The day Hannah Rye learnt she had cancer was also the day her innocence diminished. No longer a care-free young girl with little to worry about, Hannah is now entrenched in a batter with a rare and aggressive disease. But in her darkness Hannah has found light ... and the power of a kitten that never leaves her side.
Nestled away in a small wooden cottage surrounded by lush green trees and guarded by a dog named Charlie, Hannah Rye faces the fight of her life.
Assaulted by a rare cancer known as Ewing’s sarcoma, Hannah – at just 13 – is at the start of a road paved with brutal uncertainty.
“I don’t like to cry ... but I have, a lot,” Hannah said.
“Most of the time I just pretend nothing’s wrong. But I know there is.”
This scene of a beautiful young girl propped up in a bed is a far cry from Hannah’s life as it was just a few months ago.
“Hannah started dancing this year and she started to get a sore back just before the July school holidays,” her mother Racheal said.
“Originally, we thought she had just pulled a muscle and there appeared to be small knot in her back so we just started massaging it and the pain would come. But it progressively got worse.”
I don’t like to cry ... but I have, a lot. Most of the time I just pretend nothing’s wrong. But I know there is.Hannah Rye, 13.
A few months later the Mount View teenager was on a family holiday in New Zealand when she started to lose control of her legs and the pain became unbearable.
“So we came home,” Racheal said.
The Rye’s first port of call was a visit to the doctor, who recommended a session with a physiotherapist.
“The tumour had presented itself as a torn muscle that had bled into itself, so that’s what we all thought it was, but the physio took one look at it and referred us on to another doctor,” Racheal, who sleeps in a double bed beside her daughter, said.
On October 9 Hannah had her first ultrasound. Soon after she began to lose all feeling from her hips to her knees, her toes were numb and the pain worsened yet again.
“We took her straight to the John Hunter Hospital and we were there about four hours when the doctor pulled up and chair and said he was sorry but the lump was, in fact, a tumour and they didn’t know whether it was malignant or benign,” Racheal said.
Two gut-wrenching weeks later, the final diagnosis revealed Hannah had Ewing’s sarcoma.
Ewing’s sarcoma accounts for about 10 to 15 per cent of all primary malignant bone tumours, but is also found within the soft tissue (as in Hannah’s case) and is thought to be similar microscopically.
Treatment for this aggressive cancer involves all three modalities – chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy.
Hannah’s survival rate now stands at 60 per cent.
“There was no waiting once they knew exactly what it was but, everyday, we felt like someone was blindsiding us,” Racheal said.
“But now we know what we have to do and we’re on a plan to attack this thing.”
Hannah is now three sessions into one of the most intensive chemotherapy programs on offer.
She will receive chemotherapy on a weekly basis – for up to 12 weeks – and hopefully, around January 6, the tumour will be removed.
“At this stage, the doctors think they may also have to remove some vertebrae and stabilise her spine, but we’re hoping the chemo will do a really awesome job and we won’t have to do that,” Racheal said.
“Obviously, our optimum goal is to remove all of the cancer with clear margins.”
And while the cancer has spread slightly from Hannah’s back, the disease has not metastasised.
“The odds are in our favour and this is a lot better than other people get,” Racheal said.
During her treatment, Hannah
will also take part in a trial involving 600 children across the USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, who have been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma.
Meanwhile, Hannah’s community has stepped up to raise money for the family.
Hannah’s friends at Kurri Kurri High School raised more than $2000 from one event alone, while her sister launched a Go Fund Me page Hannah’s Helping Hands.
All money will go to remodelling the family home to accommodate Hannah’s needs.
“I think people embrace fundraisers in situations like this because they feel so helpless and so desperate to do something, but there is very little anyone can do,” Racheal said.
“We burst into tears every time someone does something wonderful for us, but it also lets the other tears come, which we try not to give in to.”
So, for now at least, Hannah remains isolated from the world she once knew and longs to be a part of.
“My school friends have organised so much to help, but they are really sad because I can’t go any public places for about 12 months and, at the moment, they can’t even come and visit,” Hannah said.
“But it makes me happy to know I have all this support behind me and it makes me feel good. It also gives me that extra bit of strength I need to get through this.”
Now mostly bedridden – with the cancer wrapped snake-like around her spine – Hannah spends her days surrounded by skull shaped candle holders, a single dream catcher, a large stuffed penguin and a tiny kitten named Miss Victoria.
“Despite everything, we are really blessed in the face of such a dark time because there is so much happiness and love everywhere,” Racheal said.
“And Hannah is just so brave and inspiring. She has smiled through everything and just look at her and thing how amazing she is.
“Because this came as such a shock it could have swallowed her whole and it just didn’t.
“We’re attacking this thing from every angle, with chemo, with love, with laughter, silly jokes and kittens.
“How can cancer survive when you have all this?”
Students at Kurri Kurri High School have taken part in a pilot program designed to increase cancer awareness and deal with cancer diagnoses in their community.
The CanTeen initiative – When Cancer Comes Along – is a 90-minute interactive student presentation which, among other things, aims to develop student confidence in offering assistance to those impacted by the disease.
The program is pitched at a year 9/10 level but can be adapted to suit an older/younger audience and includes cross-curriculum links to science and physical education.