Cancer is never easy, but it is especially difficult when it’s your own child going through it. This family from Western Australia’s baby girl had Neuroblastoma. Not only did they have to grieve the loss of their daughter, but they also had to explain to their two little boys that their baby sister was going to heaven. This is their heartbreaking story.
When Baby Piper Went To Heaven
When Meagan Collard was pregnant for the third time, her dream came true when the doctors told her it was a little girl. She loved her two young boys, of course, but she had always wanted a daughter, as well. The boys, both under the age of five, were also excited. The family got ready to prepare her room, with her brothers excitedly picking out clothes for their soon-to-be baby sister. When baby Piper finally arrived, the whole family was overjoyed.
“Piper was such an easy baby,” Meagan explained. “There were no issues with her birth. She slept and ate well and was always happy and hitting milestones on time. We were all so happy with our life; it was everything I had ever dreamed of and more. Piper completed our little family perfectly. Her brothers were completely obsessed with her from the day they met their little sister.”
In May 2018, Piper began vomiting and began experiencing very high temperatures. The doctor was concerned about her pale skin and prescribed her antibiotics for what appeared to be an ear infection. He said to come back in a week if her skin color didn’t return.
A few days later, Meagan took Piper to the hospital because her fever spiked. They told her it was just a virus and sent them home. A month later, however, Piper began vomiting again. Meagan felt a hard lump on her daughter’s side while feeding her and went straight to the doctor. The doctor said it felt as though her liver was swollen and sent them to the hospital.
After waiting for tests at the hospital, the doctor came in to explain that there are only three reasons her liver would be swollen like that: HIV, hepatitis, or cancer. Meagan had tested negative for the first two during pregnancy, so they were unlikely. Sure enough, her blood work came back abnormal. They were sent to the Children’s hospital and spent the entire next day having tests done.
“We were then given a room on the oncology ward. Instant heartbreak. Later that afternoon, we were told our perfect little 11-month-old baby had cancer. Neuroblastoma to be exact.”
The doctors diagnosed her with stage 4 cancer, as it had already spread from the adrenal gland to the liver, lymph nodes, abdomen, chest cavity, and ovaries. To make matters worse, they found out after a couple of surgeries and other tests that she was high risk.
“Piper would need 5 rounds of chemotherapy, surgery, stem cell transplant, radiation, and 6 months of immunotherapy. There are so many side effects to all the treatment, vomiting, diarrhea, mouth sores, weight loss, and some much more serious side effects which can land the kids in ICU.”
They Had To Tell Their Boys That Piper Was Going To Heaven
The baby girl put up a fight, but in March 2019 things took a turn for the worse.
“Piper began getting really difficult. More and more unhappy, losing weight, and just becoming a completely different kid.”
The doctors said it was likely due to the medication, however, Piper continued to get worse. She constantly cried if Meagan wasn’t holding her. She began holding her hands over her stomach and liver saying “ouch”. The doctors told them that it was just a virus or side effect of the treatment.
Then, near the beginning of June, her husband noticed a big lump near Piper’s belly button. On top of that, her eyes were looking yellow. They had been dismissed by the doctors many times and Meagan was afraid that would happen again, but they went anyway.
“Multiple scans in the middle of the night and the next morning we got the news the tumors had spread. I was instantly extremely angry; I had told the doctors multiple times that she wasn’t ok, but they wouldn’t investigate.”
They did everything they could, but eventually, they just had to go home and wait and see if the chemo would take or not. They spent the week together as a family, even keeping their five-year-old home from school.
“[We] had to explain to her brothers that their baby sister was probably going to heaven. Cayden who was now five instantly said we had to find her a new doctor or make her soup to make her better but eventually understood that no one would be able to help her. This was the hardest thing we had to do.”
The Final Goodbyes
On June 20th, 2019, Piper took her last breath. It was a heartbreaking moment for the entire family. Her brothers also had an opportunity to cuddle their baby sister one last time.
“I will never ever get that moment out of my head. It’s the most dreadful feeling listening to them breath so slowly and wondering if that’s the last breath. We told her it was ok to go and that she wouldn’t be in pain anymore but then the moment she did we just wanted her back.”
What Is Neuroblastoma?
Neuroblastoma is a rare childhood cancer that is most common in infants. It occurs when a solid tumor is formed by nerve cells called neuroblasts. Usually, neuroblasts grow into functioning nerve cells. In this case, however, they turn into cancerous ones. (2)
It most commonly begins in the adrenal glands which are just above the kidneys. When found early, the chances of recovery are quite good. The exact reason that these cells turn cancerous is not known, though scientists believe it could be due to a gene defect.
Signs And Symptoms Of Neuroblastoma
Though it most often begins in the adrenal glands, neuroblastoma can start in other places in the body. These cells sometimes also release hormones that affect other parts of the body, as well. For this reason, the signs and symptoms can be somewhat varied. They include (3):
- Lump or swelling in the child’s belly that doesn’t seem to hurt
- Swelling in the legs or in the upper chest, neck, and face
- Problems with breathing or swallowing
- Weight loss
- Not eating or complaining about feeling full
- Problems with bowel movements or urinating
- Pain in bones
- Lumps or bumps under the skin, which may appear blue
- Drooping eyelid and small pupil (the black area in the center of the eye) in one eye
- Problems being able to feel or move parts of the body
- Eyes that appear to bulge and/or bruising around the eyes
From there, symptoms can vary more depending on whether they are being caused by the main tumor or because cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms caused by the cancer cells releasing hormones include:
- Constant watery diarrhea
- High blood pressure (causing irritability)
- Rapid heartbeat
- Reddening (flushing) of the skin
Families And The Grieving Process
Little Piper’s story unfortunately had a very sad ending. Not only has this been very difficult for the parents, but also for their two young boys. The parents then have to attempt to go through their own grieving process while helping their young children process the loss of their sister, as well. On top of that, they still have to go through the regular daily life of working and parenting.
Though a child’s grief will be different than an adult’s, it is important that their grief does not go overlooked. Not only will they not process the loss of their sibling, who would have been a life-long friend for them, properly, but they may also feel less important than the child who died. Here are a few ways you can help your other children grieve (4):
- Include them in discussions about memorial plans
- Spend as much time with them as you can. Play together, talk about their sibling together, etc.
- Make sure that your other children understand that their sibling’s death is not their fault.
- Never compare your other children to the one who passed or make them feel as though they have to somehow fill that void
- Set reasonable expectations over their behavior while not being too overbearing or over-protective
- If your own grief is preventing you from giving your other children enough attention, ask another family member or close adult friend to spend time with your kids while you process your grief
Take Care Of Yourself
Don’t forget to make sure you take time to grieve properly yourself. Many parents will sometimes throw all of themselves and their attention into their other children as a way to ignore or push away their own pain. Do what you need to heal your own heart as well as theirs. This includes:
- Talk about your child often and use their name
- Ask for help with errands, housework, and childcare so you will have time to work through your own thoughts and feelings
- Take time deciding what to do with your child’s belongings
- Prepare yourself for difficult questions such as “how many children do you have” and the inevitable comments that come afterward, such as “well, at least you still have your other kids”. Remember these aren’t meant to be malicious.
- Look for support groups or consider therapy to help you process your pain
Remember that the most important thing is that you stick together as a family. While each individual person will need their private time, make sure you still spend as much time together as you can. Do what you need to do as a family to keep the memory of the lost loved one alive and prepare yourselves for when the world around you goes back to “normal” despite yours being forever changed. Avoid negative people and be sure that each family member receives the help they need. (5)
Lastly, do your best to get everyone back into regular routines. This provides everyone, especially your children, with a sense of comfort and stability. You don’t have to pretend like things are the same, but you should do your best to get people back into the flow of life. You can move forward as a family without forgetting about the one that will be in your hearts forever.
Keep Reading: 50 Weird Signs That Lead To a Cancer Diagnosis
- “‘We need to make her soup so she feels better!’ I had to explain to my 5-year-old his sister was going to heaven.’: Mom loses daughter to Neuroblastoma, ‘We will never forget our brave, beautiful warrior’.” Love What Matters. No Date.
- “Neuroblastoma.” Kids Health. Januray 2017.
- “Signs and Symptoms of Neuroblastoma.” Cancer. Revised April 28th, 2021.
- “Grieving the Loss of a Child.” Cancer.net. September, 2019.
- “Coping With the Sudden Death of a Child.” Very Well Family. Denise Witmer. December 12, 2020.