Hawke’s Bay family’s gruelling journey to care for toddler with aggressive cancer

The mum of a toddler battling an aggressive form of cancer has spoken of how she “cried for the first six days” after the shock diagnosis.

The parents of Frankie Papps, aged 2, late last month noticed a swelling on Frankie’s back that hadn’t been present the day before, and immediately took her to be examined.

Imaging confirmed she had a large mass in her back, and Frankie had to be rushed to Starship Hospital in Auckland for an MRI and biopsy.

Test results eventually confirmed she had an aggressive and fast-growing type of cancer, most commonly seen in children. She must have urgent surgery to remove the mass, and then begin the journey of chemotherapy and radiation – which will need to happen in Auckland every three weeks.

Jessie Leask and Steve Papps face at least another year of travelling to and from Auckland every three weeks for their 2-year-old daughter, Frankie, to receive treatment.

Leask told the Herald “coping” was not an option.

“We don’t really have the privilege of being able to take a break or have meltdowns any more,” she said.

She “cried for the first six days”.

Leask described her daughter as a “force of nature” who loves Spiderman, dinosaurs, stickers and gardening.

“She’s rough and tumble and she’s hilarious and she’s goofy. She is so sweet and gentle and extremely easygoing.”

So far the family has only had to travel up to Auckland once, as they spent three weeks up there navigating the diagnostic and treatment plan process.

But the process was “long and very tiring”, particularly with Frankie’s younger brother in tow, who is only 6 months old.

“I can’t think about doing it every three weeks for too long or it gets a bit overwhelming,” she said.

“We are hoping we can possibly fly for some of [the trips] to help reduce the travel time.”

Frankie’s parents say they are now “overwhelmed” by the actions of kind donors who have contributed almost $30,000 to help them care for their “force of nature” daughter.

Leask’s longtime friend Aimee Ross set up a Givealittle page for the family, so people could contribute to the costs related to travelling for the treatment.

“Frankie’s dad has already used up all his leave in order to be in Auckland with them in the time leading up to her official diagnosis,” Ross said on the Givealittle page.

“Being the main income earner in the family, he is now faced with the truly awful choice of returning to work and remaining there to keep their family afloat and a roof over their heads, or taking unpaid leave to enable him to travel every three weeks to be with his family during what is going to be the hardest times of all their lives.

“Travelling to and from Auckland with an unwell toddler and a young baby, with no assistance would be incredibly hard for Jessie.”

Since the page was created, loved ones and strangers alike have raised more than $28,000 to help the family, which Leask said had been “incredibly humbling”.

The money means for the immediate future Papps will be able to continue travelling with his family and supporting his wife and children.

“His work have been extremely patient and generous in allowing him to take advanced leave and all his accrued leave but the reality is we are going to have to cover the costs of our life at home with a significant chunk of his hours gone,” she said.

It was hard to know how far the money would stretch, as the treatment has only just begun, “but it is certainly enough to ease a lot of the pressure that was there”.

She said Frankie “adores her papa and he makes her so happy”, so it was “such a relief” Papps and Frankie could stay together for the foreseeable future.

“Juggling her treatment and needs with a now 6-month-old baby’s schedule and needs is a real challenge.”

Leask said they couldn’t thank the donors enough, and were blown away by the generosity, well wishes and overall kindness of everyone.

“The amount raised is phenomenal. It’s a testament to the kindness and empathy of people.

“It is easy to look at the total and be kind of overwhelmed – I have to keep reminding myself we are looking at a year and a half of treatment at the very least.”

The funds raised will go towards covering the family’s bills, travel costs, and other unexpected costs that might come up along the way.

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