[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth Christmas in as many years we have written about Georgia Halliwell-Paget, a 6-year-old girl now living in the U.K. She received proton beam treatments during Christmas 2012.]
An enormous stuffed snow leopard, a gift from Father Christmas last year, reclines nobly at the foot of Georgia Halliwell-Paget’s bed. The cuddly beast is one of many protectors of the slight 6-year-old girl with the buoyant smile, who is reveling in her cancer-free life in Britain’s Shropshire County.
This Christmas, Georgia is wishing for a stuffed giraffe she spied at the local department store. Not surprisingly, it’s as colossal as the snow leopard and, if Father Christmas is so inclined, will tower over Georgia’s tiny frame.
But Georgia finds comfort in that disparity, just as she does in hanging around with Big Jemima and other girls twice her age — and height — from her brother AJ’s sixth-year class.
“Georgia tends to gravitate to the older children,” says her dad, Nick Paget. “She is physically so small, people just want to look after her. Everywhere she goes, she gets so much attention. She just oozes cuteness.”
With her long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and adorned with a pink hairband, Georgia is as chatty and silly and fun-loving as any 6-year-old girl.
“At her birthday last June, we had all of her classmates come over, and everyone had so much fun,” recalls Nick. “And parents would comment that they never would have guessed Georgia had ever had cancer.”
At just over a meter tall, Georgia remains the smallest child in her classroom. “She certainly doesn’t look 6 and a half,” Nick says. “She maybe looks closer to 4 or 5.”
Nick and his wife, Becca Halliwell, believe Georgia’s diminutive height is a result of two factors: genes — her Filipino birth parents were small in stature in comparison to British Caucasians — and the proton beams that had irradiated her aggressive Ewing’s sarcoma.
“They had no choice but to radiate [Georgia’s lower spine]” because the tumor was attached there, writes Becca. But, she maintains using protons was absolutely the right thing to do.
Georgia’s “forever parents” hope the use of targeted proton beams ensured little or no spillover radiation to her bladder, bowels, liver or uterus. Harm to those organs by conventional radiation would have dramatically impaired Georgia’s quality of life far beyond her “disorganized spine” and the asymmetrical growth of her legs that doctors from England’s National Health Service (NHS) had identified in 2014.
Georgia’s right leg is a centimeter and a half shorter than her left; her right foot is a full size smaller than her left. Special shoes newly fitted by her NHS orthopedist are helping Georgia accommodate the imbalance fairly well. Still, years without the benefit of her special shoes cause Georgia to favor her left leg, impeding proper muscle development in her right.
Nick praised the simple pragmatism of a physiotherapist they had recently consulted who requested that Nick and Becca video Georgia doing everyday things such as getting in and out of bed or walking up and down stairs. “The videos clearly showed Georgia overcompensating with her left leg,” Nick remembers. “We didn’t realize the extent to which it was happening. It’s highlighted the things Georgia needs to focus on.”
The physiotherapist has suggested 10 different exercises for Georgia to do as part of a treatment plan. Focused activities will help her regain muscle strength in her right leg and promote a more normal gait.
Georgia’s cancer treatments began in the Philippines where Becca and Nick had lived and worked. And where they had adopted AJ and Georgia. In 2012 and 2013, doctors at St. Luke’s Medical Center deployed a treatment plan involving several therapies to attack Georgia’s cancer. Injections of P-53 gene therapy were made directly into Georgia’s pelvic and spinal tumors.
The pain Georgia endured was intense. Becca and Nick were beside themselves with helplessness. But the injections successfully reduced the cancerous mass by 70 percent.
In November 2012, AJ, Becca, Nick and Georgia moved to Seoul, Korea, for two months so Georgia could receive proton therapy at the National Cancer Center and chemotherapy at Severance Hospital. Upon their return to Manila, chemotherapy and more P-53 injections followed. Georgia’s treatments ended in June 2013.
“We were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for Georgia’s initial cancer treatment,” says Nick. “And now we’re in the right place at the right time for maintenance treatment. We can’t fault the NHS for anything, really.”
Since the family’s move back to the U.K. in June 2014, Georgia and Becca have traveled by train every three months to Birmingham Children’s Hospital for an MRI scan of Georgia. “All those, so far, have been clear,” Nick says with tremendous relief in his voice. “There’s no sign of cancer cells.”
Georgia’s MRIs will continue to be conducted every three months until June 2016. Then MRIs will be done every four months.
Until September 2015, every MRI had been under general anesthesia. In fact, “She’s had 85 general anesthetics since she got sick more than three years ago,” Nick says. But on that September day, Nick accompanied Georgia to Birmingham. There, he was surprised to learn the health care staff had overlooked scheduling an anesthesiologist.
“So, this time, they decided to go without anesthesia,” says Nick. “And she was absolutely fabulous. She didn’t move at all for 50 minutes total. And she was able to leave straightaway. There was no recovery period. No feeling groggy. Now, it’s great she’ll no longer have to have anesthesia.
“And afterwards, we stopped at a TGI Friday’s and had a daddy-daughter lunch,” he says. “And she loved it. Just like any other 6-year-old girl.”