Georgia Halliwell-Paget’s wish from Santa this year is like that of any other 4-year-old girl. A Barbie doll. More specifically, a purple Barbie with wings.
“And a pink train and red yo-yo,” adds her dad, Nick. “She’s really into pinks and purples. She’s a real girly girl.”
Nick and Becca, his spouse, are ecstatic. Georgia is back to being a bouncy little girl. Fun, happy and “full of life,” he says. “Full of beans,” Becca says.
It was so different just one year ago. Then, all Georgia wanted from Santa was for her owie to go away.
Christmas was not at their tropical Manila home. It was spent 1,600 miles away in snowy Seoul, Korea. Georgia was nearing the end of her 33 rounds of proton treatments at the National Cancer Center to combat tumors on her spine and pelvis. Her treatments were funded by the generosity of her schoolmates, friends, family — and strangers.
“She’s made remarkable progress,” says Nick. “The actual owie is gone in terms of the pain she was in. The tumor’s physically there on her spine. But it’s metabolically inactive. The pelvic tumor was irradiated completely.”
There’s a 50 percent chance the cancer may return, Nick notes cautiously, and he and Becca can’t become complacent. They’ve already had two scares.
The first occurred in June 2013. Georgia was beginning another course of P53 gene therapy “as a proactive measure,” Nick remembers. “Six rounds of direct injections into the tumor. But she had a really bad reaction after the first treatment. High fever. Bad headaches. She wasn’t eating. She was very dehydrated. She was pretty lifeless for a while.”
P53 gene therapy had played a key role in Georgia’s cancer care. It had been administered in advance of the proton beam treatments, shrinking the size of the pelvic tumor. But this time, Becca and Nick started to second-guess themselves about more gene therapy. “Should we have gone down that road?” Nick says.
But Georgia’s strength returned in about 10 days, and Becca and Nick agreed with doctors that two vials of P53 gene therapy could be given intravenously. She tolerated the medication, but they knew direct injections in the tumor were preferred. So, the last four treatments were direct injections guided by CT scans. And Georgia endured with few harsh side effects.
The second scare was in November. “Georgia had a nasty viral infection,” says Nick. “The symptoms were very similar to what it was like in the beginning when she was first diagnosed. A severe fever. Pain in the legs. She lost a kilo in weight over five days. But she’s recovered and is back up to 12.4 kilos” [about 27 pounds].
Despite those two bouts, Georgia has gone on living her life with gusto. She traveled to the UK and Greece with her brother, AJ, and her parents the week after her final P53 injection.
“She was a flower girl at my sister’s wedding in Greece,” Nick recalls. “She looked absolutely beautiful. She was the only flower girl with no hair. She wore a special sparkly, glittery headband.”
Nick pauses and adds, “It was an incredibly emotional time with all of our family together. Nobody expected we would see that day.”
Georgia will never look back and be hurt or resentful about the 18 months her illness prevented her from being a normal little girl, Nick predicts. “She’s so full of life. She’s going to nursery. And learning ballet. And having play dates. And that’s normal life for her now.
“When I think back to April 2012, when Georgia was sleeping for 10 minutes at a time,” Nick continues. “She was screaming in pain. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t walk. And when I look at where she is now. There is no comparison.”
Nick says he and Becca “are just incredibly relieved to see Georgia enjoying life so much and not having to spend all her time in hospital. She is a bouncy, fun-loving child who wakes up with a big smile on her face.”
To help Georgia stay healthy, she follows a strict nutrition program, he adds.
Nick and Becca realize that while one part of Georgia’s journey is over, the journey of keeping Georgia happy, healthy and cancer-free will continue for the rest of her life.