As Anne Dwyer opened a box of flavoured teas at Christmas – a gift from her children that they knew would go down a treat – she thought about all the joys in her life worth celebrating...
There was her firstborn son, Tom – a qualified engineer, holidaying overseas.
Her second boy, Jack, had been studying computer engineering in Scotland.
Thanks to the technological wonders of Skype, catch-up sessions with both boys had been highlights of the past year, Anne pondered.
Then there was her daughter, Grace – all capable and excited about moving out of home after finishing school and turning 18. Admittedly, “mum’s not quite so eager” about the prospect, noted Anne mentally.
Meanwhile, young Dan would start Year 11 soon, with his favoured English studies a sure highlight...
All of these holiday season reflections were once unimaginable for Anne and her husband, Frank, from Drouin in regional Victoria.
It was the summer of 2003 when Anne (then 42) became unwell. At the time, she and Frank had been happily married for 16 years. Tom was 14, Jack was 12, Grace had just turned 9 and Dan was 7.
“Life was busy,” said Anne. “We had just had an exchange student stay and I was working part-time as an administrative officer at an aged care facility. Frank was office manager for an accountancy firm.”
Several symptoms suggested that Anne’s health was not as it should be. She had been to the dentist about bleeding gums. She had experienced joint pain, was excessively tired and had broken out in a rash.
“I had been to the doctor three or four times,” said Anne. “Some of the things I just put down to age though and being busy with four children and work.
“I remember on one Sunday morning I just couldn’t get out of bed and Frank saying: ‘There’s something wrong with you’.”
The following morning, on Monday, 13 January, Anne had a blood test. She vividly recalls the events that followed.
At 2 o’clock, her GP phoned and asked her to come back in to the clinic. She went alone, but later regretted this decision. Alone, Anne tried to digest the news that “a problem” with her white blood cells had indicated she had leukaemia.
“I cried all the way home,” said Anne. “When I got back, the kids were playing Monopoly in the garage. Frank called me and I told him to ‘just come home’, rather than break the news over the phone.”
With Frank home and the couple trying to process the reality of the situation as best they could, Anne packed an overnight bag. By 6 o’clock that night, she was in Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH) and her diagnosis with AML was confirmed.
“It’s about an hour’s drive from Drouin to Melbourne,” explained Anne. “I still remember the smells along the way, the way my stomach felt, how I felt... I was in denial – shock and denial.”
Admitted to 5 North Ward, Anne spent 30 days in isolation undergoing chemotherapy. During this time, she only saw her children at the weekend – which was “terribly hard”. Her “rock”, Frank, would go into work at 4am, then visit mid-morning, on top of having the children and the house to look after.
Living was what Anne wanted, “but it seemed so difficult”.
“I was so weary I could barely watch and comprehend a game show on TV,” said Anne. “Even opening my eyes was hard work.
“Fear was a big thing – I was scared about everything. It’s hard work to keep that fear at bay, particularly when you’re exhausted.
“Dark thoughts were always creeping in so I tried to visualise myself well and with my family. That was how I kept the bleak thoughts and feelings out – by visualising my positive future.”
Five rounds of chemo later, on 8 August 2003, Anne was in remission.
To make up for lost family time together, the family packed their bags in September and headed to Queensland for a holiday.
“The blue skies were a welcome sight and the warmth of the sun was very healing,” said Anne.
“It was the perfect time to go – not too hot – and the theme parks were a joy for the children.
“We have some wonderful memories of the time spent together.”
While the holiday was welcomed, Anne couldn’t truly relax. She “just wasn’t quite right”.
Once home, she called the Leukaemia Foundation to talk through her niggling concerns.
“I spoke to a wonderful lady called Tania,” said Anne. “She was blunt, but kind too and she listened. She said it sounded like I’d relapsed.”
On Grace’s 10th birthday, 8 November 2003, the family found out that Anne had relapsed. After further medical investigations in Melbourne, it was recommended she undergo a stem cell transplant if a suitable match could be found.
It was Anne’s brother who proved to be a compatible donor and she had an allogeneic transplant on 29 November 2003.
While she spent 45 days afterwards slowly recovering in Royal Melbourne Hospital, Frank and the children stayed in nearby BMDI House, which had just opened.
“It took a long time (to recover from the transplant),” Anne said. “I hated watching the kids go through what they did. They had to learn how to cook and get themselves organised. It was so hard as a mother looking on.”
Anne is so grateful for the dedicated team who treated her at the RMH under the leadership of Professor Jeff Szer.
“I owe my health and life to them,” she said.
In February 2004, Anne returned home. The family relished their reunion, which would see some major milestones follow in the years to come.
“For example, in 2005 I saw Tom become school captain,” said Anne. “Then, just recently, Grace achieved a 92 in her ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank).
“For all we’ve been through, for me to be part of these occasions – it’s wonderful. Every day’s a joy. I value all I can share with my children.”
Anne still attends the Leukaemia Foundation’s monthly support sessions and patient information days. She also logs on to Talk Blood Cancer and rates as helpful the chance to share coping techniques with others about challenges such as graft-versus-host disease (GvHD).
“Just reading and hearing other stories makes you feel better,” she said. “It makes me realise I’m not the only one.”
Today, Anne “takes time to smell the roses”. She gave up work as soon as she was diagnosed and now savours “the little things”, like walking Bella the dog.
“You look back and you realise that everything is more meaningful,” she said.
“When it all happened, I negotiated with God to let me bring up my children and get them to 18. It must be time to renegotiate.”
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