Twins Mason and Sierra Malmsten, who recently celebrated their 16th birthdays in the midst of the pandemic, are now fighting a deadly disease together — but it’s not COVID-19.
Within weeks of each other and shortly after their birthday in May, each was diagnosed with a different type of lymphoma.
Mason has Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Sierra has Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Their parents, Gordon and Sherri Malmsten, are still in shock.
“When we’re around the kids it’s very positive, it’s very upbeat — it’s laughing and joking and everything in between,” said Gordon.
“When it’s just the two of us, we crumble.”
Members of the family from Vita, a small Manitoba community about 95 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, aren’t the only ones stunned.
The teens’ specialist at Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital hasn’t seen anything like it in 35 years of treating cancer in young people, Gordon said.
Coughing up blood
Sierra and Mason’s birthday fell on May 19, in the midst of the pandemic.
Within days, Mason was coughing up blood.
He had been struggling with a cough for weeks and previously tested negative for COVID-19.
When things worsened after his birthday, the family doctor suspected he had a bad case of bronchitis and prescribed an inhaler.
The phone rang two days after that checkup. It was the family doctor again. She’d spoken with experts at the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg.
They said the family needed to see a specialist.
Initial tests showed Mason had a mass growing in his chest above his left lung and near his heart. A tissue sample confirmed he had Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
Mason was hospitalized. He had to endure another uncomfortable COVID-19 nasopharyngeal swab test, which has been mandatory for months for all hospitalized patients.
‘It was very stressful’
At the time, COVID-19 hospital rules only allowed for one loved at a time to visit.
His parents took leaves from their jobs and began taking turns staying by his side. Sometimes, Sherri would pass Gordon in the hall as they switched off.
“It was very stressful,” said Gordon.
Then one day, when they were together in Winnipeg, Sierra called. She told her parents she found a lump on her neck.
Sierra was referred to Children’s Hospital. Gordon bumped into Mason’s doctor the same day, while he was going to visit his son.
It was highly unlikely Sierra also had cancer, Gordon recalls the doctor saying, but to put their minds at ease he agreed to check it out.
On June 19, exactly one month after her birthday, Sierra was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that forms in white blood cells. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes.
“Everybody started asking the same question: How did this happen?” said Gordon. “The answer we get is they don’t know.”
Sierra was hospitalized after her diagnosis and also had to be tested for COVID-19.
Her hospital room happened to be next to her brother’s. They desperately wanted to visit but weren’t allowed while the COVID-19 test results were pending, said Gordon.
‘They hug, they cry’
When the tests came back negative a few days later, Sierra rushed into Mason’s room.
“He was like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not allowed in here.’ And she’s, like, ‘I’m not contagious,'” said Gordon.
“Mason jumps up. They embrace, they hug, they cry. They didn’t leave each other’s side for the first week until he got discharged.”
Their doctor has told them the conditions are treatable, said Gordon. Both are undergoing chemotherapy, which has them in and out of the hospital.
Their little sister is staying back home in Vita with her grandparents. She, too, is struggling, said Gordon.
‘We’re in it to win it’
Between hospital readmissions, the family has stayed at Ronald McDonald House in Winnipeg.
Gordon said they’re grateful for support from the community. Church members in Vita, which has a population of just under 500, have begun raising money for the family. A friend started a GoFundMe campaign that had raised just over $7,100 as of Thursday evening.
With the parents out of work and the twins’ battle just beginning, Gordon said the family has a long journey ahead of them.
“I feel absolutely helpless, because you want to do more. All we can do is cheer them on,” said Gordon. “We’re in it to win it.”