Hope during the pandemic as medics successfully remove a rare tumour from a Middlesbrough schoolgirl

Since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020 most of our headlines have been about the NHS being under unprecedented pressure. As a result, several non-covid related surgeries and treatments were postponed or cancelled.

This was Sarah Wilson's worst fear, as her 10-year-old daughter Ruby had just been diagnosed with mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, a rare cancer that can be cured if removed, but is fatal if left undetected.

Ruby Wilson is now in remission Credit: Newcastle NHS Foundation Trust

Ruby, a keen footballer, was diagnosed in February 2020, after discovering a lump between her shoulders, which was causing her pain.

As the world was moving into a global pandemic, mum Sarah’s world fell apart.

“Ruby was doing her normal 5 days’ football training when one night she complained of pain in her shoulder. She was in the bath, so I had a look and could see a lump protruding between her shoulder blades. I thought I had better get it checked out so I booked an appointment with the GP, who sent us to the Friarage Hospital for an MRI scan.

The doctors took me and my mam into a separate room and told us that it looked like Ruby had a malignant tumour. We were sent to Newcastle’s Great North Children’s Hospital for further tests and Ruby had a biopsy and right there – our world fell apart.

Sarah Wilson, Ruby's mam

The tumour which started at Ruby's ribs and extended through most of the right side of the chest also covered the spine and compressed the heart and soft tissues in the chest.

Ruby’s parents were given a 50/50 chance that she would survive surgery, or be left with severe complications of the surgery.

However, leaving the tumour would be fatal.

50/50

Ruby had a 50/50 chance of surviving surgery, or be left with severe complications

Quentin Campbell Hewson, consultant oncologist at the Great North Children’s Hospital and Ruby’s oncologist, explains the incredibly hard decision that was made.

We knew that not removing the tumour would mean that Ruby would not survive.

Quentin Campbell Hewson, consultant oncologist at the Great North Children’s Hospital

“We knew that not removing the tumour would mean that Ruby would not survive. However, we also knew how difficult the surgical removal would be and that there was likelihood that Ruby would not survive, or the operation would result in severe complication.

Decisions like these are never taken lightly and the decision to proceed to the surgical procedures was taken in a very considered and balanced way involving the entire treating team, the family and national and international colleagues.

The surgeons involved had to proceed mindful that an incomplete removal of the tumour with severe complications was a possible outcome.

Quentin Campbell Hewson, consultant oncologist at the Great North Children’s Hospital

A large team of specialists were involved in Ruby's surgery and treatment including:

  • A team of heart and lung surgeons

  • Plastic surgeons

  • A spinal orthopaedic surgeon

  • A children’s surgeon

  • Specialist anaesthetists

Using a 3D printed model replica of the tumour, the specialists carried out two main surgical procedures to remove the tumour, and reconstruct the chest wall where parts of the tumour were removed.

Promising footballer Ruby was always determined to play the beautiful game again.

She is so strong and determined. She absolutely loves playing football, and the first thing she asked was ‘will I be able to play football again?’ She used the goal of getting back to do football to power her through all this. Even after her surgery and she was in her wheelchair she said ‘can I just try and see if I can?’ the physios are amazed by her – everyone has been.

Sarah, Ruby Wilson's mam
Ruby Wilson and mum Sarah ringing the bell to signify end of treatment Credit: Newcastle NHS Foundation Trust

The first procedure to remove part of the tumour was carried out at the Freeman hospital, with the final removal plastic surgery reconstruction carried out at the RVI.

Successful removal of the tumour and completion of chemotherapy means that Ruby is now in remission, and this week she rang the bell to signify the end of her cancer treatment.

But because of the ongoing pandemic restrictions, the ceremonial 'ringing of the bell' will be slightly different.

As there are restrictions on visiting, she will be taking the bell outside to ring it in front of the rest of her family, so they can celebrate the moment with her.

Sarah, Ruby's mam

Quentin Campbell Hewson, consultant oncologist at the Great North Children’s Hospital adds: “There are not many places in the world that could have delivered the surgery she had and the surgical teams have delivered an amazing outcome.

“Ruby is now in remission and we are so delighted at her progress. We hope that in the long term she will be cured.”

Ruby has set her sights on getting back to her favourite activity, playing football, and she has received some great support whilst she has undergone treatment including a video call with the England women’s team

Sarah said: “Ruby also got to be the mascot for the Champions League semi-final and got to meet some amazing players over Zoom. The girl’s team at Boro have also organised some private training for her – so my first question to Quentin will be ‘when can Ruby begin some light training?’”