Siblings struck by same cancer close to getting all-clear from doctors
After the double blow that two of their children had been diagnosed with the same cancer, a courageous Rotorua family hopes they have now beaten the disease.
In an extremely rare case, the two siblings - Kimberly and Josh McMillan - were hit by the same form of cancer, despite it not being genetic.
But doctors have now cleared Kimberly, 18, while her younger brother Josh, 15, is halfway through a five-year clearance period.
The family are pinning their hopes on both being free of acute lymphoblastic leukemia - the most common form of leukemia in children - by the end of 2016.
Anne-Marie McMillan was enjoying time with Kimberly after she had completed a gruelling two-and-a-half years' treatment for leukemia when she learned Josh had been struck with the same strand.
Kimberly was just 6 when she woke up one day in 2003 screaming that her arms and legs were aching.
Doctors initially put it down to growing pains but blood tests were taken the next day when she was still in agony. That same afternoon Mrs McMillan and her husband Glen were told that their daughter had cancer.
"It was pretty devastating. Pretty much your whole world turns upside down," said Mrs McMillan.
Kimberly spent three months in Auckland's Starship Hospital and had a year off school while she underwent the most intensive therapy. They spent 2 years travelling to Starship once a week for treatment.
Mrs McMillan still has a vivid memory of Kimberly weeping when clumps of her hair started to fall out and how their two other children's lives - Josh, then 4, and Natasha then 3 - changed. The family could no longer enjoy a simple trip to the mall or the movies as they had to avoid germs because of her weak immune system. If they dared venture out they would have to convince her to wear a mask or sneak it out while the lights were out at a movie cinema.
So when Kimberly's treatment - which included regular operations for bone marrow samples and oral and intravenous chemotherapy treatment - ended in 2005, family life for the McMillans returned to normal.
But less than three years on, while Kimberly was still in remission, their son Josh was diagnosed with the same strand of leukemia as his sister - but his was deemed more high-risk.
"Going through it once was hard enough, but going through it twice ... It was just devastating," Mrs McMillan said.
Josh had to undergo longer chemo treatment because boys have a higher rate of relapse. He was also deemed to have a deformed chromosome, potentially increasing the risk.
A long-term side-effect of the chemotherapy is that Josh has splenomeglay - an enlarged spleen - which attacks his platelets so his blood does not clot well and he bruises easily. He said it was hard being sick and putting up with banter from his peers at intermediate. For the rest of his life he will have to avoid contact sport and avoid getting cut.
During both children's treatments, Mr McMillan, a maintenance planner, and Mrs McMillan, an early childhood teacher, remained in full-time work with the support of their employers and their own parents who stayed at home with the children and visited them in hospital.
Josh said seeing his sister survive made him determined to conquer his illness, while Kimberly remembered being in denial when her little brother was first diagnosed because she did not want him to suffer like she did.
Josh is now in Year 11 at Western Heights High School and Kimberly is in her first year of nursing at Waiariki Institute of Technology. Both said that while their memories of the treatments are hazy, they cherished the time they spent at camps run by Camp Quality - a not-for-profit organisation that runs free camps and events for children aged 5 to 16 living with cancer.