When 17-year old Daniel, diagnosed with kidney cancer, was invited to Make-A-Wish, his response was completely unexpected. Not too many high school kids show a fascination for nature and the environment, and so when Daniel ‘wished’ to go to Christmas Island to see the red crab migration, he surprised everyone – but very pleasantly as it turns out. After his wish was granted, he travelled with his parents and two younger brothers to Christmas Island for a week. And the good news is he did get to see the Red Crab Migration and many of the other wonders of Christmas Island.
That was almost 10 years ago, and we were delighted recently to receive an update on Daniel's progress from his mother Vicki. Daniel is now cancer-free though still managing the long term effects of his treatment. We spoke with Vicki to hear this amazing good news story.
Can you give us a little background on Daniel's illness - how long had he been ill and in treatment, and explain the Make-A-Wish process, and how Daniel came to be selected?
Daniel was in his final year at High School when he developed a series of seemingly minor symptoms. In May 2008 he was diagnosed with an Adult Wilms Tumour (kidney cancer). It was stage 4, meaning it had already spread to his liver and both lungs. The prognosis was poor. He was 17 years old.
As you might imagine, our whole world came to a crashing halt. We barely had time to comprehend the diagnosis before he began the gruelling treatment process. He underwent a series of chemotherapy, surgeries and radiation therapy.
As time progressed and Daniel continued to surprise everyone with his fight, we learned that he was eligible for “Make-A-Wish”. At first this was upsetting as it reminded us (yet again) that he was actually fighting for his life.
A couple of people from “Make-A-Wish” visited us at home. They were warm, friendly and talking with them was easy. Naturally they wanted to talk to Daniel and learn more about his story, his dreams and plans for his future.
When (and how) did Daniel learn about the red crab migration, and how old was he at the time?
Daniel was learning about the red crab migration at high school at the time he became ill. He was studying Geography and the red crab migration is one of the wonders of the natural world. His teacher was a huge influence in that she nurtured Daniel’s fascination with the environment and nature.
Daniel has two younger brothers. They were in Year 10 and Year 7 at the time of his diagnosis and I can’t begin to imagine the impact Daniel’s cancer had on them. They really stepped up. They had to grow up, practically overnight. One is now a high school science teacher, the other is a greenkeeper.
Is Daniel interested in other wildlife/wildlife phenomena?
Absolutely! As a family, we have been fortunate to have travelled around Australia quite a lot. Our camping trips and road trips were always about the wildlife and landscape. Australia really has it all – from snow to desert and rainforests.
Daniel is particularly interested in environmental sciences, bio sustainability and deep sea creatures.
Were you surprised by Daniel's choice?
Yes. I think everyone was! It was completely unexpected. Daniel said he only thought of it at the last moment. I was shocked when Daniel said something about crabs. I had heard him say “island” and that sounded lovely – but crabs? I wanted to lean in and tell the “Make-A-Wish” team that he really meant to say “Paris”... but this was Daniel’s wish, not mine.
They too seemed surprised, but they asked Daniel all about Christmas Island and what he hoped to see. I thought the chance of granting this wish and witnessing such an event felt very unlikely. We had to wait for a few days to hear if his wish was even possible. His doctor (also surprised at his wish request) approved his travel. A short time later we heard from the incredible people at “Make-A-Wish” that Daniel’s wish had been granted. It was really quite exciting. Our family of five were going to Christmas Island for one week!
Would you rather he chose a different destination?
At the time, I had serious concerns about his choice! He was still very sick – bald, thin, pale and weak. I worried how he would manage. However it was obvious he was so excited about the trip – we had to help him make this happen. I was greatly reassured that we were still in Australia though – for medical reasons.
What was it like visiting the island for the first time?
I don’t remember there being a huge amount of time between learning Daniel’s wish had been granted and heading off to Christmas Island. In that time, Daniel was telling us all about the crabs and their annual migration. His excitement was building by the day. It was impossible not to get excited with him. We tried to do a bit of research so we would have an idea of what to expect. We learned that Christmas Island is largely National Park – and we love National Parks. Make-A Wish arranged for us to have a car and we were allowed to explore the Island at our own pace.
Upon arrival the first thing we noticed was the humidity. I wondered if Daniel would be OK... but he gained a huge amount of energy from somewhere! He kept up quite a pace that week!
We were met by Linda Cash from the Information Centre and she took very good care of us all week. So too did the Park Rangers. In fact everyone on the Island went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Daniel had the most wonderful time.
Island life was a bit of a culture shock – much slower in pace and a lot more relaxed than Sydney. This helped us to relax too.
We were given a brochure with photos of all the different crab species on Christmas Island. All the photos were about the same size, so I thought the crabs were similar in size. You can imagine my shock when I saw a robber crab for the first time!
You were very lucky to time your visit with the migration - did this stroke of luck give you any sense of hope for luck in other areas?
The actual time of the crab spawn is very difficult to predict – even by the scientists who study them. Despite reading up about the crabs I had failed to note that they spawn before dawn. We got up very early and were taken down to the beach in the dark. On the first morning, very little happened. There were crabs everywhere – but they just weren’t ready.
We got up early again the next morning and repeated the trip. There were quite a few people about – all hoping to witness the event. Daniel was sitting on the beach and we walked around carefully with torches trying not to step on the crabs. In a sudden burst of energy and noise it seemed like every red crab on that beach rushed into the water. The sight was breathtaking! There were squeals of excitement as we watched in amazement. I looked around for Daniel – I needed to know he was actually seeing this spectacle. I can clearly recall what I saw – Daniel was sitting on the sand covered in red crabs. They climbed straight over him in their haste to reach the water. His smile was unforgettable, the sight unbelievable.
What did Daniel think of the whole experience - did it live up to his expectations?
Not many people have witnessed the red crab migration and spawning. We were extraordinarily lucky and feel it was a once in a lifetime moment. As if that wasn’t special enough, when we went snorkelling we also saw a whale shark! The whole experience was incredible and far beyond Daniel’s expectations. The memories will last us a lifetime. We know we witnessed something incredible.
Daniel found more strength and energy that week than we had seen in a very long time. Despite being so hot, he managed several walks - through the National Park, to see robber crabs, waterfalls and the grotto. The Park Rangers drove us to places which were closed off to the general public because of the migrating crabs. They showed him animals and birds they were studying and rehabilitating and made his interests a priority. He travelled up front with them, walking and talking happily.
How important was the visit to you all? How does it rate with other holidays/life experiences, events in yours' and Daniel's lives?
When something like cancer strikes your family your world stops spinning. It is impossible to comprehend, and even harder to explain to others. When children get sick – it just seems so wrong. As parents you try to protect your kids from all the bad things in the world – but this is beyond that. Cancer does not discriminate. The harsh realities of life – and death – are fully exposed and you have no choice but to face it.
It’s a time when you realise that there are many things that money can’t buy.
It’s feels like everything is being taken away from you – health, freedom, a future...
I want to acknowledge all the dedicated people doing amazing things at the Children’s Hospital – staff and volunteer organisations - that work tirelessly to guide you through the whole nightmare. Then people like the “Make-A Wish” foundation come along and make even the wildest dreams not just possible but a reality.
Whilst we have enjoyed many family trips together, this one was unique in that we didn’t know if it would be our last one all together. It was full of purpose and hope. It was a turning point in Daniel’s cancer journey as he reached out to pursue a dream.... and actually succeeded.
Do you think you'll ever return?
We would return in a heartbeat. It’s not the easiest destination to reach, but well worth the effort! This trip was very memorable for the amazing people we met, the unique places we experienced and the animal life we saw.
Daniel is now cancer free and managing the long term effects of his treatment. He will be monitored medically for the rest of his life and this will make further travel more challenging. This is why the trip was so special.
We are – and always will be – very grateful to the Make-A-Wish foundation and the people of Christmas Island who made this unique experience possible.