A brave teenager has survived cancer after being treated with arsenic.

The family of Gracie Mazza, 14, were stunned when doctors revealed they would be treating their daughter’s rare condition with the toxin, a favored murder weapon by poisoners for hundreds of years.

But the unusual treatment, which cost the NHS £ 50,000, worked for Gracie, who is now cancer-free after a nine-month battle.

Arsenic is used on just five British children a year. Mum Kelly, 41, of Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, said: “We were so shocked when the doctors told us what they wanted to use to treat her.

“We didn’t think it could be used to save someone like this – but we put our faith in the doctors and it has done an amazing job of saving her.







Gracie with her mum Kelly
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Image:

Richard Rayner)

“If she’d had chemotherapy treatment instead, then she would have been in hospital all the time as her immune system wouldn’t have been strong enough to cope, but using the arsenic treatment allowed to be at home in between her treatments. She has done amazingly well and we are really proud of her. “

Gracie, who lives with Kelly, building merchants manager dad Stephen, 46, and brother Ethan, 12, was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, accounting for only 10% of all acute myeloid leukaemia cases.

She was just 24 hours from losing her life when she was taken to Leeds Children’s Hospital and diagnosed.

Teaching assistant Kelly, 41, said: “She’d had lots of throat infections leading up to the diagnosis. The doctors said they were unrelated to the cancer, but they weakened her immune system.

“One morning in May last year, she woke up and said she didn’t feel well and felt like she was about to faint. She had bruises over her body and her gums were bleeding. We rang the doctors who told us to take her straight to hospital.







Gracie has miraculously survived a rare cancer
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Image:

Richard Rayner)

“We had no idea it was so serious, but the doctors gave her blood tests and told us she had cancer. And they said that if we had left it just a day later then she may not have survived, which was terrifying to hear. “

Gracie’s count of platelets –which helps blood clot – was only 11. A child’s range should be 200-300. She was taken straight for a blood transfusion.

Kelly said: “It all happened so quickly that we couldn’t take it in. The doctors said that she’d only had it for two weeks, but it was so aggressive that she came so close to losing her life. “

The doctors then told the couple that they wanted to treat Gracie using an arsenic-based drug.

Kelly said: “We were shocked when they told us that it was arsenic, and that it worked better for this type of rare cancer.

“The doctor treating Gracie said she had just finished writing a medical paper on arsenic treatment for children with this type of cancer, and that she wanted to try it.

“They had to push for the funding to treat her, as she had to have two infusions a week for nine months. But luckily it was approved and Gracie started it straight away.







Gracie in hospital
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Richard Rayner)






Gracie rings the all-clear bell

“She had some chemotherapy first and that made her so poorly – she got ulcers in her mouth and her stomach – but when she started the arsenic treatment, she responded much better to that. The doctors hadn’t treated many children with arsenic before, so they had to seek advice, and were constantly researching her doses and adjusting them.

“We were so lucky that the funding for it was agreed and Gracie was allowed to have it. It made such a difference to her recovery.

“Her family and friends couldn’t believe she was being treated with arsenic.”

Gracie rang the end-of-treatment bell last month and had a celebratory party at her home with her family.

Kelly said: “She’s doing really well. She’s had to miss school during her treatment but has been tutored throughout it in English and maths so she didn’t miss too much. She is hoping to go back to school after Easter. ‘

Consultant pediatric haematologist Dr Beki James, who treated Gracie, said: “Arsenic is a wonderful drug and saves about five British children each year who have this type of rare cancer.”

Dr James said it had been shown to be effective in low risk groups so it is covered by the Cancer Drugs Fund, which funds treatment across the NHS.

But when children who have the high-risk form of the disease need it, each health trust has to apply for the funding for that child, which is why its so expensive.

She added: “APML is a horrible cancer – children have a high risk of dying in the first 24 hours from internal bleeding, so as soon as they come in, it’s classed as a medical emergency and haematologists are brought in the middle of the night to look at blood samples to make the diagnosis. Immediate treatment is so crucial.






The teenager’s life was saved by arsenic

“We are now seeing that high-risk children who are treated with arsenic are doing really well on it, it completely transforms their treatment as there are fewer side effects than with chemotherapy, and it doesn’t risk making them infertile.”

Dr James is one of the doctors on the Children’s Cancer Leukaemia Group, which recommends children with APML who are high risk need arsenic treatment. It has written to NHS England to request that it is now funded from the Cancer Drugs Fund.

History of arsenic

This deadly white powder is the king of poisons and has been used throughout history to execute criminals and commit murder.

From poisoning politicians during the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was popular thanks to its lack of odor or taste when mixed in food and drink.







Gracie holding her pet pooch
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Image:

Richard Rayner)

Symptoms of arsenic poisoning were hard to detect as they were the same as food poisoning and other disorders. A large single dose would leads to violent stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting, often followed by death.

By the 18th century, the incidence of poisonings began to slow down as improved methods for detecting them in body fluids appeared. In 1836, English chemist James Marsh perfected a sensitive and specific chemical test for arsenic, meaning poisoners now had little hope of escaping detection.

Arsenic compounds then began to be used in agriculture as well as in rat poisons, wood preservatives, and pigments in wallpaper and ceramics.







Gracie with her mum, dad and brother
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Image:

Richard Rayner)

The Victorians loved the vivid green colored wallpaper that came from using arsenic compounds but it was eventually discovered that it could kill people.

The ink often flaked off the paper, and was inhaled by those nearby.

Wallpaper manufacturers stopped using it by the end of the 19th century.

How arsenic helps cancer patients

Arsenic speeds up the death of leukaemia cells, encouraging them to self-destruct. It also encourages normal blood cells to develop properly by working on certain proteins. According to Cancer Research, arsenic trioxide is administered through a drip lasting up to four hours. Patients usually have 20 to 25 doses and it can be used again for relapses.

Common side effects include tiredness, rashes, numbness, tingling in the fingers, diarrhoea and nausea. Arsenic-based therapy was used in America and Europe more than 100 years ago to treat leukaemia and infections, but modern chemotherapy and antibiotics replaced the treatments.

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