24 kids died, I was the only one who survived

As a child, Michael Crossland was put through a horrific experimental treatment. All of the other kids in the study died, but he was the lucky one.

Note: The below article is a shortened version of Michael’s full chapter, as told in my new book: ‘Reasons To Live One More Day, Every Day’ – a collection of 10 inspirational Australian memoirs. 

I WAS just 11 months old when I was diagnosed with stage four Neuroblastoma — a devastating form of childhood cancer.

On that day, just prior to my first birthday, doctors told my mother there was no chance of survival and to take me home to be with my family one last time.

Battling this devastating news, my brave mum decided to ask the doctor, straight up, exactly what my chances of survival were.

“He has a 96 per cent death rate,” he replied.

I can only try to imagine how mum must have felt in that moment, but despite the overwhelming odds stacked against me, she chose to look at my life as being four per cent full as opposed to 96 per cent empty — a decision I’ll forever be grateful for.

Despite mum’s optimism, my real challenges were just about to begin — starting with chemo, which I began on my first birthday and continued for nearly four years. As if not challenging enough, I had to also deal with being away from my dad and three older sisters for long periods of time. We were all hoping that it would be worth it in the long term, but as the months progressed my health only continued to deteriorate, and in 1987, doctors told my mum that the treatment was no longer working; the tumour had built up resistance and taken over half of my body.

After six hours of surgery the doctors came out and delivered the news my mum was dreading — they hadn’t been able to get it all and there was nothing more that could be done. Immediately my dad and three sisters flew from Coffs Harbour to Sydney to say goodbye.

However, life has a funny way of presenting hope in the darkest of times, because the very next day, in that very hospital, we discovered a miracle: a highly skilled American doctor who just happened to be trialling a cancer-fighting drug called DTIC.

Twenty-five kids were to be permitted into the experimental program to undergo testing — and you guessed it, I was picked as number 25. As I would soon discover, the side effects were truly horrific.

Michael Crossland pictured in hospital when he was two and a half years old.
Michael Crossland pictured in hospital when he was two and a half years old.

I remember that day so clearly. It was 9am on a Tuesday, and within 24 hours of starting the trial all 25 of us had been transferred from the oncology ward to the burns unit.

The after-effects of the drug were so severe that we were literally covered in blisters and burning from the inside out. To try and relieve our pain and the physical damage, the staff would wrap us in bandages, laying us down in baths full of ice to prevent our brains from frying.

Within 30 days, 20 out of 25 kids had died from the drug. Within 90 days, 24 out of 25 had died.

My mum had to make a heartbreaking choice — was it worth keeping me on the drug and continuing to see me burned every day? Or was it time to give up?

She chose to believe in me, and so for another year I underwent this agonising, experimental treatment, praying for a miracle.

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