The family of a six-year-old boy who was diagnosed with leukaemia has opened up on how a charity has helped them get through the gruelling treatment.
Brave Saahib Randhawa from Ashbrooke, Sunderland has spent three-and-half-years receiving treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL)- an aggressive form of cancer that affects white blood cells.
Mum, Gurpreet, 36, who runs an online fashion business and dad, Manprit, 37, an accountant, have been bringing Saahib to the Great North Children’s Hospital, which is based at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle for treatment.
The parents said going through cancer treatment is one of the “toughest things life can throw at anyone” let alone a child.
But thanks to the charity Henry Dancer Days, Saahib and his little sister Mia, four, have benefited from storytelling sessions which help bring a bit of joy to hospital wards.
The charity was set up almost 10 years ago by Jane Nattrass, a grieving mum, whose only child Henry Dancer died of a rare form of bone cancer, Osteosarcoma, at the age of just 12 years old.
They have delivered over 3,000 storytelling sessions up and down the country to poorly young people, who are undergoing exhausting cancer treatment.
Gurpreet said: “Unless you have experienced it yourself it’s not something easily understood. But going through something like cancer treatment is one of the toughest things life can throw at anyone let alone a child.
“The storytelling sessions opened up a world outside of chemotherapy, dread, the beeping of machines and being sick. They have managed to keep up our spirits – Saahib’s and mine.”
Gurpreet explained how it was initially thought Saahib was anaemic until one day she picked him up from nursery.
She said: “One day I went to pick him up from nursery and his teacher said he had been sat on her knee all day which was completely unlike him.
“I knew there was something not quite right and we took him for a blood test.”
The family got a call to attend Sunderland Royal Hospital for more tests and they later discovered Saahib had leukaemia.
Gurpreet said: “When he was first diagnosed with leukaemia it was a big shock, I didn’t think it was that serious. I never thought it would be cancer-related.
“It was a scary and isolating time.”
The family soon started sessions with storyteller Shelley who brightens Saahib’s day and gives his parents a much-deserved break.
Gurpreet said: “Saahib was missing nursery and apart from us, the only adult contact he really had was with the medical staff and play specialists.
“Usually everybody that comes to see Saahib takes his blood, gives him medicine or measures something.
“He’s always getting prodded and poked so it’s nice to have somebody come in that’s just there for him to have fun with.
“Shelley from Henry Dancer Days has been amazing. We have built up a very trusting and special relationship with her.
“He was comfortable being left with her so I could go grab a coffee or take a shower so it’s helping parents too.
“He’s a typical little boy so they read things he’s into and he really enjoys it.”
Saahib’s sister Mia has grown up alongside his diagnosis from a very early age and also benefits from the joys of storytelling.
Gurpreet added: “The storytelling has been a good way of helping Mia feel included and just as special as Saahib.
“She now knows Shelley very well and I am sure Shelley knows her very well too!”
Reflecting on her son’s time in hospital Gurpreet said her son had missed out on “normal things” that children do.
She said: “Saahib has met with some very difficult and at times painful experiences through his treatment plan.
“It’s been awful he’s missed so much nursery and it’s not so much the academic side but it’s the social side he’s missing out on.
“He’s missed out on birthday parties and just normal things kids like to do.
“We already feel like we’ve been in lockdown for a long time because his immune system is so weak so we can’t see many people.
“But this just gives him something to look forward to and you can see how much he enjoys it.
“Having adults like Shelley around has meant he also has some positive associations especially with her amazing collection of stuffed animal characters.”
Shelley O’Brien, 52, who is an actor and storyteller, based in Consett,County Durham said: “Storytelling is very much a means of distracting a child from their worries, their pain, and relieving boredom too at times.
“It’s also a means of allowing a child to open up safely through the storytelling process if that is what they feel like doing.
“The whole ethos is about making that child feel the most important person in the world, and about bringing as much fun, laughter and comfort to them.”
Henry Dancer Days is a charity supporting children with cancer and help their families with life-changing essentials.
To date, the charity has successfully raised over £750,000 with support from organisations like Children In Need with the Storytelling Project proudly helping over 10,000 people with seven storytellers across 14 hospital wards.
However, due to the current pandemic, all of the storytellers have been trained on how to use software such as Zoom, as the storytelling sessions have gone online.
The charity’s founder, Jane said: “Storytelling is a fabulous form of escapism that allows the young people and their families to be transported into a magical world where cancer doesn’t exist.
“The time spent with the storytellers is a welcome distraction from the gruelling demands of cancer treatment.
“Children with cancer can spend days in ‘isolation’ rooms and our storytellers are often the only additional face they see other than their family and medical staff.
“The stories provide an invaluable way for the children to explore and nurture their language development at a stage when tackling cancer has become their day-to-day.”
Jane knows all too well the heartbreak of watching their child go through cancer after losing her son Henry in 2010 and said: “It’s just heartbreaking seeing your child go through that, it’s awful.
“When we lost Henry we went from dealing with hospitals and treatment to just nothing.
“His friends have kept in touch and it makes me think what would Henry be like now, what he would look like now. Looking at these adult men, I still remember a little boy so it’s very strange.
“When your parents of a sick child you try to keep that smile at all times but it can be overwhelming.
“It’s very difficult because everything is focused on your child’s treatment, you stop work, everything goes on hold.”