Three years ago, Lizel and Jaco Esterhuizen were told their son had only a month to live because of a tumour in his abdomen.
On Wednesday, six-year-old Jacques donned his school uniform and started Grade 1 in Potchefstroom.
It has been a tumultuous three years for the family. After Jacques’ neuroblastoma had been nearly completely beaten, it came back again last year.
Neuroblastoma, which affects young children, is usually discovered when already at an advanced stage. This means that those who have it rarely survive.
They first realised something was wrong with Jacques when his appetite declined drastically in March 2013.
“He was the type of child that would eat everything you give him to eat. I took him to doctors who gave him medication for tonsils, then they gave him medication for an infection. They couldn’t find anything,” she said.
Jacques spent two weeks at a hospital in Kimberley, where routine blood tests did not reveal anything.
Eventually, in May that year a paediatrician in Klerksdorp, North West, did an ultrasound and saw something in Jacques’ abdomen.
She said the doctor referred them to someone in Johannesburg, but did not use the word cancer. When they went there, they realised they had been referred to an oncologist.
“So when we sat in the oncology room, and we were looking around and were seeing all of these bald children, we were like ‘shit, what is happening now?’,” Lizel said.
“We were in shock when we found out that it’s cancer. The initial thought of all of the doctors was that he only had one month to live. At that stage his intestines were so pressed together that they didn’t work.
“They did not have any hope for him, they said they really didn’t want to say anything, but we needed to pray.”
Two days later, Jacques began using a trial medication from the USA. It worked for him, but was not successful for other children.
He began chemotherapy and underwent operations. In October 2013, 98% of the tumour was gone.
As Jacques was in Grade R last year, another tumour appeared in his abdomen. Doctors said this one was inoperable and that he had four months to live, and would be in a lot of pain.
They began taking other medication to restrict the tumour’s growth. A scan in November last year revealed that the tumour had shrunk to at least a fourth of its original size.
“It’s just like a miracle. That tumour was growing with the speed of lightning.”
Lizel says her two younger children have grown up with this all around them. When he was diagnosed at the age of four, Jacques did not immediately understand what was happening. He did however realise he was sick.
When he had his second operation for the first tumour, he started asking questions, but did not know what to ask, and did not understand what he was being told, she said.
“After his second round of chemo, his hair started falling out. He always looked at the other children, and asked me why they don’t have hair, and I said it was the medication they were using. When his hair started falling out, he told one of the nurses that he is not a healthy child, he is a sick child.”
Jacques now understands his illness.
“Sometimes, when we are at the hospital, and there are new parents, and they ask me something, he will butt in and he will tell them everything. He doesn’t blame anything or anyone, his understanding is that he got sick, and God healed him.”
The cancer changed the family’s plans.
“My husband had a great job. He was a senior IT network administrator. When Jacques got sick, he basically had to leave his job, because I couldn’t be in Johannesburg with two children, while he is in the Kalahari working.
“So he took a job in Johannesburg and had to take a big cut in his pay and you could feel it. All of the things you have wanted for your life vanish in front of your eyes.
“But, a shiny new car, and expensive stuff doesn’t bother us anymore. You don’t want that. The only thing you want is for your child to be happy and healthy.”
They were concerned about Jacques starting school, but were also proud of him.
“We never thought it would happen. There were so many times that they [doctors] told us that they can’t do anything anymore. We didn’t prepare for it, but we were not going to give up.”
Lizel said Jacques’ excitement before school almost made her crazy.
“He just wants to go to school and play with his friends. He enjoyed the first day so much. When I went to get him he asked, ‘is it over already?’ He actually loves school. He is one of the rare ones.”