A courageous Blackpool girl called “a little fighter” by her doting mum faces the battle of a lifetime against an aggressive form of cancer.
Cleo Keenan, two, has a rare cancerous tumour that caused her stomach to swell up like a balloon.
And mum Shannon Latham, 23, said: “You never expect it to happen to your own child. Now that it’s happened, I feel powerless. I wish there was a way I could take it away from her and fight it. That’s what’s hard. I can’t take it away from her.”
Cleo was taken by her mum and dad Ryan, 26, to Layton Medical Centre in February, where it was suspected the swelling in her stomach was caused by a hormone imbalance she has suffered from in the past.
A hospital appointment was arranged for this Wednesday, but in March the toddler suffered from a stomach ache and was taken by Shannon to Blackpool Victoria Hospital’s A&E department, where doctors quickly realised there was something terribly wrong.
She was given a CT scan, which revealed the huge tumour inside her abdomen, and she was taken to Manchester Children’s Hospital the next day.
Two weeks later, on Monday, April 1, she was diagnosed with stage three adrenal carcinoma, a rare disease caused by cancerous cells in the adrenal – or hormone – glands.
Shannon, who is a shop worker, said: “She looked like she was pregnant. I was getting more and more concerned.
“Because of her hormone changes, they thought she had a hormone imbalance. It was such a shock when we found out. It’s just begun to sink in, because she’s so young and she’s such a bright child. She had always been absolutely healthy. She was like any other two-year-old.”
Cleo, who lives in Grindleton Close, Grange Park, with her parents and sisters Emelia, five, and Ellie-Mae, four, must undergo more chemotherapy before having an operation to remove the malignant tumour and affected adrenal gland later this year.
However, Shannon said there is an 80 per cent chance the tumour will return even after surgery.
Heartbreakingly, her chances of survival remain at just 25 to 35 per cent.
Shannon said: “All we can do is remain positive and happy. It keeps a smile on Cleo’s face. That’s what we want for the whole time she’s being treated: for her to keep smiling.
“We just say to ourselves that this is just another chapter of her life.
“We are shrinking the tumour with chemotherapy at the moment and once it’s small enough they’re going to remove it.
“There’s an 80 per cent chance of it recurring, but that means there’s a 20 per cent chance it won’t.
“We never thought we would ever face anything like this.
“Cleo is still smiling through every single day. She still laughs and jokes, and the hospital has been amazing - she’s been having fun in their playroom. She’s a little warrior.
“On April 2 she started chemotherapy and she was on that for four days. It was draining. The chemo started making her ill and she’s had to have a blood transfusion and injections of so many different medications.
“She’s gone from being a normal happy child to a really poorly little thing and it’s really difficult to see.
“I’m sat there every day with her just watching her go down and down.
“She picks up infections really easily.
“I’m trying as hard as I can to stay positive and talk about it, because when I talk about it it’s letting it out. But when I’m on my own my mind goes into overdrive and I’m just constantly crying.
“You start to think the worst once you’re on your own.
“When I see her smiling when I’m with her it makes everything much easier.
“Ryan rings me every day and when he asked me about Cleo he also makes sure I’m eating and everything. He’s my rock at the minute.”
The family has now set up a Facebook page, called Cleo’s Chapter, to document Cleo’s cancer fight.
They have also set up an online fundraiser to help with the cost of their regular journeys from Blackpool to Manchester Children’s Hospital.
Shannon said: “We have been getting a lot of support. It’s overwhelming how many people want to know how she’s doing.
“I have got people messaging the page wanting to send over headbands and hats for her because she’s due to lose her hair soon.
“Cleo is bubbly and independent. She’s really advanced for her age. She’s not like other two-year-olds. Her speech is amazing. She speaks like a four or five-year-old.
“When she has to have her feeding tube changed she just sits there and closes her eyes while the nurse does it.
“Both my mum and Ryan’s mum and step-dad are really involved and come to see her . They do a lot of help with the other two kids as well. They are really supportive.”
She added that Emelia and Ellie-Mae’s school, Boundary Primary School, also supported them by arranging extra help for the girls as they had been struggling to keep up with their at-home reading assignments.
“Because they’re only four and five, they don’t understand cancer. They just think she has got a poorly tummy and she’ll come home when it’s better,” Shannon said.
“They absolutely love her. When they go to see her they’ll blow bubbles and make her laugh.
“Because of how rare her cancer is, the survival rate is 25 to 35 per cent. But she’s a great child and a great little fighter. She’s been so strong in hospital.”
People can follow Cleo’s story and find links to her online fundraising campaign at www.facebook.com/cleoschapter.