All six-year-old Matilda wanted for Christmas was to be pain-free – and to be with her family.
And as she underwent leukaemia treatment in a specialist unit, hours away from home, parents Gabby and Dave were well aware that wishes like hers need miracles.
But they also knew Matilda would get her miracle – thanks to children’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent.
Because through months of gruelling hospital treatment, the family had been given a “Home From Home” to spend a precious few weeks close to the unit that was treating her.
And with Matilda’s newborn brother Marley to look after too, it was a lifeline that helped them through some of their toughest times.
Today, we want to join with you, our readers, to help other families like Matilda’s get vital support as they cope with the devastating upheaval of childhood cancer.
We’ve teamed up with CLIC Sargent to launch our Home From Home Christmas Appeal, in association with their campaign to Stop Cancer Cancelling Christmas. As Matilda puts it: “It was nice to have my family near because they could come and see me. I liked knowing they were close.
“Please help CLIC Sargent to help other children with cancer have their mummies and daddies over the road.”
The charity currently has 10 Homes From Home across eight UK cities, from Glasgow and Belfast to Nottingham and Southampton. In the next four years it plans to open two more, in Manchester and Newcastle.
Each one has been converted to give families plenty of space to be together, with a house manager as well as housekeepers and support staff. But they need your money to stay afloat.
Families who have someone with cancer can expect to spend an extra £600 a month – in part due to the cost of travelling for specialist treatment.
For many, major cancer treatment centres are a long way away. The strain of travel can add not just a financial but also an emotional toll, and treatment can go on for up to three years.
CLIC Sargent estimates it will be supporting up to 4,000 children and their families this December.
For Matilda’s family, the nightmare began in 2016 when she was whisked to Bristol Children’s Hospital from their home in Staverton, Wilts.
There she began two gruelling years of treatment. As mum Gabby Fisher, 31, recalls, Matilda’s first Christmas Day on the ward was “horrific”.
She said: “It was surreal, everyone buying presents, being asked if we were ‘all ready for Christmas’… our reality was very different.”
But she and Dave, 31, had been provided with a Home From Home, where the family was able to gather.
On Christmas Day, Matilda was in agony from her treatment. Gabby said: “The side-effects left her in pain, and unable to enjoy the day on any level.
“My dad made a full Christmas dinner and we ate it in the CLIC house. It was bizarre, we had everything for a normal family Christmas, but it was anything but normal.
“Marley had his first Christmas at CLIC House. We just had to get through this, and with the support of CLIC Sargent we did.
“We vowed then that if we made it home, we’d do what we could to help other families going through that.”
So for Christmas 2017, they joined with another family also facing up to cancer to rally their community, getting donations to fill 200 gift bags for families staying in local hospitals.
Each contained mince pies, DVDs, games and more to make Christmas away from home more bearable.
Then last Christmas Eve, Matilda was rushed back to Bristol for an emergency op after an infection. They managed to get her home by 7pm.
Gabby said: “This year will be the first that Matilda and Marley will experience the real magic of Christmas with a clean bill of health – you really can’t put a price on that.”
Grateful dad Dave added: “Having the support from CLIC Sargent makes a situation that is anything but normal feel more normal.
“Straight away, there’s people on hand to explain what’s happening and to support you. When Matilda was first diagnosed, a specialist came to explain the process and what would be happening – it really helped.”
He said the Home From Home had given Gabby and Marley invaluable time together over Christmas.
Dave said: “At one point Matilda and Marley hadn’t seen each other for a week because Marley had a cold and couldn’t come on the ward.
“As soon as Matilda was well enough though, we could take her to meet him at the CLIC house. Both of them were absolutely overjoyed.” But it was also the endless support beyond hospital that helped the family through their ordeal.
Dave said: “There’s no call button at home if she has a medical problem, we’re not just a minute away from doctors. But the CLIC nurses have phone numbers.
“If you have concerns you can text or call them, or send them a picture and they give you expert advice. It’s like a safety net – it gives us more freedom.”
CLIC Sargent also has specialist nurses on hand for small medical procedures at home, such as blood tests, and to show parents how to give medication. They also visited Matilda’s school to chat to classmates.
The charity also offers financial support, advice for teens and young adults, and support if a child dies.
Matilda, who has finished all treatment and is back at school, is starring in the charity’s Christmas appeal with four other children who have faced cancer.
Gabby said: “We’ll do anything to support CLIC Sargent. CLIC House was a lifeline when we couldn’t cope alone.”
The charity’s Rachel Kirby-Rider said: “Christmas is a magical time for families, it’s all about being together. But when you’re going through cancer treatment at Christmas, that’s at risk.
“Our campaign is highlighting how cancer costs children Christmas, and is asking the public to donate so we can help keep families together this Christmas, and always.”
How to make a difference
In the next 24 hours, 12 children will be given the devastating news they have cancer – one every two hours.
It is still the single biggest cause of death from disease in young people in the UK. Although survival rates are now above 80 per cent, cancer is second only to accidents in causing children’s deaths. Your donations could help other families like Matilda this December.
£5 could help towards the cost of a family staying at a CLIC Sargent Home From Home this Christmas.
£15 could help towards an hour of care, so a family helping a sick child at home can have vital support.
£50 could provide two hours of a care worker’s support to get a family home for Christmas.
£5 a month over a year could pay for three children to spend an hour with a play specialist, to help make cancer treatment less scary.
£10 a month over a year could pay for four families to stay at one of our Homes From Home for a night.
£20 a month over a year could run an education day, to help families cope during and after their child’s treatment.
How to donate
You can stop cancer cancelling this Christmas for young patients and their families.
Text: GIVE to 70030 to donate £5
Post: Make cheques payable to “CLIC Sargent” and send with your name and address to: Sunday Mirror Christmas Appeal, CLIC Sargent, 126 Fairlie Road, Slough, SL1 4PY (Please put a stamp on the envelope)
T&Cs: Texts cost £5 plus one standard network rate message. CLIC Sargent will receive 100% of your donation. To opt out of calls, text NOCALL CLIC to 78866. To opt out of SMS, text NOSMS CLIC to 7
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