In November 2019, Ollie Acosta-Pickering was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He suffered multiple relapses that caused him to go blind. Now, after a year of treatment and a stem cell transplant, he’s in complete remission. Twelve-year-old Abby wrote her younger brother this letter about what it’s been like watching him battle cancer during COVID-19.  

Dear Ollie, 

I hope you are reading this knowing how brave you are. Knowing that you are only eight years old and you did something that many couldn’t. And knowing you are winning your battle with cancer. 

It has now been a year since you were diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma —  cancer that came from a lump on your neck. It is so rare that only a few hundred kids around the world get it each year.

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Ollie Acosta-Pickering gets a visit from CHEO’s clowns the week before starting chemotherapy in November 2019. That’s his dad Mario photobombing the shot. (Dawn Pickering)

Your diagnosis

One of the worst memories I have was when I found out. 

Mom pulled me out of school early and drove me to a quiet street. She parked the car and told me about the lymphoma. I had no idea what that meant, but Mom explained it was a type of cancer. When she said that I immediately started crying. 

Most kids think that cancer means death, and at first I believed that. Mom said you also thought you would die, but that the oncologist told you that she was not going to let you do that. 

I remember going home that night and you looked so scared. To cheer you up I suggested we play foosball, and the rest of the night you were happy.

Ollie made a list of hard things that he must do and fun things he can still do in hospital during the first round of his chemo treatment at CHEO. (Dawn Pickering)

Being your donor

I remember the first time you relapsed in your brain. In January, you were very sick and complications made you lose your sight. I was so scared, and I didn’t know if you would make it. But you got through it. 

Then came the news that you would need a stem cell transplant. Somehow I knew I was going to be your donor. 

At first, we tried the international stem cell registry, and there were three perfect matches. But because none of them live in Canada and the borders were closed due to COVID-19, we couldn’t use them. 

Ollie suffered multiple relapses during his year in and out of hospital. (Dawn Pickering)

I was only a half-match, and I was really afraid that the transplant would not work. I was so stressed when Mom and I went to Toronto to Sick Kids Hospital for my pre-transplant testing during what should have been March Break. 

But the transplant doctors told us that because of COVID-19, they have had to do more half-match transplants and have learned how to do them successfully. As a result, you are doing way better than all the doctors expected you to do. 

Even though the needles and injections were scary and painful, what kept me going was knowing that the pain that you felt throughout your treatments is way more than I would ever feel.

It was an amazing thing for me to give you cells to help you survive. I have since learned how important it is to join the stem cell transplant registry so that others can have the same chance.

Abby Acosta-Pickering’s mom Dawn and dad Mario were all tested to see if they were a match to be Ollie’s stem cell transplant. In the end, Abby’s half-match was thought to be most effective. She and the family travelled to Toronto during March Break for the procedure. (Dawn Pickering)

Separated from you

After your transplant, you had to be in isolation for three weeks since you just got a new immune system. Because of COVID-19, I was not able to see you. That was hard, and our temporary Toronto condo felt even more weird and empty.

I came back to Ottawa to stay with family friends before you and Mom and Dad because we thought I’d be able to attend my new middle school. Unfortunately, it became obvious that it would be too risky with COVID-19 increasing again.

Ollie rings the bell at CHEO to signal the end of his treatments and celebrate his remission in November 2020. (Dawn Pickering)

You have no immunities because of the transplant, so even a common cold or flu could mean hospitalization or worse for you. I couldn’t take the risk that I’d get something and pass it on, so I’m doing online learning instead. 

It was super hard for most people to have to stop going to school and to stop hugging their friends, but you have not been able to do that for a year. 

I know it has been hard for people to wear a mask, but it has been even harder for you because you have been wearing one since November 2019.

It makes me mad that so many people keep refusing to wear theirs. People have no idea how their actions can affect kids like you. 

Abby with her younger brother Ollie after his second round of chemotherapy. He relapsed the following week in January 2020. (Dawn Pickering)

If I had to give advice to another sibling of a cancer patient, I would say spend every moment you can with them. I see siblings fighting and taking each other for granted. 

When your sibling has cancer you can’t assume that there will be a tomorrow, or that they’ll always be there.

So you have to live every day to the fullest and just love them as I love you, Ollie. 

I hope that you read this when you are older and understand that you can do great things. One of the hardest things that you will ever do is done. 

Love, Abby

Throughout his illness, Abby tried to cheer her younger brother Ollie on. They’re pictured here during March Break 2019, just before Abby donated her stem cells to Ollie. (Dawn Pickering)

Abby Acosta-Pickering is a 12-year-old student in the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Elementary School. She can’t wait until she and her brother can go back to a COVID-19- and cancer-free life again.

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