Sophie Salam, 3, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in January this year.
Sophie Salam, 3, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in January this year.

‘20 months to go’: Sweet Sophie’s cancer battle

Since January 11 2020, the Salam family has been on a clock.

And it's ticking too slowly for their liking.

It's a date that will forever be etched in the minds of Zane and Annalese Salam - the day their darling daughter Sophie was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

Theirs is a familial bond made stronger by trials no family should have to endure.

As the world was caught in the grip of coronavirus, the Salams were fighting a much more personal battle - and it's taken a toll.

It's first noticeable in Zane. In his eyes.

He struggles to answer questions. Every prompt for recall is an emotional dagger, as he casts his mind back over the long days and sleepless nights spent by his sick daughter's side - worse, the times he could not be there.

But then Sophie squeezes his arm and Zane's gaze softens again. He's back.

"Daddy's girl" is his kryptonite, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Annalese is hard to read. She's fortified her emotional walls, but for a slight wince when a question needs answering and she doesn't know how.

But she does; often ending with a small laugh, as if to try and lift the mood of the room after the heavy burden of her words hits home.

"We're not very talkative, sorry," Zane admits.

Zane Salam with daughter Sophie Salam at their North Mackay home. Photo: Callum Dick
Zane Salam with daughter Sophie Salam at their North Mackay home. Photo: Callum Dick

The beginning

On January 8,Sophie presented with a mystery illness and the family rushed her to Mackay Base Hospital for a check-up. Hours later, they were on a plane to Brisbane.

"On the 11th we found out she had (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia)," Annalese said.

"It was all shock. We didn't know what the outcome was going to be."

Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common form of childhood cancer and affects the blood and bone marrow.

It occurs when bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes - a type of white blood cell.

ALL may affect red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Key signs include: Fever, easy bruising or bleeding, dark red spots appearing under the skin, bone and joint pain, fatigue or weakness, shortness of breath, swollen lymph nodes, pain below the ribs and loss of appetite.

Once Sophie's diagnosis was confirmed, the Salams' clock started its countdown.

"Her treatment is for two and a half years," Annalese explained.

Things moved quickly from there. Tests, procedures, scans, bloods; Zane and Annalese had the crash course in cancer they never asked for.

"We were in hospital for a week or two and were then put into accommodation and had to go back regularly for appointments," Annalese said.

"It was going to be six months but it ended up being nearly nine months."

A family divided

The youngest in a family of 10, all of who still live at home, little Sophie draws the attention of every room she is in.

While chatting to Annalese and Zane in the loungeroom of their North Mackay home, the front sliding door opens every few minutes and Sophie greets another sibling with a small squeal and big grin.

It's the only time over the course of an hour that her attention diverts from Mum or Dad; Sophie's family - Thomas, Ethan, Mikaela, Jayden, Jamayne, Natalia, Annalese and Zane - is her world, and she theirs.

Even before the events of the past 12 months steeled them, the Salams were as close as a family could be.

It makes this rollercoaster journey they're on both easier and not.

Annalese has been the mainstay of Sophie's battle so far. She was there for the rush to the Mackay Base Hospital and on the ensuing flight to Brisbane.

As she sat by Sophie's side through every milestone and hurdle, the other eight members of the Salam family rotated in and out as they could.

"I was down there myself and my oldest daughter was there with me the whole time. Zane was there the majority of the time, depending on work and stuff. Then the other kids would come down on school holidays or when they could get off work," Annalese explained.

A heart attack a few years earlier had tapped Zane of the majority of his work leave balance.

To keep on top of the bills, he was forced to sometimes tear himself away from the hospital and return home.

"It was pretty hard, because I wanted to be down there for her," Zane said.

"(Sophie) wanted her dad all the time too, which made it hard," Annalese added.

Being away from home for nine months came with its other sacrifices too.

Annalese missed her second-youngest daughter's first day of high school.

It probably hurt her more than anyone.

"They understand why. All they wanted was to be there (with Sophie)," Annalese said.

"We're a pretty close family. We do everything together. It was difficult going from a family of 10 to three or four."

Twenty months to go

The Salams' hardest days came when Sophie was forced into intensive care for four weeks.

The chemotherapy had brought on vocal cord palsy - paralysis of the vocal cord muscles, impacting Sophie's ability to speak and even breathe.

"You have your ups and downs," Annalese explained.

"Those first six to eight months when we were down there, with the intense lot of chemo and stuff and all the side effects, that was tough.

"The worst of it was when she was in ICU. They ended up having to tube her and she was out to it for about three days.

"Not being able to hold her was hard. But she's such a little fighter."

Sophie's fight is constant. After the initial nine-month stay, the Salams must travel to Brisbane every three months, staying for two to three days at a time for more tests and treatment.

"That's the lumbar punctures and more chemo; she's on oral chemo every night and has to go for bloods every fortnight at the hospital here," Annalese explained.

"We see a doctor every four weeks here, as well.

"Twenty months to go."

North Mackay family: Zane Salam, Annalese Salam and Mikaela Salam with Sophie Salam (front) while in Brisbane for treatment. Photo: Contributed
North Mackay family: Zane Salam, Annalese Salam and Mikaela Salam with Sophie Salam (front) while in Brisbane for treatment. Photo: Contributed

Christmas at home

Sophie spent her third birthday in Brisbane, running the gauntlet of tests that will be her reality for the better part of the next two years.

The family returned to Mackay last week and a Christmas tree immediately claimed pride of place in the front room of their home.

It is next to that tree that Sophie plays at her bright pink vanity, holding a toy lipstick in one hand while gripping Zane's arm with the other.

When it comes time for photos, it's Mum's turn for affection. Sophie buries her head into Annalese's shoulder.

The Salams share knowing smiles.

"She's always shy with the doctors and nurses. She'll eventually get used to them," Annalese said.

"But as soon as the family came down she was happy. That brightened her up. She became a different person."

After a year spent mostly separated, the Salams are welcoming a Christmas together - one they once thought might not be possible.

"The grandparents are in town so we usually go and have Christmas with them and swim and play games and whatever else," Annalese said.

Much needed support

Childhood Cancer Support makes the Salams' Brisbane stays infinitely easier.

The not-for-profit organisation provides families affected by childhood cancer a home during life-saving treatments.

"They take care of long-term and short-term accommodation, transport to and from appointments, groceries and opportunities to connect with other families going through the same thing," Annalese said.

"There's no way we could afford to run two households. Knowing we have a place for our family when we come to Brisbane has not only taken a lot of stress away, but it also means we can all be together when Sophie has her treatment."

As the family readied for its first Christmas together since Sophie's diagnosis, Annalese thanked those who have donated to the Childhood Cancer Support cause and asked that people continue to donate blood and plasma where they can.

"It also opened our eyes to how important blood donations are, because (Sophie) has had to have a fair few of them," she said.

"We just couldn't believe how many little kids there are (that go through the same battle)."

Sophie's next trip to Brisbane is in February.

"Twenty months to go," Annalese repeated.

"Hopefully she's young enough not to remember too much of it, (but) she'll see the scars."

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