Courageous four-year-old battles through course of chemotherapy to make it home for Christmas Day
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Amber Melling, from Ribbleton, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in November 2019 – a rare form of childhood cancer which affects less than 100 children a year. She was found to have tumours wrapped around her stomach, throat and heart.
She started her latest round of chemotherapy early, last Friday, so that she wouldn't be in hospital on Christmas Day.
Amber's mum, Wendy Burns, 35, said: "We've probably gone a bit overboard with presents this year, because we don't know if it's her last one.
"We can't really allow ourselves to think like that, but we have to make it as special as possible with what she's been going through."
Amber's devastating diagnosis came just days before her third birthday in November 2019, which she spent on the wards at Manchester Children’s Hospital.
For 12 months, Amber was treated with chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy at both Manchester Children’s Hospital and the Royal Preston Hospital. The side effects included hair loss and some secondary infections.
At first, the tumours started to reduce but in October this year scans showed that the cancer her stomach had grown by six centimetres. As a result, she has started further chemotherapy treatment at the Manchester Children’s Hospital.
Wendy – who is also mum to Abby, 13 and Amy, 8 – said there was a sudden decline in Amber’s health that led to the initial diagnosis.
She said: “Amber had been battling exhaustion and stopped eating properly when alarm bells first rang for me.
“Almost overnight, she went from being a high energy little girl to being barely unable to stay awake. Her bones were sticking out and she looked like a skeleton. The change in Amber was shocking and something clearly wasn’t right, so I knew I had to get her to the doctor.”
At first, medics put the weight loss down to a change in eating habits and behaviours, which can sometimes happen with young children.
But when Wendy pushed for further investigations, scans revealed a cancerous tumour in Amber’s stomach as well as tumours wrapped around her trachea and her heart.
Wendy said: “It was absolutely heart-breaking and terrifying to hear the word ‘cancer’. I’d known for some time that something wasn’t right – but nothing can ever prepare you for getting that news. The results of the scan were quite frightening as all the tumours were joined together, and it was hard to tell them apart.”
Amber was referred to Manchester Children’s Hospital for two full cycles of chemotherapy. This was followed by immunotherapy and radiotherapy treatment which should have ended just after Christmas this year.
Initially the tumours started to reduce in size, but in autumn this year Amber began experiencing severe pains in her stomach. At first doctors put this down to an infection with her Hickman line – a tube into her chest which is was being used to deliver her treatment. But further investigations revealed that the tumour in her stomach had grown by six centimetres.
The family were given the news on Amber's fourth birthday, and told that her odds of survival had gone down because of the relapse and because it happened while she was undergoing treatment.
Wendy said: “I knew something was seriously wrong when Amber began screaming in the middle of the night in absolute agony. She was complaining about a tummy pain that wouldn’t go away, so I took her to the hospital in Preston and insisted she had an ultrasound. It was then that doctors found the cancer had grown back. We were absolutely devastated.
“I can’t believe we are having to go through this all over again. It’s terrifying but all I can do is stay as strong as possible for my little girl. This year has been the toughest year of our lives, but Amber’s incredible bravery has kept us going.
“We are all so proud of her and are looking forward to spending this Christmas together as a family and making lots of happy memories. At times like this you realise what’s important in life.”
She describes Amber as "bossy" and a good eater, who loves sausage rolls and ketchup, cheese, waffles and nuggets.
She hopes that Amber is able to enjoy Christmas day despite the side-effects of her treatment.
Wendy said: "After the last round, she was sick for a week afterwards, so I'm expecting her to open all of her presents and then crash afterwards."
This year she's hoping that Father Christmas brings a new bike, paints, plasticine and How To Train Your Dragon toys.
For the courage and bravery Amber has shown throughout the last year, she has received a Cancer Research UK for Children and Young People Star Award, in partnership with TK Maxx.
Every child nominated receives the accolade, which is backed by a host of famous faces including celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, Nanny McPhee actress Dame Emma Thompson, This Morning’s Dr Ranj and children’s TV favourite Mister Maker.
There is no judging panel because the charity believes every child diagnosed with cancer deserves special recognition. The awards are open to all under-18s who have been diagnosed with the disease in the last five years.
As well as a star shaped trophy, Amber also received a £50 TK Maxx gift card, t-shirt and a certificate signed by the celebrities. Her sisters also received a certificate.
Wendy said: “I nominated Amber for the award to recognise the incredible bravery she has shown throughout the last year. Cancer has turned our world upside down, but Amber is our ray of light.
“Despite everything she has been through, she always has a smile on her beautiful face. She takes everything in her stride, and we really couldn’t be more proud of her.
“Amber loved receiving the star trophy and we were able to use the TK Maxx voucher to treat her to some gifts too. It’s a really lovely recognition of the courage she has shown over the last year.”
Anna Taylor, Cancer Research UK for Children and Young People spokesperson for the North West, said: “Amber is a real star who has been through so much at such a young age. It has been an absolute privilege to be able to celebrate her courage with a Star Award and we are incredible grateful to her family for sharing their experiences.
“Cancer can have a devastating impact on children and young people and many of those who survive may experience serious long-term side effects from their treatment.
“We’re hoping that people across Lancashire will be inspired by Amber and would like to encourage them to nominate inspirational youngsters for this year’s Star Awards, so we can recognise more children.”
More children and young people are surviving cancer than ever before, but the disease still claims the lives of around 510 under 25s in the UK every year.
Around 190 children are diagnosed with cancer in the North West every year.