Australian Story: By Emily Porrello and Belinda Hawkins
Ten years ago, Nicola and Jim Walker received the news every parent dreads when their then-two-year-old daughter Abby was diagnosed with leukaemia. It prompted the couple to take a controversial course of action: to fall pregnant with another child and harvest stem cells from the baby’s umbilical cord in case Abby relapsed and needed a transplant.
A family’s determination
After surviving cancer, Abby Walker no longer dreams of being a doctor or a nurse. She wants to be a hairdresser when she is older.
But the 11-year-old’s ordeal did lead to an unexpected bonus — a baby brother.
Abby was two when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer, after suffering from recurring back pain and bruising.
Although her mother had a sneaking suspicion that more than growing pains were at play, nothing prepared her for the fear she and her husband felt as they watched Abby struggle with the effects of chemotherapy.
“I can remember I had to always get this tube up my nose and I hated it,” Abby said.
A chance remark by a nurse prompted the Walkers to have another child in the hope cord blood stem cells from the new baby would save their daughter if the standard drug regime failed.
The family gave permission for Australian Story to film with them as they embarked on this unusual and controversial solution.
Abby’s mother Nicola Walker said she would do anything to save her daughter’s life.
“You just want to make sure that your baby’s going to be OK,” she said.
Chance leads family to stem cell option
Abby’s senior oncologist and head of Monash Children’s Hospital Cancer Centre, Dr Peter Downie, said she had an 80 per cent chance of survival using chemotherapy and most likely would never need a stem cell transplant.
“I didn’t think that we’d ever need the stem cells because my expectation was that she would be cured,” he said.
Dr Downie said although collecting stem cells from the umbilical cord and placenta was not unusual, having another child for that reason was “not the right thing to do”.
But for the Walkers, any chance of losing their only daughter was enough to justify a “back-up plan” and within a year of Abby’s diagnosis, Nicola was pregnant with their fourth child.
“It was always going to be an option that we were going to hopefully have another one,” Abby’s father Jim Walker said.