NSW girl’s ‘droopy’ smile leads to rare brain cancer diagnosis

An NSW mother who had to remind her daughter to smile in photos was horrified to discover her lopsided grin hid a “horrific” truth. In the last few weeks of 2018, Deb Hunt remembers constantly telling her daughter Emily to smile more. Taking photos over the holiday season, the Southern Highlands mum and her husband, Jono Hunt, began to notice their then-four-year-old wasn’t cracking her usual grin. “Her smile was lopsided, and it was like one side of her face just wasn’t working,” Ms. Hunt told news.com.au. “We thought initially it might have been in our heads, and we just kept saying, ‘Big smile, big smile.’

But the mum of three realized something was wrong when she noticed Emily had become self-conscious of her “droopy smile”. “It got to the point where she was aware of her smile. She wouldn’t smile in photos because she knew she couldn’t; it wouldn’t happen for her,” Ms. Hunt said. “That was when we went, ‘Oh OK, something’s amiss, we better get this checked out.’” Despite having no other symptoms, Emily’s GP recommended the Hunts take her to the hospital for further tests. “Everything that she was showing seemed normal – her balance, she had no nausea, no headaches. Nothing that pointed to anything sinister,” Ms. Hunt said.

brain cancer

But a hospital MRI scan would reveal a lump on Emily’s brain, and she was transferred to Sydney’s Children’s Hospital in Westmead, a two-hour drive from the Hunt family home. It was there the Hunts would later receive devastating news: Despite doctors initially hoping the lump was benign, a biopsy confirmed the 4cm mass was a “very aggressive, highly evasive tumor”. Emily was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (ATRT), a rare and fast-growing form of brain cancer. “Horrific – it’s the worst news I have ever received in my life,” Ms. Hunt said of the moment she discovered Emily had life-threatening cancer.

“I’ve been very blessed and had a straightforward life, which just brought everything crashing down.” Emily was given an intensive two-year treatment plan to fight cancer involving two rounds of radiation, chemotherapy, stem cell treatments, and “more blood tests than I can remember”, Ms. Hunt said. Living two hours away from where Emily was receiving treatment also made things more difficult. “Family stepped in to keep as much consistency for the older siblings as possible,” Ms. Hunt said. “Ronald McDonald House was there instantly to create the home away from home.” The Hunt family has stayed at the Ronald McDonald House near The Children’s Hospital in Westmead for more than 149 days, with the place a lifeline during some of their most difficult moments.

Ronald McDonald House Charities provides houses, rooms, and retreats for families of seriously ill children. The independent charity has 18 Ronald McDonald Houses near hospitals across Australia, with the centers providing a haven for needy families. “Ronald McDonald was instrumental in providing a safe place where we could all be together and not have to do this traveling all the time,” Ms. Hunt said. “Having the haven of your bathroom, bed, pull-down blinds, and sleeping whenever you can be just fantastic. “Even the kitchen where you could just go make whatever you needed, whenever you needed.”

Emily has “powered through” two years of aggressive treatment and appears in this year’s Dance For Sick Kids campaign. The week-long dance challenge will take place from May 15-21 to raise money for Ronald McDonald House Charities. Anyone can pledge to dance between 30 minutes to two hours a day for the week, with all money going towards helping sick and injured children and their families. Emily, 6, loves to dance and had an “absolute blast” filming the campaign alongside her father. “She loves seeing herself in magazines and on the TV. She says, ‘You know Mum, I’m famous, right?’” Ms. Hunt said with a laugh. This month, Emily completed her two years of aggressive treatment and will have an MRI in April to determine if she needs more done. “The MRI will then dictate what happens next,” Ms. Hunt said. “The hope is that we’re moving into the next phase, which is just check-ups to ensure that nothing is changing and go forwards; that’s our hope.”


I have always enjoyed writing and reading other people's blogs. I started writing a journal as a teenager and have since written numerous books and articles. My blog is a place where I can write freely about my personal interests and those of others.

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