Samaira Singh is on tiptoe, reaching up to the rope connected to the bell hanging in CHEO’s Medical Day Unit (MDU). As her small hand grasps it, she grins with her chocolate brown eyes shining. Her parents Ritika and Amarjeet are in place, steadying her on the bench, and she grabs hold. She clangs the bell with gusto, surrounded by the team who helped care for Samaira and her parents during her two and a half years of treatment: nurses, doctors, child life specialists and support staff, all clapping and cheering. Her parents have crafted a sign that reads: “I did it! 804 days of chemo. 17 spinal taps.”
At the tender age of five, Samaira is a cancer warrior and survivor. This ceremony marks a milestone: the end of her treatment on December 17, 2022.
Her parents still cannot believe that day came. Their baby girl was just a toddler when this story started in the summer of 2020. Samaira had been a healthy child to that point buzzing around the house and loved trips to their local park to play. Suddenly, she had little interest in being active. “She would complain her legs hurt,” Ritika recalls. “Our doctor suspected growing pains and encouraged more activity, and the aches would pass.”
But when the aches continued, Ritika and Amarjeet were on high alert. “I knew in my gut something was wrong,” Ritika says, shaking her head. "We are so glad we persisted, even when our family doctor didn’t feel there was cause for concern. As parents, we owe it to ourselves and our children to listen to our instincts!”
Several weeks later, Samaira became extremely sensitive to touch. “We picked her up from the bath and she would cry.” Then, purple dots appeared on her skin, called purpura, that occurs when small blood vessels burst and cause blood to pool under the skin. One morning, Ritika noticed a large blood clot in Samaira’s mouth when she was brushing her teeth. They made their way to CHEO where bloodwork revealed the blood clot was an indicator Samaira was critically low on platelets. At this point, all her parents wanted were answers. “We needed someone to say, 'we know what it is, and we know how to treat it.’”
It was a Sunday in October when the medical team made the diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
“Meeting Dr. Leibman that day remains the most surreal experience of my life,” Ritika remembers. “You never expect to find yourself sitting with an oncologist, discussing their plan to save your child’s life. She assured us she knew how to treat our daughter and that CHEO had the best treatments available. That was what we were holding onto. It took away the feeling of helplessness, and we prepared to fight!”
They were admitted immediately, and Samaira eventually moved to outpatient treatment. She had a port-a-cath implanted to help deliver chemotherapy. There were side effects: hair loss, nausea, weight fluctuations and mood swings from steroid treatments. Being new to Ottawa, with families abroad unable to offer support because of the pandemic, they found the isolation overwhelming. COVID-19 restrictions allowed only one parent per child at CHEO, and families couldn’t interact in the hospital.
But they found strength in each other and leaned on their CHEO family. “Child life specialists are the unsung heroes in this whole ordeal,” Ritika exclaims. “Without them, it would not have been possible for me to stay sane. Some of the treatments are so intense. Seeing your child so sick and witnessing the medicine they need to save their lives that can be so hard on their little bodies,” Ritika explains. “It can be unbearable to watch. Before CHEO, I didn’t know these people existed, or how far they would go to make Samaira comfortable, provide activities to distract her and strategies to help her cope. They gave me a chance to step away and gather myself when it became too much. They bring their own personal touches because they know it matters to our children and to us.”
Watching her now it’s difficult to imagine she has come through such a storm. When asked to describe their little girl, Amarjeet smiles widely. “She is a girly girl! She loves to sing, and is creative, expressing herself through arts and crafts,” he says, beaming with pride. Her preferred media: markers, paint, and googly eyes to give the colourful characters she creates some added personality.
Samaira’s voice is lilting and melodic; her vocabulary betrays her age. “My favourite colours are teal, violet, pink, and purple,” ticking her choices off on her tiny fingers. Her lush, inky black curls have returned. Her smile is wide, punctuated by deep dimples. Today, she is in celebratory mode, thrilled with her new instant camera, a gift from her friends in MDU. “The first picture I’m going to take is of you and Mama,” she squeals to Amarjeet.
They are a family full of gratitude for the people they have met through their time at CHEO and excited to be a part of CN Cycle for CHEO to inspire others to support cancer care. “My hope is that no parent or child be in that situation again; to hear the word ‘cancer.’ Until then, I hope that they can formulate treatments for all childhood cancers. “We were lucky,” Ritika explains. “ALL is treatable, but we have met other families who do not have the same experience. My hope for the future is that every life can be saved, and every kind of cancer treated, like Samaira’s. It’s up to all of us to do what we can to help science defeat it. We want to do our part.”