Outward appearances don’t suggest anything out of the ordinary with Ella Donovan.
She’s just like any other active eight-year-old, enjoying her time at Ladysmith Primary School where she’s in Grade 3 and after-school care at the Leaps & Bounds daycare as well as being a member of the Fuller Lake Skating Club. Her hair used to be straight, but grew back in curly, and with it being red, she’s a standout on the ice and looks like she could star in a production of Annie on stage.
While Donovan’s doing very well, it’s taken a while to get to this point and she will remain under close monitoring for the next several years and into her adult life after her cancer diagnosis in September of 2019.
“I had felt a lump on her abdomen,” said mom Tina Donovan of how the tumultuous life-changing experience started. “We’d been away on a family vacation out east and I noticed a lump on her belly and scheduled an appointment for her when we got home.”
An ultrasound was booked at the end of September by the Donovans’ family doctor and they were advised to go to the office after the results were known. “You don’t want those calls and our whole life changed that day. It’s a parent’s worse nightmare,” conceded Tina.
Within two days, they were at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver and met with what would become their oncology team. Ella underwent blood and urine tests, physical exams and a full body MIBG scan following a suspected diagnosis of neuroblastoma, the third most common type of cancer in children, which was confirmed by the tests.
Ella then went back to Children’s Hospital for several days in early October for a biopsy of the large tumour. It was initially thought the tumor was mostly benign and no chemotherapy would be needed, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.
The 10-hour surgery to remove the tumour took place in November. The surgical team managed to remove about 40 per cent of it. It was a difficult surgery and the surgeon’s word for the tumour was “sticky” and it impacted some of her major blood vessels.
Having a larger piece to biopsy, it was found to not be benign but now classified as ganglioneuroblastoma nodule type, which is composed of a mixture of cell types and has immediate malignant potential.
“It was high risk,” said Tina. “She was put in the high risk category.”
Chemotherapy and possible radiation became the treatment plan with another surgery planned after that. A central line was placed and the first round began in December. She then went on to have four rounds in total from December to March spaced approximately 21 days apart. Her stem cells were also harvested in case she needed them down the road.
“Kids are so resilient and strong,” Tina marvelled.
A fifth round of chemo was planned, but “the team decided they wanted to go in and do surgery again,” she added.
“It was hard to tell if the chemo was successful. It wasn’t growing and hadn’t spread, but was it shrinking it in leaps and bounds? No.”
All the treatments, tests and appointments required the Donovans to be in Vancouver from November to March. They came home about 5-7 days every month.
“We had to be close to that hospital for most of it,” noted Tina. “We were able to have our own place to stay which is a lifesaver, I’ll tell you.”
Things were just getting into full COVID mode by March when Ella had her surgery scheduled that fortunately went ahead in the third week of the month to try and remove more of the tumour.
“She came out of it great,” said Tina. “The surgery took 12 hours, two days in the ICU and a week in hospital, but they were able to remove 95 per cent of it. She has residual tumour still.
“But we were then able to come back home. At a time when everyone was feeling the strain of being in lockdown at home due to COVID, we were so happy and thankful to be home.”
Ella then went on oral medication for six months and monthly check-ups, some that thankfully could happen in Nanaimo. Since the fall, she goes for three-month check-ups at BC Children’s, involving a visit with her oncologist, blood and urine tests and MIBG scans. The first two scans she had to be put to sleep since she needed to be still for 2 1/2 hours, but now she stays awake. “She doesn’t like the ‘sleepy’ medicine,” said Tina.
Ella recently had her third three-month check-up and “everything has remained the same, the tumour hasn’t grown and she feels good,” said Tina.
Ella’s now on what’s termed ‘watchful waiting.’ Eventually, check-ups will revert to every six months if things remain the same.
Ella returned to skating in September after missing the previous season. She also didn’t go to school at all last year, but was happy to be back this year.
Tina and her husband Don are just grateful they were able to get through it all with Ella. Their son Angus remained at home most of the time with family and went over to Vancouver when he could to be with his sister and parents.
Help from family members and friends, along with being able to take time away from work, were huge for the Donovans.
“It’s hard on the parents, so much pressure, so much stress,” conceded Luisa Shillingford, who got both the Donovan kids into skating at an early age and runs the daycare Ella attends and where Angus used to go.
“This year is really good for them, they’re really able to relax and be with their kids,” she added. “They were able to have family downtime and not to worry about going anywhere.”
Along the way, the skating community, the Cowichan Valley Minor Hockey Association that Angus is part of and the community as a whole pitched in to support the Donovans.
A GoFundMe was set up for them in November of 2019 by a friend they met through hockey, Tannis McLaren, and a burger and beverage fundraiser with a silent auction and fun games was held at the Aggie Hall in Ladysmith in February of 2020.
“They’re not just my clients, they’re very good friends,” said Shillingford. “That’s why I did the fundraiser for them.
“They were really surprised how the town pitched in.”
Kari Rose and Paula Zerr helped Shillingford organize the fundraiser and the Fuller Lake Skating Club supported the event.
Support for these events from strangers, friends and family stretched across the country – with Tina being from Alberta and Don from Nova Scotia.
“These things combined, it saved us from having to worry about anything else except focus on what was important at the time,” said Tina.
“I don’t even know how you can thank people for things like that. So many people offered to help, but you don’t even know what you need, you can’t think straight. The fundraisers and donations allowed us both to be at the hospital together, supporting Ella but also each other.”
No one can take away from the fact their child has cancer and the Donovans have experienced so many emotions, but the support means everything.
People always ask how they handle it. “You just do because you have no other choice,” said Tina.
Ella is all smiles as she arrives at Fuller Lake Arena for practice. “It’s good,” she said of how things are going.