Two years after proton therapy, Christmas time enchants little girl

[Editor’s Note: This is our third Christmas story in as many years featuring Georgia Halliwell-Paget, a little girl from Manila, the Philippines, who was treated with proton therapy in Korea.]

It’s a few hours after school has let out in Shropshire County, England, and 5-year-old Georgia Halliwell-Paget is still dressed in her primary school uniform, a smart-looking, blue cardigan and white polo shirt.

She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor of her bright new bedroom singing Christmas carols softly to herself while tending to a pair of dolls. Georgia has learned the songs for the upcoming school Christmas play.

An enormous doll house, princess dolls and at least 100 teddy bears of all shapes and sizes sit atop nearly every surface of Georgia’s bedroom. All were acquired in Manila, the Philippines, over the nearly three years her teeny body had been fighting valiantly against tumors on her spine and pelvis, and where Georgia and her family had lived until Summer 2014.

Now, here in the largest of the second floor bedrooms in their West Midlands home, all these toys, posters and the glorious pink décor simply declare to the world: Girl’s Room!

“Yeah, she still is very much a girlie girl,” Georgia’s dad, Nick, says with a chuckle. “She does tend to like her dolls and princesses. She is doing all those normal things little girls do.  And she hasn’t had a haircut since she’s grown it back.”

During much of her life in Manila, and the three months in Seoul, Korea where Georgia was treated with protons at National Cancer Center, dolls and stuffed animals were a brief diversion from the awful pain and viral infections her body experienced during and after rounds of chemotherapy. And they were a diversion from the P53 gene therapy treatments injected into the tumor affixed to her spine.

Today, playing with her dolls, princesses and teddies is no longer a fleeting distraction from her disease. It’s a full-time thing. Georgia’s cancer has been gone for more than a year. And she’s pretty much relishing being a bouncy little girl. “So full of life,” Nick says. “Full of beans,” says her mom, Becca.

Still, there are reminders of the lingering effects of cancer and her treatments. “There’s a tendency for her right foot to go inwards a bit and they gave her a brace to walk with,” Nick says. “Here in the U.K., they are very thorough. They measured her feet and found her right foot is a whole size smaller than her left. And her left leg is a centimeter longer than the right leg.”

Georgia’s height and body weight are still way behind those of her peers, but she’s starting to catch up. “She’s the smallest in the school,” Nick says. But she’s gained more than 3 kilos (nearly 7 pounds) over the past year and she is growing taller.

More frequently than most kids, Georgia continues to be overwhelmed by nasty viral infections that give Becca and Nick a “frightful scare.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Nick says cautiously. “She will still get some pain. But it’s nothing like it was two years ago. But she takes it all in stride.”

Georgia just had her first MRI from the National Health Service at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. The results should arrive just after Christmas. The family’s Christmas wish is a simple one: that Georgia remains cancer-free.

For now, Georgia and 10-year-old brother, AJ, are reveling in the sights and sounds of a proper British Christmas, quite the change from tropical Manila.

The  family visited a department store recently scouting out potential Christmas presents. Georgia gravitated to the stuffed animals.

“There was a big white tiger there. Georgia calls it ‘a snow tiger.’ And she took a shining to it,” says Nick. “It’s about three times the size of Georgia. We got home and she wrote a letter to Father Christmas about it.”

A week or so later, the family returned to the store together. And Georgia bolted ahead to the toy department to check on the snow tiger. Moments later, Georgia returned to her dad.  “Her bottom lip was quivering,” Nick says. “She said, ‘Daddy. Daddy. It’s gone.’ ”

“Father Christmas may already have come to the store for it,” Nick recalls his reply. Georgia nodded and her attention turned to wrapping paper and ribbons for presents to AJ.

Outside Georgia’s window, dusk is descending on the Shropshire countryside. Georgia is still singing carols to herself, lost in play with her dolls. Behind her, an immense bed is covered in a lovely bedspread.

“She’s got the biggest bed in the house,” says Nick. “She’s completely dwarfed in it.”

And that leaves plenty of room for Georgia to cuddle with her teddies and dolls. And maybe that snow tiger come Christmas Day.