The ripple effect of cancer: three families, three different stories

RN by Victoria Pengilley for Life Matters, 26 Jun 2018.

Cancer is a diagnosis no-one wants to hear. What follows is fear, uncertainty and the upheaval of life as you know it.

More than 120,000 Australians are diagnosed with cancer each year, and the number is set to rise. Cancer Council Australia predicts one in 18 Australians will have faced a cancer diagnosis by 2040.

Oncologist and author Dr Ranjana Srivastava says each diagnosis has a ripple effect.

“Cancer doesn’t just happen to one person,” she says.

“While the patient is the one the most affected, cancer touches families, providers and a number of other people that you may not even think about.”

Here, three families share how their lives changed when a loved one was diagnosed with cancer.

It was his brother’s birthday when a routine doctor’s appointment changed Geoff’s life.

Geoff remembers the day clearly: “I went in for a colonoscopy and no-one was expecting it.”

The diagnosis was bowel cancer. Australia’s second most common cancer, it accounts for nearly 4,000 deaths every year.

The news came as a shock: Geoff was an active, healthy stay-at-home dad with no history of smoking.

He told his wife Robyn the news at the same time he told their three daughters, aged seven, 10 and 12.

“He just said ‘look, I’ve got bowel cancer’ … then we all fell apart really,” Robyn recalls.

“I think Geoff was really brave to tell us all at once because it meant [our daughters] were there and they saw the rawness of it, and the reality of it.

“They were all essentially on the journey with us from that point.”

What followed was surgery and a stint of chemotherapy to eliminate further growths.

The family also had to make practical changes. The household roles switched, and Robyn, a full-time physiotherapist, took on the new role of primary caregiver.

“At first I was trying to be super mum. I was trying to work and get home in time to get people everywhere … trying to do the shopping, prepare meals, cooking, everything,” she says.

“But it kind of got to the point where I couldn’t keep doing that.”

Cracks started to appear in Robyn’s work as she struggled to adjust.

“Things were sort of suffering on the edges,” she says.

“I realised how much work Geoff does at home and how much involvement he has with the kids and the school.

“So for me, it was a huge journey of change.”

Geoff’s cancer is now in remission. He and Robyn are slowly returning to their old lives, with a renewed respect for each other.

“It’s a journey that you do together,” Robyn says, adding: “Listen to yourself and your own body and what you need.”

On the surface, Janet is your typical working mother in her 40s — a full-time teacher and busy mum to two children aged 11 and 16.

But behind closed doors, she has been managing illness for 11 years.

Dr Srivastava remembers when Janet was first diagnosed with breast cancer.

“She had no family history, she had been a well woman previously and the diagnosis came as a complete surprise,” she says.

After rounds of surgery and chemotherapy and, later, a second diagnosis of breast cancer, Janet thought she was in the clear.

But just months ago, she began getting “throbbing headaches”, which she initially dismissed as stress related.

Then the news came: the cancer had spread to her brain.

“When the doctor said there are some tumours on your brain, I remember thinking ‘I’m so glad, because now we can deal with it’,” she says.

Janet’s colleague Janice was unaware of her illness when they first met.

“The way Janet works is that she makes it just an ordinary part of her life,” Janice says.

“She doesn’t want to make a fuss about it and doesn’t want to be known as the woman with cancer.”

Determined to not be defined by her illness, Janet continues to work full-time, taking only the occasional day off.

“We run a very busy household, between going to different kid’s activities and shopping and being involved with our busy lives,” she says.

“I’m trying to make the most of things and trying to just incorporate the treatment, and the hassles that come with cancer, into my life without getting too stressed about it.”

As for the future, she is aware her time is limited but takes a practical approach to an otherwise morbid possibility.

“Dying is a part of life and however that happens, it’s always tragic and sad but you can look at it from a more practical level,” she says.

“There are moments where I think ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die’ … but we all have that threat hanging over our lives, mine is just a bit more of a known factor.”

Sisters Keren and Rebekah know the unfairness of cancer all too well.

Their father Paul never smoked, but he died from advanced lung cancer which stopped responding to chemotherapy.

Keren recalls the day she found out about her father’s diagnosis.

“I got a call after work and then I walked into the emergency room and I just looked at my mum and dad’s face,” she says.

“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t expect it was going to be cancer.”

Research by Lung Foundation Australia suggests diagnoses like Paul’s are not uncommon.

One in three women and one in 10 men diagnosed with lung cancer have no history of smoking and the survival rate is bleak — only 15 per cent of Australians are alive five years after their diagnosis.

After starting treatment, Paul’s health deteriorated quickly. His drugs stopped working and he became tired and withdrawn, eventually being admitted to hospice.

Dr Srivastava recalls treating Paul through his illness and says his story deeply affected her.

“While I had expected this event at some stage, it’s sheer speed took me completely by surprise,” she says.

Paul died in February. Just nine days earlier, he delivered on one final promise: a brand-new car for Rebekah’s 18th birthday.

“Mum said she always thought that he held on a little bit longer just for my birthday,” she says.

“I used to bug him about turning 18, getting a car and getting a licence … I think dad made sure he finished that off.”

Months later, Rebekah and Keren are still struggling to come to terms with their father’s death, and the reality that at life’s big events, their dad won’t be there.

“Your whole life you think you grow up with both your parents, and your parents will see you graduate,” Rebekah says.

“It’s hard kind of accepting that what you’ve thought your whole life would be like, is suddenly not going to be like that any more.”

The family are slowly starting to settle into a new, quiet routine.

“After dad passed it was quite hectic with funerals and people coming people going, once all of that died down, it was just silence,” Rebekah says.

“In a way it’s just very quiet, it’s peaceful knowing that obviously he’s not in pain anymore he’s not suffering.”

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