An inspirational boy from Whitley Bay, who has survived cancer was surprised by an off-duty visit from Santa at an extraordinary party to celebrate the courage of children and young people diagnosed with cancer.
Ten-year-old Austin Sweeney was the first child in the UK to reach the 2-year milestone using his own genetically modified cells from the CAR-T cell clinical trial that he participated in.
He was a special guest of honour at the Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens Star Awards party this week, supported by TK Maxx.
The magical winter wonderland themed party was held at Santa’s ‘summer home’ in central London. It gave children and their families – some of whom have missed out on festive celebrations in the past due to cancer treatment – a memorable experience together.
Austin enjoyed taking part in a variety of winter themed games, arts and craft activities, including making glitter baubles in an elf’s workshop.
He was also given the exciting opportunity to spend time with Santa in his grotto, where he received an early present from the man himself and met other characters from the North Pole.
Twenty one children and young people from across the UK, who have been affected by cancer, joined Austin for the fun-filled day which also saw a performance by the hugely popular children’s TV presenter Mister Maker.
They all received a special award to recognise their strength. Austin’s younger sister Lottie, who is six and Austin’s parents, Scott and Louise joined him at the special party.
Austin, 10, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) – a type of blood cancer – in 2011 when he was just two years old. Unfortunately, Austin’s type of cancer was more aggressive and regular treatments didn’t work.
His mum Louise said: “Austin had years of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, bone marrow transplants and immunotherapy. He’s also had complications and infections and at one point we were told there was nothing more they could do.
“It’s thanks to research that Austin’s still with us. We know that there could be long-term side effects from all the treatment, and we’ll always be waiting and worrying. But right now, he’s able to enjoy life as a ten-year-old kid.
“It was incredible when Austin got to ring the end of treatment bell. Up until then, I’ve always hated that bell because over the seven years Austin was in treatment, families had started and finished treatment, but not Austin.
“When we walked through the door at his latest check-up, everyone who was involved in Austin’s trial was there to surprise us – they all cheered! We’re so lucky.”
Austin took part in an immunotherapy CAR-T-Cell clinical trial at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. The treatment modified his own white blood cells, so they could attack the cancer. Initial results have been really positive. Austin will continue to have visits to Great Ormond Street Hospital to monitor the results.
Austin’s mum Louise added: “Being at the Star Awards party has been extra special for us as a family. More so, since I found a diary entry from Christmas 2016 where Austin had said ‘Imagine if Father Christmas sends me a letter, I open it and inside is cancer!’
“It was that week, we received news that Austin had in fact relapsed for the fourth time. It was devastating for us all and we had to cancel our holiday to Scotland. But, we were heartened by the fact that Austin could receive the CAR-T cell therapy – it gave us hope.
“We were determined to have fun that Christmas and had one of the best ever – lots of fun, laughter and games, with a trip to London and Great Ormond Street Hospital thrown in. It was an exciting adventure.
“We got through it and now, two years later (post treatment), we’ve had an extra special time as a family, back in London. It’s wonderful to see Austin have fun like any other ten-year-old boy.”
The Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens Star Awards celebrate the courage of all children and young people in the UK who have been diagnosed with cancer. Every child and young person nominated receives a trophy, a t-shirt, a certificate signed by celebrities and a £50 TK Maxx voucher.
Jaelithe Leigh-Brown, Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens spokesperson for the North East said: “It is an absolute honour to be able to recognise the strength of youngsters like Austin who have been through so much at such a young age. He is a real ‘star’.
“Cancer can have a devastating impact on children and young people, so it was a joy to see Austin’s smile light up as he met Santa and took part in our winter wonderland themed party.
“Every year, around 75 children are diagnosed with cancer in the North East*. Our mission is to help save the lives of more youngsters and reduce the long-term side effects they may experience, by finding new, better and kinder treatments.
“It was a pleasure to meet Austin and his family – we hope they’ve had a fantastic day creating special memories together!”
Cancer Research UK’s research has helped transform survival for children’s cancers. Today, more than 8 in 10 children and young people diagnosed with cancer in the UK now survive their disease for at least five years**.
However, there is still more to be done to bring forward the day when every child survives cancer and does so with a good quality of life.
TK Maxx’s support of the Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens Star Awards is part of a year-round fundraising partnership including its clothing collection campaign, Give Up Clothes for Good, which takes place again this September helping to raise vital funds to help beat children’s and young people’s cancers.
Since 2004, the retailer has raised over £32 million to support Cancer Research UK’s work into children’s cancers.
For more information about the Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens Star Awards or to nominate a star, visit cruk.org/kidsandteens