Lauren Neal was only six when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Two and a half years later, she celebrated the end of her long and often painful treatment with a bang, on Guy Fawkes Day. Her mum, Susanne, laughs at the timing, saying that it’s just like her bubbly nine-year-old to make a statement.

Back in 2014 Lauren was laid low with a series of viruses and was onto her third set of antibiotics when the doctor ran blood tests to see what was going on. Susanne remembers they were in the middle of renovations and staying at her parent’s house when her husband, Justin, got the phone call.

“It was a chaotic time already, but it only got more chaotic,” says Susanne. “That phone call was just the start of the roller coaster that became life for the next two and a bit years.”

After spending a night in Nelson Hospital, where Lauren was pumped with fluids, Susanne and Lauren were flown to Christchurch Hospital’s Children’s Haematology and Oncology ward. Justin drove down that day, after sorting childcare arrangements for the couple’s two older sons.

“It was just huge – I honestly don’t think your brain is able to cope with everything that’s happening in such a situation,” recalls Susanne. “There’s so much information being given to you and your child is starting chemotherapy and other treatments; and all the time you’re thinking ‘how can this have happened?’ You’re just numb!”

Lauren stayed on the ward in CHOC for two weeks while her intensive chemotherapy got underway, before they moved to accommodation close to the hospital. It would be six weeks before the pair returned home.

“Lauren and I met the Christchurch Child Cancer Foundation team while in hospital and they were great – talking us through what was going to happen and answering our questions,” says Susanne.

“It was wonderful that Justin and the boys had that kind of support back home too. Our Family Support Coordinator was able to organise a special trip for them to visit Lauren and I in hospital.”

Susanne recalls it was both the little things and the big things that the Child Cancer Foundation team helped them with. “Little things like being with us in the crowded CHOC day room and stocking the kitchen with food for emergencies, right through to helping us make contact with the Health School and filling in the gaps in our information. Plus, they connected us with other families in the same situation, which was great.”

This Saturday, the Nelson Speedway Association does its bit for the Child Cancer Foundation, for Lauren and for other families in the region managing a similar scenario to that which the Neals have lived through at the second annual Racing for the Kids meeting at the Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway.

Association president Darryl Bridge is candid when he says: “I’m a big softie. It’s hard to comprehend what these families deal with – there’s no rhyme or reason to cancer. It’s unfair in everyone but especially when you’re talking about the wee ones who need months and months of treatment.

“We put families right up the top of what we do in Nelson speedway and these families deserve a little something to lift their week.”

To that end, the local speedway fraternity is hoping to help the Child Cancer Foundation in a number of ways on Saturday.

One of the most visible is the derby car purchased and prepared by Jack’s Tyres and painted by members of the ProKarts junior members’ club. The Toyota liftback for Saturday’s The Hits 89.6FM derby was being raffled with the proceeds going to CCF. Jack and Karen Mclauchlan of Jack’s Tyres raised the bar even further earlier this week. In addition to the initial car donation, the staunch supporters of Nelson speedway had vowed to match every raffle ticket sold on Monday and Tuesday with another bought by them with the money raised being donated.

The speedway will host up to eight CCF families on Saturday with the kids getting the chance to meet drivers, sit in cars, look through the pits and head onto the infield and take part in the grand parade, if they wish. The club also has speedway souvenir gift packs for auction and will give a percentage of Saturday’s gate take to the foundation.

“We will have some bucket collections going round, too,” Bridge said. “Anything people can spare helps – these families suddenly have their working lives, their family life, their budgets and costs turned upside down so they can be on hand for their sick son or daughter.

“I’d just ask everyone who can, to carry a bit of cash in their pockets.”

Meanwhile, after the initial six weeks, Lauren was able to complete most of her treatment in Nelson, with occasional weekend visits to Christchurch. This meant she could go back to school at times throughout treatment, although her lack of immunity saw her miss the winter term.

​Each step of Lauren’s treatment contained a challenge — her first IV access, the first trip to theatre, dressing changes, losing her hair, finger prick blood tests – the list goes on.

Susanne says that as Lauren was a bit older she fully understood everything that was going to happen. “It was the pits, as a mum you just wanted to do these unpleasant things for her. It really broke my heart.”

She says the one thing that helped Lauren through these ongoing treatments was the Child Cancer Foundation’s Beads of Courage.

“They were wonderful. They really turn a negative into a positive. The beads are such a powerful reminder of what Lauren has been through. All these horrible treatments became normal in her life but, when we see the beads, we are reminded of her strength.

“She wears them and shares what each means with such pride. She will cherish them forever.”

  • Racing for the Kids, 6pm Saturday, Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway in support of the Child Cancer Foundation. Classes programmed include stockcars, production saloons, TQs, sidecars, youth ministocks and superstocks. Sidecar rep Milly Steer has secured 12 combinations for the best pairs promotion. The Hits 89.6FM demolition derby will close the meeting.
  • Thanks to Michelle Berriman of CCF for her part in telling Lauren’s story.