When a child’s cough turned out to be cancer

Jamie Miller, from Bonteheuwel, died at the age of 10 from cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.

The mother of a 10-year-old boy who died after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer urges parents to seek help immediately if they notice changes in their children’s health.

When Jamie Miller, of Bonteheuwel, developed a persistent cough that lasted two weeks, his mother, Cynthia, took him to the doctor who gave him antibiotics.

But after a small tumour appeared on Jamie’s chest, he was referred to Melomed Gatesville Hospital and then to Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, where, in January 2013, a biopsy confirmed Jamie had cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a rare cancer in which the body’s white blood cells attack the skin.

Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma is one of several types of lymphoma collectively called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Signs include round patches of skin that may be raised or scaly and might be itchy, patches of skin that appear lighter in colour than the surrounding skin, lumps that form on the skin and may break open, enlarged lymph nodes, hair loss, thickening of the skin on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, or a rash-like skin redness over the entire body that is extremely itchy.

Jamie underwent chemotherapy until November 2013.

“Chemotherapy was tough,” says Ms Miller. “There were lots of needles involved, lumbar punctures every other week, platelet counts and blood-level checks. His immune system was extremely compromised, and he couldn’t really attend school out of fear of being exposed to germs. 2013 was like lockdown to us: we stayed indoors to keep him safe.”

Jamie loved going to the beach.

Later in November that same year, the tumour came back on the same place, which meant the chemotherapy wasn’t working. Jamie’s immune system started to fail, and his condition deteriorated.

Jamie died on January 7 2014, exactly a year after he went for his first biopsy.

“It’s been a tough time for the family and especially his brother who was 5 at the time,” says Ms Miller. “We miss him. He was so busy all the time, so energetic and opinionated. This year he would’ve matriculated.”

In 2016, the Bonteheuwel Church of Resurrection, approached the family to speak to the congregation about their experiences. Since then, the family, together with the church, raised funds annually and donated the proceeds to various cancer-outreach organisations.

When Covid-19 hit in March last year, the fund-raisers stopped, and Ms Miller and her husband, Douglas, wondered how they could keep honouring their son’s legacy, so they contacted Bonteheuwel High School and offered to sponsor two matriculants for their last academic year.

“We sponsored one girl and one boy who are both from Bonteheuwel by buying them uniforms and stationery and whatever else they needed for the year. We also made a donation to the school, and this made us feel that we were experiencing the matric year with Jamie. We also donated to four feeding schemes in Bonteheuwel – one feeding scheme per week in September to commemorate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, including the Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies,” says Ms Miller.

She urges parents to be ever vigilant about their their children’s health and seek medical help sooner rather than later.

“If something persists, take them to the doctor. Remember that you are not alone: many families out there are going through the same thing. Join support groups and take care of yourself.”

Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies chairwoman Soraya Salie says they cooked a pot of chicken akhni for 350 children with the Millers’ donation. Mr and Ms Miller also donated lollipops, oranges, and gold cancer-awareness bows for each child.

“The Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies are honoured to be part of keeping Jamie’s legacy alive,” she says. “The children really appreciated it, and I read them a short piece about cancer and explained what happened to Jamie.”