Five-year-old Mitch Head loves ninja turtles, LEGO and superheroes, in fact, when he’s at BC Children’s Hospital you’ll likely see him wearing a superhero t-shirt and hat, often alongside his big brother Nelson.
Today, Mitch snuggles into a bed at BC Children’s oncology clinic and smiles, proudly exposing his two missing baby teeth–a subtle reminder for any adult that he has been through much more than most kids his age. Mitch settles in for his two-hour treatment which includes chemotherapy, a vitals check and exam and blood work; it’s also a treatment that will leave him tired in the days ahead. This monthly ritual has become the norm for Mitch and his family since June 9, 2016 when Mitch was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Before his diagnosis, Mitch and Nelson spent their fair share of time at BC Children’s monitoring their hemophilia—a genetic disorder that impairs the body’s ability to clot blood; a process needed to stop wounds from bleeding. It was during routine blood work on June 1, 2016 that nurses noticed something different about Mitch’s results. Just over a week later, Mitch underwent a bone marrow test and that’s when parents Kathleen and Greg were told that their son had leukemia.
“We were in shock,” said Kathleen. “It was heartbreaking to be told your son has leukemia.”
Three days later, Mitch underwent his first round of chemo which also required a blood transfusion—the first of five transfusions he would have within one year.
“Before Mitch’s diagnosis we had no idea that blood transfusions and cancer treatment went hand-in-hand,” said Greg. “Cancer and chemo can consume healthy blood cells and blood transfusions help bring that healthy blood cell count back up. When red blood cell counts are low, kids like Mitch can become anemic; restoring these healthy cells helps Mitch feel better and recover faster from chemo.”
Within 28 days of his diagnosis, Kathleen and Greg received the news they were hoping for—Mitch’s cancer was in remission. However, with leukemia, relapse is a very real possibility throughout treatment. Mitch is now on a three-year treatment plan which includes daily oral chemo at home and monthly chemo treatment through an IV at BC Children’s. Every three months, Mitch undergoes a lumbar puncture to have chemo injected into the cerebral spinal fluid to stop leukemia from spreading into his central nervous system.
“Many people don’t realize how important blood transfusions are when it comes to cancer, they don’t think of it as something that fights diseases to save lives,” said Kathleen. “Mitch wouldn’t be alive without these transfusions—the people who’ve given blood have saved his life.”
The family's hope is that Mitch will remain in remission until his treatment plan is complete in 2019. As the five-year old gets ready to start kindergarten this fall, Kathleen and Greg hope that one day he will see himself as others see him—as one of those superheroes on his t-shirt.
• On average, it can take up to five blood donors to help one child undergoing cancer treatment and up to eight donors a week to help a child with leukemia.
• Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children ages 0 to 14 years, accounting for more than one third of all cases.
* Above statistics provided by Canadian Blood Services
National Blood Donor Week runs from June 11-17 and is a time to celebrate those who make a lifesaving difference for patients in need.