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Imogen and Tennille were like any other kids. Then their lives were touched by cancer - twice.

Imogen and Tennille Purton are twin sisters, who have one shared experience with cancer — and a very different one.

When Imogen was five she was diagnosed with cancer. Soon after being given the all clear, the family learned her mother, Heather, was now facing her own battle with a similar strain. 

While Tennille had struggled to comprehend her sister’s illness, and had celebrated her recovery, she now had to watch her mother go through the same battle.

Imogen and Tennille were 10 years old when their mother passed away from cancer. 

Imogen (left) and Tennille sitting either side of their mother, Heather. Image supplied.

They have chosen to share their stories with Mamamia for National Bandanna Day, CanTeen’s annual fundraising and awareness campaign for young people who face the challenge of cancer in their lives. 

Imogen's Story:

As a child I was always happy and I always had a smile on my face. You would never know that I was living with cancer.

I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at the age of five, in 2003. Throughout all of the chemotherapy and hospital visits, I tried my hardest to feel like a “normal” kid. This was hard as I had my twin sister, Tennille, to compare my life to. In my mind, she was living the “perfect” life.

One memory from when I was going through chemo has stuck with me, no matter how hard I have tried to repress it. I had just lost all of my hair and I was at McDonald’s with my family. I vividly remember the lady behind the counter looking for the toy to go along with my food and her coming up to me and saying, “We have run out of boy’s toys, would you like a girl’s one instead?” I didn’t understand why this lady couldn’t see that I was a girl even though I didn’t have any hair.

Imogen with her mother, Heather. Image supplied.

In March 2005 I had beaten cancer, but three years later, in 2008, my life was turned upside down — once again, due to cancer. This time it was my mum, Heather. I remember when she told us she had cancer so vividly. The whole family was sitting in the car as she told us. I was 10 years old at the time.

We would only visit her on weekends. Every time I saw her she look even more sick. It got to the point where I was too scared to look at her because I couldn’t recognise the person in front of me anymore. She lost her fight in July 2008.

As I continued on in my life, I felt like I was alone and that no one else understood what it was like to be a teenager who was affected by cancer. I didn’t have anyone to rely on for support, despite the many councillors I was seeing.

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I was then introduced to CanTeen, where I met other young people who knew exactly what it felt like to be affected by cancer. CanTeen has helped me realise that their are other people that are experiencing the same thing as myself, and that I have other people to relate too. National Bandanna Day is such an important cause to support, as it allows young people affected by cancer to come together and feel a sense of support and community from other like-minded people who just get it.

Imogen (left) and Tennille (right). Image supplied.  

Tennille's Story:

As a young girl, I was very adventurous and was always running and playing with my twin sister, Imogen. All of that changed when Imogen was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia after our 5th birthday and first day of Kindergarten. I continued to attend Kinder, as if cancer hadn’t entered my life, as Imogen stayed in hospital and received her treatment.

Being five years old, I didn’t understand the medical side of Imogen’s cancer, all I knew was that Imogen was sick, I still had to go to Kinder and I had to go between my mum and dad’s house every night, so Imogen and I could see them both equally. Time passed and Imogen and I moved up to Grade 1 and she was officially cancer free and in remission. Our whole family thought that cancer had vanished from our lives, but when Imogen and I were 10 in 2008, our mum was diagnosed with a similar type of Leukemia that Imogen had survived.

Our life was once again turned upside down, as life at home changed.

Heather Purton having her head shaved in 2008. Image supplied.

Being five years older, I understood more of what was happening this time around, however I was still unable to fully comprehend the situation, as opposed to how an adult would understand. During this time, I would attend school and my after-school activities alongside Imogen, who has always been my best friend and partner in crime.

Not long after her diagnosis, my mum lost her battle to cancer. It wasn’t until 2013 that I found out about CanTeen and became a member. After three years, I finally found friends my age who have had a similar encounter with cancer and could help me with my grief, as they have their own first-hand experience.

CanTeen has helped immensely with my thought and emotions about how cancer has affected my life, as well as allowing me to go out on Programs and Rec Days to feel like a normal teenager again. National Bandana Day is a great way to help raise funds and awareness for CanTeen, as all of the money from donations allows teenagers like Imogen and myself to meet other teenagers with similar experiences to myself.

CanTeen is calling on Australian families to get behind National Bandanna Day on Friday 28 October and show their support for young people living with cancer by buying and wearing a bandanna.

Each year, 23,000 young people face the challenge of cancer in their life – whether it’s a close family member’s cancer or their own. Funds raised help provide counselling services, a 24/7 online community, camps and youth-specific resources as well as specialist medical treatment and support for young cancer patients.

CanTeen bandannas can be bought online at www.supportbandannaday.com or from street teams around the country on Friday 28 October.

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