“It was like a truck had run over my heart”: The moment Steph found out she was a cancer mum.

signs of leukaemia

Growing up, I wanted lots of children, to find true love and be happy.

By the age of 40, I had achieved all three.

I was married to a wonderful Englishman named Ed. We met at a ‘Feathers and Fur’ party in Sydney over one too many Cosmopolitan cocktails. I was wearing a colourful feather head-dress looking for love, and Ed was sporting a fur coat. Our courtship moved quickly and within a year we were married and quickly producing children. In six years, we had three boys, Max, Will and Tommy, and one girl called Ruby.

Ruby was born on July 4, 2011. When I looked into her beautiful blue eyes, I knew our family was finally complete. Not because she was a girl (I was expecting a boy called Charlie) but because she was perfect (and four kids is more than enough really!).

I called our wedding photographer from my hospital bed and booked in a photo session for the children. Life was perfect. I wanted to frame it.

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Nothing could have prepared me for the news delivered just a few years later.

It was Monday March 14, 2016. Ed, Ruby and I sat in the Emergency Department of Sydney Children’s Hospital. Hours earlier, our GP, Dr Margaret Hamilton, knocked at our door. Ruby had been a bit pale and lethargic and had been sent home from preschool that morning. Ed took Ruby to our GP, requested a blood test and came home for a rest. We just thought Ruby may have been low in iron.

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“You have to go to Emergency now. They are expecting you,” Margaret told us clearly and calmly.

I didn’t ask Margaret any questions. I just packed a hospital bag and Ed and I did as we were told.

Arriving at Emergency, all was calm. We were greeted by a team of beautiful nurses, volunteers and Dr Toby Trahair, who I now know as a leading Paediatric Oncologist.

Toby sat with Ed and me while the nurses played with Ruby. He looked at us directly in the eyes and said, “Your daughter Ruby has leukaemia. I hope I am wrong, but I know I am right.”

Boom. Right there, I became a cancer mum.

Bald heads and tears

Our first night in the cancer ward was eerie. Hospital has never been my favourite place and other than birthing my four children, I had not spent any time there.

Steph and Ruby Atkinson. Image supplied.

Ruby and I were surrounded by children with bald heads, some vomiting, some crying, loud beeping machines and mums and dads who looked tired.

I collapsed and sobbed. It was like a truck had just run over my heart.

The journey

Leukaemia treatment is a two-year program. I liken it to the Washington DC Marathon I ran when I was 25 years old. Along the marathon route your friends cheer you on. Our cheer squad during Ruby’s treatment has been our family and friends, as well as the incredible charities, such as Redkite, the Starlight Foundation, Camp Quality, the Clown Doctors and Delta Dogs. Without them the days would have been a lot darker.

At the halfway mark during the marathon, you inevitably hit a wall. Ruby hit a wall when she caught a serious fungal infection and we spent months on end in isolation ticking off the days hoping she would get better.

And then the finish line, when you realise you have run 42 kilometres, you feel elated, but exhausted.

Always smiling. Image supplied.

We're now looking at Ruby’s finish line and I can hardly believe it. My heart is full of so many emotions. And just when I think I have no more tears to cry, they roll down my cheek.

March 2018 marks the end. That translates into 730 days of Chemotherapy, 7,000 pills, more than 200 blood tests, 34 blood transfusions and 14 general anaesthetics.

Ruby has done all the hard work, and I am so proud of her. She has taught me so much.

Ruby on her final day of chemo. Image supplied.

Ruby bravely accepted her diagnosis. I truly believe she was relieved that a doctor knew what was wrong with her and was going to try and make her better.

And today she has an infectious love of life.

I asked her recently what she enjoys most about life, and without hesitation she replied, “Everything.”

Ruby’s top tips on life

Ask questions. Ruby’s oncologist Toby would visit us every morning in hospital. We spent most of 2016 there. We would discuss the stage of treatment and the side effects. Toby would always ask Ruby if she had any questions, and always she would say yes. “What did you have for breakfast?” “What is your favourite colour?” “What flavour ice cream do you love?”

Don’t ever be afraid to speak up and ask questions.

Try new things. Ruby spent an entire year away from friends fighting leukaemia. When she was well enough to go to school, Ruby put her hand up for everything – in kindergarten she was student representative, a member of the school choir and an Indian Brave in the school musical. Ruby jumped back into life with two feet and did not look back.

Ruby jumped back into life with two feet and did not look back. Image supplied.

Always embrace what life has to offer.

Live in the moment. Throughout Ruby’s journey I always admired her amazing ability to live in the today. She rarely looked behind her and she never looked ahead. She focused on her day, who she was going to giggle with, what words she was going to learn, what craft she was going to do and what food she was going to enjoy.

Be present in life and what today has on offer.

My advice for any mum in the same position

Allow yourself to feel. If you feel sad, then cry. If you are angry, then scream. If you are happy, then laugh. Don’t pretend you are okay when you are not.

Don’t be too proud to ask for help. We all need help sometimes, and there are so many people out there that want to help ease your pain.

Say thank you. Many jobs are thankless, particularly in the children’s oncology ward. Remember to thank the remarkable doctors and nurses, as well as volunteers.

Don’t wait for the right time. There is never a perfect time for a holiday or celebration. You will never have enough money saved up, or your children will never be at that perfect travelling age. Act now because you can’t be sure what tomorrow brings.

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Appreciate the stress of normal life. Whether it be a big deadline at work or a demanding client; the kids not doing their homework, spending too much time on technology, or just the crazy pace of everyday life. It’s not until you are faced with an illness like cancer that you miss the normal life stresses and strangely long for their return.

Growing old is a privilege. Don’t take old age for granted. If you are lucky enough to get there, embrace your older self and celebrate.

As Ruby’s treatment ends, we feel very hopeful for Ruby’s future.

Every child deserves hope.

You can join in the fight against childhood cancer here.

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