British boy fighting rare cancer is discharged after coming to Singapore for experimental treatment
SINGAPORE: It was a moment of pure elation for the family of Oscar Saxelby-Lee – the six-year-old has finally been discharged from hospital after staying cancer-free for nearly three months.
The British boy has been battling acute lymphoblastic leukaemia since December 2018, and arrived in Singapore for experimental treatment at the National University Hospital (NUH) that only one other child in the world has received.
Doctors in the UK said that they had exhausted all conventional treatment and that there was only palliative care left for Oscar. The family was told to prepare for the worst.
But after arriving in Singapore in November and starting treatment on Christmas Eve, Oscar has remained MRD (minimal residue disease) negative – which means no cancer cells are detected – for nearly three months.
He was discharged from hospital on Thursday (Apr 9) and will go back for check-ups every few days.
His mum Olivia told CNA it is the longest period her only son has remained cancer-free since he was diagnosed.
“Oscar is defeating the odds. After being told end-of-life care was the only option left for Oscar about eight months ago, he has shown that miracles really do happen,” she said.
“He is the best he has been in a very long time – full of life, living life and enjoying life again.
“It has been a huge learning curve, and no doubt will continue to be, but we are grateful. Grateful for this chance, grateful for the team saving Oscar’s life and also grateful for the experience.
“It still feels a little like a dream. We just can’t believe it. NUH has saved Oscar’s life!”
NUH TREATMENT WAS OSCAR’S LAST HOPE
The treatment in Singapore was Oscar’s last hope. All other treatments had failed to rid him of the cancer - he was still MRD positive after a stem cell transplant and rounds of chemotherapy.
The little boy from Worcester, England flew to Singapore after the family crowdfunded £500,000 (S$885,000) for a new form of treatment, in which immune cells from a patient’s blood is drawn and equipped with a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR-T).
The receptor binds itself to a specific protein on the cancer cell and activates the CAR-T cells to kill the cancer cells.
This particular form of CAR-T treatment is different and more difficult because the leukaemia cells resemble Oscar’s immunity system, Associate Professor Allen Yeoh, head of paediatric oncology at NUH, explained previously.
This is compassionate treatment, which means it is not even in the medical trial stage yet.
By the time he arrived in Singapore, Oscar was weak from the months in hospital isolation and from battling the rare blood cancer.
He got stronger and doctors started treatment on Christmas Eve. On Jan 15, his parents were told he was MRD negative – but that was just the first major step towards a full recovery.
READ: No cancer cells detected: First major step to recovery for British boy in Singapore for experimental treatment
Over the last three months, Oscar has battled several conditions as a result of complications and undergone more surgeries and transplants.
He was diagnosed with both Graft versus host disease (GvHD) and Thrombotic microangiopathy (TMA) that caused him shaking spells, pain and weakness.
"WE NEEDED MUM HERE"
Over the last five months, Oscar’s family has remained in Singapore – far from their loved ones in the UK.
Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, Oscar’s grandmother Oomar travelled to Singapore to be with her grandson.
“We needed her with us after such a long haul of trauma. She flew knowing of the risks (of contracting COVID-19) and was very worried,” Olivia said.
Oomar completed her 14-day stay-home notice and was allowed to see Oscar just as he was overcoming the worst of the TMA.
This was the moment Oscar saw his grandmother for the first time in months:
“Oscar’s life instantly became better, he was ecstatic,” said Olivia.
“She has been a huge lift for us all, for me especially as well. We all need our mums at times. An extra pair of hands, loving support and someone else to talk to.”
The family will remain in Singapore and keep Oscar isolated at the apartment where they've been staying as his immunity system is still recovering, and he will make frequent trips to outpatient clinics in hospital, his mum said.
“He isn’t out of the woods yet. Being post-transplant puts him even more at risk, and very vulnerable to not just COVID-19, but any cold or illness,” she explained.
“That’s nearly a year and a half of complete isolation and even in the future, we will have to be very vigilant.”
"SINGAPORE IS AN AMAZING COUNTRY"
With the COVID-19 outbreak affecting countries around the world, including the UK and Singapore, the family will stay in Singapore until Oscar has been given the all-clear to fly home.
“We all miss home. We miss our friends, our family, our society, our community,” Olivia said.
“We are really homesick, but we are safe, and we believe we are in the safest place. Singapore is an amazing country, and we feel privileged to be here, even at this difficult time.
“We have met so many wonderful people here, from friends, to medics ... each has been an incredible support for us as a family.
“Our lives have changed greatly.
“The support has been so heartwarming. The well wishes and prayers truly mean so much to us. We are touched by people’s generosity, care and compassion for us as a family and cannot thank everyone both here and back home enough.
“It’s been one heck of a journey, and I’m sure will continue to be, but the support makes it all that little easier.”