Cancer

24 December 2012

Mother loses legal fight to stop son's radiotherapy

A mother lost a court battle to prevent him receiving radiotherapy.

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A mother in Britain, who was so desperate to stop her cancer-stricken son having to undergo conventional medical treatment that she went into hiding with him, lost a court battle  to prevent him receiving radiotherapy.

The case of Sally Roberts, 37, a New Zealander living in Brighton, southern England, and the plight of her seven-year-old son has made headlines in Britain.

Roberts wants to try alternative treatments first, including immunotherapy and photodynamic therapy for her son Neon. She has been told the boy needs treatment fast but fears the side-effects of conventional medicine.

Doctors treating the boy had warned that without radiotherapy he could die within three months. Judge David Bodey told the High Court in London the life-saving radiotherapy treatment could start against the mother's wishes, the Press Association reported.

"The mother has been through a terrible time. This sort of thing is every parent's nightmare," the judge said. "But I am worried that her judgment has gone awry on the question of the seriousness of the threat which Neon faces."

The story of the sick blue-eyed blonde boy came to public attention earlier this month when Roberts prompted a nationwide police hunt by going into hiding with Neon for four days to stop him from undergoing the treatment.

Mothers relentless battle

The mother's relentless battle in court also cast a light on the dilemmas parents can face when dealing with the illness of a loved one, considering the short-term and long-term risks of a treatment and handling conflicting medical information available at the click of a mouse.

Roberts said in court she had researched on the Internet her son's condition - a fast-growing, high-grade brain tumour called medulloblastoma - and sought advice from specialists around the world because she did not trust British experts.

She feared radiotherapy would stunt the boy's growth, reduce his IQ, damage his thyroid and potentially leave him infertile.

Earlier this week, a judge ruled that Neon could undergo emergency surgery to remove a tumour which had resisted an initial operation in October, despite opposition from his mother, who found he appeared to be recovering after what she said was a "heartbreaking" stay in hospital.

Experimental and unproven

Surgeons said Neon's operation on Wednesday had been successful but that radiotherapy was needed to ensure no residual tumour was left behind.

Neon's father Ben, who lives in London and is separated from Roberts, has sided with his son's doctors.

But his wife suggested exploring several alternative treatments, including immunotherapy, which mainly consists of stimulating the body's immune system to fight cancerous cells, and photodynamic therapy, which uses a photosensitising agent and a source of light to kill malignant cells.

The hospital treating Neon slammed "experimental and unproven" methods which entered "unchartered territory". The hospital, which cannot be named, also questioned the credentials of some of the private specialists contacted by Roberts's team. The court heard that at least one of these could not even correctly spell medulloblastoma.

Radiotherapy is used to prevent cancer from spreading or striking back after surgery but it can damage nerve tissue and healthy brain cells. Long-term side effects tend to be more common in children, whose nervous systems are still developing.

(Reuters Health, December 2012)

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