Kindergarten like a gift from above

At the tender age of five, Laurence just went through a defining moment of her short life: entering kindergarten. “She was ready. She was looking forward to finally going to school to learn her alphabet. Every night when she gets back home, she tells us about her day, pictogram by pictogram. She gets so excited. It’s truly a gift for us; a sense of normalcy,” says her mom, Stéphanie Gagnon, jubilantly.

The fact is, the past two years have been anything but normal for Laurence and her family. In January 2021, an urgent MRI revealed a tumour in the little girl’s cerebellum. She had to undergo surgery right away. “Laurence was unsteady on her feet and losing balance but cancer never entered our minds.”

Stéphanie describes her reaction to the diagnosis like a freefall. “After the MRI, I barely had time to make it back up to the hospital room where a neurosurgeon, a neurologist, and a resident were waiting for me. I knew something was wrong. It was as though my brain immediately shut down; I lost contact with reality. I remember that my body was shaking. I was so frozen over, I actually felt cold. I could hear them but I didn’t really know what was going on.”

Caught in a whirlwind of interventions and bad news, Laurence’s parents struggled to absorb a barrage of information. “Everything was going so fast, we felt bombarded. We didn’t even have time to digest one bad thing before we got hammered by the next one. We felt knocked out!”

It’s hard to describe it because it feels surreal. You don’t expect it, you always think this kind of thing only happens to other people. You never think you will be those other people. When it happens to you, it’s like a descent into hell.

Watching your child suffer

Six days after her admission at the ER, Laurence entered the operating theatre. The tumour was removed and a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis: medulloblastoma. Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant were next. Shortly after the surgery, the little girl developed a severe posterior fossa syndrome. Says Stéphanie, “While it’s a known risk, it varies from one child to the next and can last two days, two weeks, two months….”

When Laurence asked for her plushie soon after surgery, her mom thought her croquette had come out of it unscathed. “But the next day, she was silent. Two days later, game over: she wasn’t moving anymore. She could open and shut her eyes, and that’s about all. We had lost the Laurence we’d known,” she explains. The little girl had to relearn everything. She has improved by leaps and bounds but is still suffering from severe aftereffects. She uses a walker due to poor balance and although she can express herself clearly, her speech rate is slower than the norm. “It’s impossible to know if she’ll recover fully one day.”

Rehabilitation came on top of intensive treatments. The first rounds of chemotherapy at CHUL in Quebec City were very trying. “She would vomit 15 to 20 times a day. The healthcare team was at a loss as to how to make things better for her,” recalls her mom. More treatments followed at CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal. Laurence was hospitalized there for three months.

Thanks to the support of their extended family, Laurence’s parents were able to stay at her bedside, in alternation, day and night with no other worries. “We moved into a rented house close to the hospital where we could recreate a homey atmosphere.” Since this prolonged stay took place over the summer, Laurence’s older brother, William, also moved in. As indeed did the family dog. “Close relatives would move in and out in turn to help us and take care of William. We were so blessed.” Still, it was not easy for him to see his sister suffer so. “William is quite sensitive. It was hard for him but he’s been very brave through it all.”

Today Laurence is in what we call the maintenance phase. “She receives chemotherapy every day by feeding tube. She’s feeling great, always in a good mood. She’s never lost her smile and her sweet giggles.”

Leucan, a huge sense of belonging

Throughout this ordeal, Laurence’s family was deeply grateful to count on Leucan. “The people of Leucan looked after us at the hospital. They still check in on us, offer massages, organize activities where we can meet and chat with other parents faced with the same situation; people who understand. It does us so much good.” William and Laurence had a fantastic time at the summer camp—a rare opportunity to just have fun and forget about cancer.

There is palpable emotion in Stéphanie’s voice when she talks about their respite weekend at Station Duchesnay. “Over the past two years, I have never felt as good as I did during those two days! No stress, no pressure. Everyone was kind and welcoming. Everyone—employees and volunteers—was focused on our well-being and pleasure.”

At the beginning of the school year, Maryse visited Laurence’s classroom to explain her condition. “Laurence is in the ladybug class. Talk about serendipity!” Maryse read a child-appropriate story about cancer, and explained why Laurence had a tube and why she would be missing school from time to time.

Life, one day at a time

With both kids back in school, Stéphanie is using this free time to recharge her battery. While her husband went back to work, she does not feel quite up to it just yet. “We’ve been on an adrenaline rush for months on end; no break, no time to catch our breath. It takes its toll on your body!” In fact, she slept through Laurence’s first day at kindergarten. “I had no idea I was that exhausted. My body is definitely raising a red flag.”

Stéphanie knows that she can still count on Leucan at any time; whether she needs an attentive ear, financial assistance, or simply a place to land. “I feel such a strong bond with Leucan. That’s why I try to get involved however I can,” she says, showing off her gold nail polish to mark Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. With a group of loved ones, she will be taking on the Leucan Ski Challenge for a second year.

For now, their family routine, filled with worries and surprises, tenderness and sweet moments, is resuming gradually. “We are a tightly-knit group. All we hope for is to be happy together, to enjoy each day and always see the bright side of things. No one knows what tomorrow will bring, and children teach you to take days one at a time. Laurence has such a bright smile; we can’t help but smile along with her.”

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