Therapeutic play at The Christie got Emma through her cancer treatment

Press release posted 02 September 2015

A Wigan mother, who is celebrating having her daughter free from cancer after a three year battle with the disease, says the youngster wouldn't have got through treatment without her play specialist at The Christie.

Emma Hoolin, eight years old from Whitley in Wigan, was diagnosed with high risk neuroblastoma, a potentially terminal cancer in February 2011 when she was just three years old. This is the same cancer that is currently a major storyline in Coronation Street for Jennie McAlpine's character Fiz Brown and her on screen daughter Hope.

Neuroblastoma is a rare cancer that affects children, mostly under the age of five years old. Around 100 children are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year in the UK. It often starts in the stomach as it did for Emma, and commonly in the adrenal glands or the nerve tissue at the back of the abdomen.

As part of Emma's subsequent treatment, she had intensive courses of radiotherapy at The Christie, one of Europe's leading cancer centres and chemotherapy at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital. This can be a big physical and psychological undertaking for an adult, let alone a small child.

On Emma's first visit to The Christie, both Emma and her parents were comforted when they were introduced to Penelope Hart-Spencer, play specialist and paediatric support coordinator. Penelope has a unique role, funded by The Christie charity, where she provides comfort and support to small children during their cancer treatment in the form of therapeutic and specialised play and support for the whole family.

Emma's mother, Jill said: "The clinical team looking after Emma was amazing but we'd have been lost without Pen She was with us every step of the way and Emma loved her. Having someone dedicated to helping Emma enjoy coming in for her treatment was just remarkable."

Penelope, who lives in Manchester, said: "My role focuses on helping these young patients through their treatment as smoothly as possible, and this includes children from birth to 15, who visit us as outpatients. We use therapeutic play and a range of techniques to guide them through their treatment without the need for sedation or general anesthetic.

"Each time Emma came to The Christie, I would meet her first and we'd go through the treatment together. For radiotherapy, our patients wear body casts during treatment to keep them still and in the same position so it can be administered as accurately as possible. To ensure that Emma wasn't frightened by this, I made it into a dressing up game and we painted her cast pink and added glitter to it - she loved being in it and she called it her 'princess dress'.

"I always brought games with me too. I was once asked to keep the noise down because we were both giggling so loudly!"

Jill added: "We can't thank Pen and The Christie enough. If it wasn't for Pen, I honestly think that Emma would have been too fragile and unable to cope with her radiotherapy treatment."

Dr Ed Smith, clinical oncologist at The Christie, was Emma's consultant. He said: "Therapeutic and specialised play is an essential part of the paediatric radiotherapy service we offer at The Christie. Without it more of our patients would require a general anesthetic every day throughout the course of their treatment, which can be hard going and make some patients sick, dizzy and generally unwell. Even for those who can tolerate anesthetic, it can affect their quality of life during treatment."

Results from a recent clinical audit completed at the Trust showed that Penelope's work has a hugely positive impact on young patients' treatment at the hospital with 94% of child patients at The Christie able to have their treatment without general anaesthetic and 89% of children under five years old also able to have treatment without general anaesthetic, thanks to the therapeutic play service provided by Penelope.