In many ways, Liam van Heerden is like most 5-year-olds. He likes Doc McStuffins and Batman. He finds the world expansive, exciting, and he loves to be around the people who matter most to him: his family and friends. But Liam is also unlike most kids his age. Most kids his age don’t have bucket lists… and cancer.
Liam has Wilms’ tumor, also known as nephroblastoma. In mid-October, he was sent home from the hospital with a grim outlook: The surgery, chemo, and radiation treatment he’d been receiving was no longer effective. He most likely only had a few more weeks to live.
“Unfortunately, his cancer has spread so quickly and extensively in such a short amount of time. We have discussed his options and the sad horrible truth is there are none,” his devastated family posted on Facebook.
With the help of his community of family and friends in Pretoria, South Africa, Liam’s been able to accomplish so much. He recently had a beach day, assisted a veterinarian working with buffalo at an animal preserve (one of Liam’s dreams is to be a vet), got treated to a helicopter ride, and visited a dinosaur exhibit in East London. An organization called Reach for a Dream also put together a trip for Liam to see dolphins at uShaka Marine World, but he was too ill to travel.
But one of the most touching items on his list was capturing the images of people he loves the most. To help achieve this, a local photography store donated a Polaroid camera. Liam then spent a day with his new camera, photographing his family members and beloved friends.
Wilms’ tumor is a rare kidney cancer that most commonly affects infants ages 3 or younger. The symptoms can be unspecific at first, ranging from abdominal swelling, bulging eyes, or a fever. In April of this year, Liam’s abdomen started swelling, a slight lump protruding from his right side.
His family took him straight to the hospital, where the doctor first claimed the lump was feces buildup due to constipation. Liam was then given a liquid enema and sent home. But a few days later, after the lump grew more painful, he was rushed to St. George’s Hospital in Port Elizabeth. It was then the doctor gave the diagnosis: Liam had cancer.
Since that fateful day, Liam has lost a kidney, and his right lung started to collapse. “Liam understood that he was sick — he called his tumor his Cancer Monster,” Melissa says, while noting Liam’s strength. She says that the only time Liam gets upset is when he sees her upset: “If I cry, he panics.”
Despite this, he still has great days. “Liam’s good days are wonderful. He laughs and jokes around and dances and sings,” Melissa shares via email. But Liam also has, well, awful days: “His bad days are bad. It’s very hard to see the panic in his eyes when he has trouble breathing or when he has lots of pain. It’s very difficult holding your little boy in your arms while his body shakes as he vomits nonstop. But he is amazingly strong.”
Another day of life is another victory
Today, Liam weighs about 33 pounds. But his spirit remains unchanged. He’s still the kid that wants to stop for every street dog and feed every animal he stumbles across. “Liam has the kindest, most caring heart,” Melissa says. “When he received toys, he always shared with the other hospital kids.”
The family now relies on the kindness and generosity of friends, family, and supportive strangers. They’ve sold their possessions and have auctioned off what they own to help fight this battle. Liam’s mother was forced to leave her job to devote herself to his care (she and her husband, Dean, also have another son, Niko).
“Liam’s family have so many people supporting [us],” Melissa says. “We have found friends who were total strangers before, who [now] seem more like family. Liam has touched many people’s hearts and has opened their minds to what childhood cancer is about.”
One of those people is Robyn Oosthuysen, a local photographer who volunteered to document Liam’s cancer experience. Oosthuysen says it’s been especially moving to see how Liam’s family ties have strengthened during this time.
“As a mother, my heart breaks for this family, but through this experience, everything in my life has shifted,” she tells Healthline via email. “I really look at the people I love, particularly my children, in a new light, and I’m ever more appreciative of them.”
Others have continued to help, out of their love for Liam and his family. They’ve set up a BackaBuddy account, which is the South African version of crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe or YouCaring. Some follow Liam’s journey on Facebook, providing messages of support as he continues his last days.
With the love and care the community has expressed for Liam’s journey, the family is now able to turn their attention to making Liam’s last days his best. They’ve finished his bucket list and are plowing forward without a plan, trying to make the most of every day they have with each other.
“We take every day as it comes,” Melissa says. “And every day... is another victory, another day we get to spend with Liam.”
At the time of publishing, we learned that Liam passed away in his home at 4:15 a.m., November 17, 2017, with Melissa by his side. If you’d like to help the family get back on their feet, you can send donations here: Liam Van Heerden, 045524912, Branch Code 050917, Swift Code SBZA ZA JJ.
Laura Barcella is an author and freelance writer currently based in Brooklyn. She’s written for the New York Times, RollingStone.com, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Week, VanityFair.com, and many more. Connect with her on Twitter.