NICTAUX, N.S. - When Tammy Tupper saw her niece Olivia Carson Jan. 5, it had been a year since the Nictaux youngster’s health began to falter badly.
“I stopped in to visit her after my CAT scan yesterday,” said Tupper, of Annapolis Royal, who is also battling cancer. “We compared stories. She jokingly wished a CAT scan was where you were covered in cats. We also talked about how it was this time last year she started to really get sick.”
Olivia’s courage has inspired Tupper in her own battle with cancer.
It’s been a tough year and Olivia spent Christmas in hospital, getting home on New Year’s Day. And while it’s been a scary 12 months for both "Aunt Tammy" and Olivia, there is some good news. Thirteen-year-old Olivia has finished her radiation and chemo.
“Now they’re working on basically fixing/patching her up and getting her healthy again,” Tupper said Jan. 6. “The chemo really wiped everything good that was left in her body. She had a rushed surgery to remove her port-a-cath, which became infected and she spent Christmas in the hospital.”
The life-saving treatment isn’t without its costs. “She has some hearing damage from the chemo but it’s manageable,” Tupper said. “She didn’t need any platelets or blood transfusions this week, which is the first time in a long time that she didn’t need them.”
Tupper said Olivia’s blood counts will continue to be checked every week.
Olivia, the girl with the beautiful smile, went through numerous surgeries and treatments for a fast-growing form of cancer called medulloblastoma located towards the back and bottom of the brain in the cerebellum. But the smile never disappeared.
“She is in remarkable spirits but tires easily,” said Tupper, who last March set up a GoFundMe page to help her sister Laura Whitfield’s family cope with expenses. “She’s also waiting to hear back from Make A Wish. She should be hearing back any day now with which wish she is going to be granted. We’re very excited for her. She submitted three far-away trip wishes and one local wish and the committee will decide which one they can grant. She’s so excited to see what they say.”
Tupper said the family is incredibly grateful to everyone who has taken an interest in Olivia’s journey. Olivia’s mother, Laura, is the sole income provider and Olivia’s 14-year-old brother, Owen, is severely autistic and in a group home in Bridgewater. Her stepfather, Chris, was in a car accident a few years ago and is now a paraplegic.
“We have tried to remain strong for her and I know it has given us strength to know so many people care about her and wish her health and happiness,” Tupper said. “We have also gained a better insight into the needs of our heath-care system, such as blood drives. Olivia has received so many blood transfusions and platelets it’s incredible. Without them she wouldn’t be here.”
Tupper wishes there were more blood drives locally for people to donate and give blood.
“I would do it,” she said. “And the IWK needs so much recognition for everything they have done. They need all the funding they can get to save children like Olivia. You don’t know how much you need them until you need them.”
Being sick is a full-time job for Olivia.
She still walks with a walker because she's weak, and the tumour affected her vision.
“Her right eye still sees double vision and it throws her gait and walking off,” said Tupper. “She'll see the ophthalmology IWK team in February to see if anything can be done to correct this. Her feeding tube will be taken out in the spring sometime. Her starting weight was 58 pounds and is now 74.”
She gets her blood checked twice a week. In February she'll meet with her IWK care team of surgeons and specialists to find out what her care plan is going to be like for the next year.
“We know she'll have MRIs every three months to check and see if the tumour comes back,” Tupper said. “She receives tutoring at home when she's well and between doctor appointments.”
For Tupper, it hasn’t been much different. She said she’s healing.
“I still have a lot of pain in my right lung area and where they removed the fifth rib and down my spine. Sometimes the pain takes my breath away,” she said of her own cancer. She had a large tumour removed from her chest. “I had my six-month CAT scan yesterday and will meet with my surgeon next Friday and get the results.”
She tries to keep busy and work at her online shop sewing handmade wallets. “I sew as long as I can handle the pain then when it gets to much I have to stop,” she said.
When Tupper was on her way home from that Jan. 5 CAT scan, she was tired, her back was hurting, and she just wanted to get home.
“But as we got closer to Middleton I just had to stop in and see Olivia,” she said. “No matter what I'm going through she has been through so much more.”
And that made her think of that day at the IWK a few days after Olivia’s surgery 10 months ago and the room was full of doctors and nurses, talking to Olivia’s mother about what to expect.
“I thought I'd distract Olivia and hold her hand and talk with her about some silly nonsense to take her mind off everything, even for a few moments,” Tupper said. “Then she looked at me and said, ‘if anything happens to me will you look after my cats?’ I tell you that just broke my heart. I had to reassure her while holding back tears that she'd be fine and her cats would be well looked after and waiting for her at home. In that hospital bed that sweet little 12-year-old knew how serious her health was and thought she might not make it.”
It was at that moment Tupper decided she would do anything she could, be it a fundraiser, a Facebook page, a drive to doctor appointments or just stopping in to say ‘hi.’
“I can tell you having a 12-year-old ask you to look after someone that she deeply loves in case she doesn't make it changes you,” Tupper said. “So now no matter what I'm going through I know I can handle it because Olivia has gone through so much more. She's been through hell and back and she still smiles, so I've decided I'm going to smile too. And I keep saying to myself, ‘I got this.’”
Tupper said as a way of saying thank you to the community for helping her and Olivia she volunteers with the Historical Association of Annapolis Royal and partners with The Explorer Guide with Alan and Durline Melanson. They do live Facebook videos to promote the area.
“It's just my small way of saying thank you to this beautiful town for all their love and support over this last year for Olivia and myself,” she said.
And Tupper can’t say enough good about the IWK. People who want to help the Halifax children’s hospital can make donations in Olivia’s honour at HTTPS://iwkfoundation.org/donate or over the phone by calling 902-470-8085 or by sending a cheque to the IWK Foundation at IWK Foundation, B220 – 5855 Spring Garden Road, Halifax, NS, B3H 4S2.