A few days after Christmas last year, Melia Balzer got a bellyache so severe that she grabbed her left side and bent over in pain.
At first, her parents – Jen Christensen and Cory Balzer – thought their young daughter may have a bout of flu. They took Melia, then 4, to a health clinic, but little did they realize their life was about to change forever.
Melia was soon diagnosed with Wilms’ Tumour, a rare form of kidney cancer.
“The tumour was larger than a grapefruit,” Cory recalled.
Melia began to feel pain after the tumour ruptured and blood and cancer cells seeped into her body cavity.
The diagnosis was a shock to both Jen and Cory. Melia had always been healthy, and even leading up to the medical incident, she showed no signs of being sick.
“It was all so surreal,” Jen said of the diagnosis.
Added Cory: “I hadn’t thought about children’s cancer. I hardly knew anything about it.”
Wilms’ Tumour is usually found in children before seven years of age. It affects one-in-10,000 in Canada every year, according to the Kidney Foundation of Canada.
Like many children who have cancer, Melia was oblivious to what she faced in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Following an ultrasound at Victoria General Hospital, Melia was rushed to B.C. Children’s Hospital to confirm the tumour diagnosis.
She thought she was going on a trip. After all, the family had planned a Jan. 2 vacation to Disneyland.
“She was excited because we were on the ferry. It was all kind of novel for her and we were trying to make her not scared. We were putting on our bravest faces,” Jen said.
Once in Vancouver the family discovered that Melia had stage 3 Wilms’ Tumour and it was too large to remove. Instead, doctors used chemotherapy to shrink it.
In late February, the family returned to B.C. Children’s Hospital where Melia underwent a five-hour operation to remove the tumour mass. Several sessions of chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed in Vancouver and Victoria.
“She did really well with it,” Jen said.
“There were low points for her in the beginning, but mostly she was just herself – happy.”
Since Melia’s diagnosis, family life has changed for the trio. There were big adjustments to activities. Melia could no longer take part in gymnastic or swimming classes and was pulled out of day care.
There was always the fear of infection – even an outing to the mall forced the family to don masks, because of Melia’s suppressed immune system due to cancer therapies.
“There’s a real fear of getting sick. It’s very stressful. Even if it becomes a virus that she can fight, you still have to treat it as a medical emergency,” Jen said.
One thing they are thankful for is the support in the community, especially the health-care teams in both B.C. Children’s and Victoria General hospitals.
“We would lean on them. We would call them all the time. They would do anything for you,” Cory said.
There were many support groups in the community also ready to lend a helping hand. Recently, the family went to Hawaii to visit a Disney resort, thanks to the generosity of Make A Wish Foundation. Other groups offered financial support.
They never needed to ask for money because luckily most of Melia’s treatment could be done in Victoria. If more treatment was needed in Vancouver, it would have been different, Cory said.
Both Cory and Jen said they now take nothing for granted.
“You need to celebrate all the successes and the milestones along the way. We try to live more in the moment,” Jen said.
Doctor’s first diagnosis may have been a life saver
Dr. Kelly Ke-Ping Chu likely gave Cory Balzer and Jennifer Christensen the first glimpse of what was to come in four-year-old Melia’s life.
Chu was the on-call doctor when Melia Balzer was taken in for a check-up after she complained of severe pains in her stomach and back.
He suggested it could be Wilms’ Tumour, a rare form of kidney cancer. The cancer is most common in children under seven years of age.
Chu sent the family to Victoria General Hospital for further examination with a note detailing what he thought the problem could likely be.
Unfortunately, the hospital medical team’s original diagnosis seemed to ignore Chu’s suspicion and instead ruled it was likely constipation or diarrhea. The original diagnosis was confirmed at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Because Wilms’ Tumour is so rare many doctors never see a case of it in their careers.
“He (Chu) knew what it was and if he hadn’t found it, things could have been a lot worse,” said Cory. “He basically saved her life.”