A bereaved mum has described the heartbreaking moment her terminally-ill daughter asked her: “Am I going to die?”
Keisha Pile-Gray, from Westgate-on-Sea, lost nine-year-old Aurora in June 2021 following a 13-month fight against Burkitts Lymphoma, a rare type of blood cancer.
Now, the mum-of-three has recalled the devastating moment she had to tell her daughter she had the disease.
“We didn’t ever say that she had cancer to begin with,” Keisha explained.
“We said she had really poorly blood, and she needed medicine to get better.
“She said ‘will I get to ring the [end of treatment] bell?’ and I said ‘yeah, when you’re all better you can ring the bell’.
“My doctor had called me, about something completely unrelated, and I said ‘look at the moment I don’t really care, my daughter has been diagnosed with cancer’ and Aurora overheard.
“I’d already assumed she had made the connection when she said about ringing the bell. She started crying, asking whether she was going to die.”
Aurora was diagnosed after multiple visits to doctors and A&E in the space of a few weeks.
It started as pain in her chin, but when a lump appeared on her neck a few days later, she was put on antibiotics.
When the lump increased in size, and another appeared, Aurora was taken back to A&E and prescribed a new course of antibiotics.
But after no improvement, she returned to the hospital – to be told it was an infection and sent home.
Keisha said: “We argued for her to stay, although the doctor was not too happy. He asked ‘what do you suggest?’ and I said ‘I’m not a doctor but she’s been on ten days of antibiotics now and she should be getting better but she’s getting progressively worse’.”
After tests, the doctors referred Aurora to London to be seen by a range of specialists.
Keisha continued: “I went home to pack my bags and say goodbye to the kids – at the time my son was five months old and my little girl had just turned two.
“I went back to the hospital and four hours later they pulled me into a room and said she’s got lymphoma or leukaemia.”
It was later confirmed Aurora had Burkitt’s Lymphoma.
“I thought she was going to die,” Keisha recalled.
“Because she was so poorly and because we’d waited so long and it had been building up and building up.
“When the lump first came up, we took her to the doctors and then we went out for a walk in the park. She was walking around the park, laughing and skipping. By day 10, she was on 3litres of fluid a day because her kidneys were shutting down. It happened so quickly. I said ‘does this mean that she’s going to die?’”
She went on to have four cycles of chemotherapy treatment at Royal Marsden hospital. Aurora was declared as being in remission but sadly, just two weeks later, the family received a call to say she had relapsed.
Aurora was then put on another form of treatment called RICE chemotherapy.
“It looked as though it was working to begin with, but then just before Christmas, she started swelling.”
A scan on New Year’s Eve revealed she had cancer “everywhere north of her pelvis”.
By April, she was in remission again, and underwent a stem cell transplant on May 13.
But five weeks later, Aurora relapsed again. On June 15, doctors confirmed there was nothing more they could do.
Aurora returned home on the June 21 and died just a week later, on June 29.
At the time, Keisha said: “I could write a million words about how I feel, but none of them would do justice.
“Grief is completely overwhelming and we’re grateful that all of our family and friends have been showering us with support.
“Rest peacefully beautiful girl.”
The family were supported during Aurora’s cancer treatment and since her death by Young Lives vs Cancer.
The charity provided a social worker who helped them face the emotional, practical and financial impact of a childhood cancer diagnosis brings.
Keisha said: “
She’d always come and visit Aurora and tell her jokes. It’s just nice to have someone let me vent to her, sometimes that’s all you need.
“They do go through everything you need to know, not so much about the medical side but life outside of that and the help that they can offer.”
Keisha’s family is one of several to share their hardest conversations during treatment and beyond as part of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
Rachel Kirby-Rider, Young Lives vs Cancer’s chief executive, said: “It’s hard to even imagine the conversations that children with cancer and their families like Aurora’s are having day in day out.
“Our social workers help them face those conversations. They tailor their support for each family, they can provide a safe space if a parent needs to talk about their worst fears, give a parent a children’s story book to explain treatment to a young child or their sibling, or have a difficult conversation on behalf of a family.
“Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is an opportunity for all of us to listen to the experiences of children with cancer and their families, and show our support.”
For more information or to donate, visit www.younglivesvscancer.org.uk.