Ever since their son, Zack, was diagnosed with cancer, hospital visits and gruelling treatment has meant Kerry and Ian Hughes have never been able to enjoy Christmas with their boys. But this year they have everything to celebrate.
Christmas Day four years ago is not one that Kerry and Ian Hughes wish to remember. Just weeks earlier their lively toddler, Zack, now seven, had been diagnosed with leukaemia. Instead of excitedly tearing the wrapping off his gifts, Zack was too weak from his chemotherapy to open more than a few presents.
"It's not a day I like to think about," confesses Ian Hughes, 50, a former sales director from Wolverhampton. "Just weeks before we'd been told our three-year-old had just weeks to live. It ripped our world apart."
Zack was just like any lively toddler, who although he had autism, was a happy fun loving little boy. However, in November 2007, Zack had been off colour for a few weeks.
"I was worried about him as his glands were up and he had a distended stomach," says Kerry. "The GP said it might be glandular fever and sent him to hospital for tests, but they came back negative. It was then the paediatrician said they suspected it might be leukaemia. It was the last thing I'd considered."
The family was sent to Birmingham Children's hospital where Zack's bone marrow was tested. On the 10th December 2007, the oncologist confirmed the worst news. Zack had leukaemia.
"I asked how serious it was. They told me if it was left untreated Zack would only have 12 weeks to live," says Ian.
"It was like the floor had disappeared from beneath me. I collapsed onto Zack's bed at the hospital and wrapped him up in my arms sobbing," remembers Kerry.
The doctors told Kerry and Ian that Zack's treatment would take three years, during which their lives would be turned upside down.
Kerry, 40, a medical negligence litigation assistant, had just accepted a new job, but she knew Zack needed her more than ever and decided to quit in order to stay at home with her son.
"I phoned to tell them I couldn't take the job. It was heartbreaking, but I had to devote myself to Zack," says Kerry.
Zack's treatment started that day with a steroid injection to kill off the leukaemia cells.
"The medicine worked too well," says Ian. "It over powered his kidneys and liver, leaving him struggling to breathe and with fatally high potassium levels."
Zack had canulas in every part of his body, at one point in both his hands, feet and even in the crook of his arm.
"It was heart breaking," says Kerry. "He would sob 'no mama, no more mama' in sheer terror as they stuck needle after needle into him, but as I sobbed by his side I knew it had to be done in order to make him better."
Zack spent his third birthday in hospital and was allowed home for Christmas but by Boxing Day he had taken a turn for the worst. The following day he was back in hospital for another seven weeks.
For the next year, Zack endured grueling chemotherapy. Not only did he have daily drugs administered at home by Kerry and Ian, Zack had to spend a day in hospital every month when the powerful bright orange drugs were pumped into him.
On top of this, every time Zack's temperature spiked, which was at least once a month, Zack would need to be rushed to hospital where he and Kerry would have to spend around five days there until he was given the all clear.
"It was such a hard time," admits Kerry. "I would be in hospital with Zack and Ian would be at work all day before driving to see us in the evening and then heading home to finish his paperwork."
The following Christmas was a washout too, with Zack spending the day in hospital.
"Many of the neighbours came knocking to ask me why our Christmas tree was still up in the
middle of February, but I told them it wasn't coming down until my son had finished having his Christmas," says Kerry.
Kerry fell pregnant with her second son, Toby, now two, who was born in the middle of Zack's treatment.
"He wasn't planned," said Kerry. "But he's such a patient little boy and always knows when we're giving Zack his treatment that he needs to sit quietly out of the way."
Zack had his last session of chemotherapy in March this year. "It was fantastic, but also incredibly scary," says Kerry. "Without the drugs we were worried the cancer would come back. We're constantly on the lookout for bruises, but so far he's been fine."
Now the family can't wait to celebrate Christmas properly with no grueling medication schedule to follow. A local charity, the Acorn hospice, is sending Zack to Lapland to see the reindeers and both boys are really looking forward to Christmas Day.
"We'll leave carrots for the reindeers and biscuits for Father Christmas," says Kerry. "I can't wait to see Zack's face when he sees all the presents under the tree. This year I'm sure he'll have the strength to open them all."
For information on the work of the Children's Cancer Recovery Project who helped the Hughes family, visit www.childrenscancerrecovery.org.uk
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