapy" activities for sick kids and their siblings, eased the burden.
"It's all these little things that just take the pressure off so you can focus on what you need to, which is getting your child well. I'd donated small amounts in the past, but I never knew the extent of what they did."
Latham's grandparents were also sometimes able to stay and support Begovich when she was in Auckland alone.
"[If there was no Ronald McDonald House] I would've been up there by myself most of the time. I don't know how I would've coped. It makes me emotional just thinking about it."
Over the three months, members of the Begovich family spent 64 nights in Ronald McDonald House, she said.
Latham finished treatment in August last year but must have regular checks and scans, although these can be done closer to home, at Waikato Hospital.
The first two years after treatment are considered the highest risk for relapse, but "so far everything's looking great", Begovich said.
Latham, who is back at school, had been a trooper throughout his treatment and the three bouts of pneumonia he suffered since, she said.
"He just got on with it. There were hard times, but we had a lot of laughter and a lot of fun too."
• How to help Ronald McDonald House Charities' Family Appeal: Text FORT to 4483 to donate $3 or visit www.rmhc.org.nz/donate
What is Burkitt's lymphoma?*
Burkitt's lymphoma is a sub-type of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which is a cancer that originates in the lymphatic system, the body's disease-fighting network.
Many subtypes of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma exist. Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is among the most common.
B cells fight infection by producing antibodies that neutralise foreign invaders.
Symptoms of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma may include:
- Painless, swollen lymph nodes in your neck, armpits or groin
- Abdominal pain or swelling
- Chest pain, coughing or trouble breathing
- Persistent fatigue
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
* Source: Mayo Clinic