Southland leukaemia survivor Cameron Parkinson was busy planning his 21st birthday party when a shock cancer diagnosis turned his world upside down.
“I’d been feeling really crook for a few days and was having night sweats. The doctor ordered some bloods because she couldn’t really work out what was wrong with me. That night I got a call telling me I had leukaemia, and to pack my bags and head to hospital.”
After a brief visit to Southland Hospital in Invercargill, Cameron was taken by helicopter to Dunedin Hospital for further tests. Next, a private plane was arranged to transport Cameron to Christchurch Hospital where he would start his first round of chemotherapy. His parents followed by car.
“The specialists said it was T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, which is a difficult cancer to treat,” says mum, Marlene.
An apartment was arranged at Rānui House for Marlene and Dad, Neville. It meant they could stay within five minutes walking distance of Cam, who would stay in Christchurch Hospital while undergoing treatment.
“That was one of the most major reliefs – we could be close to Cam, and the people at Rānui quickly became family. After a stressful day, I felt so pleased to be able to walk in the door to a place that feels like home,” says Marlene.
Being located in the central city meant everything Marlene needed was in one place. An avid walker, she enjoyed being close to the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park. On the hard days, she would often do a few laps.
“It’s strange because at the end of the day you’d rather be home living a normal life, but being welcomed back by familiar faces gave us comfort and a sense of ease,” says Marlene.
Cam’s favourite thing about Rānui House is the fact that it allowed his mum to be close during his treatment.
“Without having my mum there for support I would have really struggled. Rānui really is a home away from home,” says Cam.
Cameron’s initial treatment was declared a success after eight months of chemotherapy, and he was allowed to go back to the comfort of his home.
“At that point we were on a three-year treatment plan where Cameron would still receive chemotherapy every month as an outpatient. The idea was that it would stop the leukaemia from coming back,” says Marlene.
But then – in April 2022 – Cameron became unwell again. The leukaemia had returned, more severe this time. Cameron’s only option was a Stem Cell Transplant. High doses of chemotherapy, as well as radiation therapy would be needed to prepare his body for the procedure.
“We were absolutely devastated,” says Marlene. “We always knew there was a risk of it coming back, but we didn’t think it would happen while Cameron was still undergoing treatment.”
What followed were three “brutal” months in Dunedin Hospital, where Cameron received chemotherapy through an IV line as well as trialling a new ‘oral’ chemotherapy drug. For the transplant to go ahead doctors had to be sure Cameron had no cancer cells left in his body. In the meantime, the hunt was on for a donor who could be a suitable match. They eventually found one – all the way from Germany. Once more, Marlene found herself back in Rānui House, with Cameron preparing for the transplant by undertaking further chemotherapy and full-body radiation.
“It was a really hard time. We got through it by taking one day at a time. We just focused on moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other,” says Marlene.
Thankfully, the transplant was a success, and Cameron’s body accepted the donor’s bone marrow stem cells. During his recovery – when he was up to it – Cameron was able to join his mum at Rānui. He enjoyed being able to sleep in a warm, comfortable bed, away from the hospital environment.
Fast -forward two years and Cam is now cancer-free and regaining his fitness one step at a time.
“Eventually I’d love to get back into rugby, as well as fishing, diving and hunting,” he says.
For the time being, Cam is enjoying being back home and appreciating the “little things”, like being able to catch up with mates and enjoying the company of his golden Labrador, Buck.
Cameron and his family spent 283 nights at Rānui House between 2020 and 2023 while he was battling T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, a type of cancer of the blood.