real life

'Everyone copes differently.' What life is like when a family member is diagnosed with cancer.

"It's not just me who has cancer, our whole family does, it is affecting us all," Mum sadly reflected on Christmas Day. We were trying our best to celebrate another festive season together, but a veil of despair had blanketed my parent’s house. 

Only a few weeks before, at 71 years old, our beautiful mum was told that she had stage 4 pancreatic cancer with a secondary cancer in her stomach. 

While you're here, learn about Lea's cancer story. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

Most of you know how this goes. We are all used to hearing about other people’s heartbreaking cancer stories; we grimace at their news, offer our support, and provide comfort but then life gets in the way, so we return to our lives waiting for further information or sometimes, we forget. 

But this time, the news was ours and it was happening to our family, our precious mum. The shock halted our lives, and everything changed irrevocably.

From our anguish, I have learnt so much in such a short period of time that I wanted to share. One of the first things I have realised is everyone’s cancer journey is different, but here is ours.

It’s a given that cancer is f**ked (sorry for swearing mum!), but what I didn’t know is finding the exact source of cancer isn’t as easy as you think.

It took much longer to find out where mum’s primary cancer was than we expected; they discovered her secondary cancer first. It took another week to confirm that it was pancreatic cancer and more time to confirm that it was inoperable, and that the only treatment was a hardcore chemo schedule. 


In a poll of vile cancers you don’t want, I reckon pancreatic would be close to the top (my beautiful mother-in-law had terminal pancreatic cancer 13 years ago, so unfortunately, we have lived this experience before). 

Generally, it arrives years earlier and grows undetected until you develop noticeable symptoms and by then it’s often too late to cure. Mum’s treatment is about trying to manage the cancer for longevity of life.

Everyone copes differently, and it’s important to recognise when you aren’t coping.

Overnight I unintentionally made my world smaller, an unconscious coping mechanism I suspect. Because I have made my world small, I intuitively started doing different things to occupy my mind. From walking 10,000 steps a day (some of it with our exhausted cavoodle), overworking my Calm app (I have not missed a day since the diagnosis), submerging myself into any body of water I can find (beach swims where my family hold hands and plunge into the cool water are the best), writing down my thoughts (like this!), reading lots of books (mainly to put a new narrative in my head) and most of all spending as much time talking and being with my family, especially my mum but also my dad who is still madly in love after 52 years of marriage.   

But to be honest, even after all of that, I still wasn’t coping. My brother spoke honestly to me about how I was acting. I was crying every day (I probably still do, to be honest) and that prompted me to call Cancer Council Australia. And what a godsend. They have connected me with an incredible, experienced counsellor who is giving me the tools, information, and advice on ways to manage this new life better. 


Counselling has given me the armour to be battle ready, rather than battle weary as I was. There is no cancer playbook, everyone handles their emotions differently, that’s okay.

Try to live in the now.

There are so many overused clichés. "Don’t sweat the small things", "Life is too short", "Live everyday like it’s your last". They are well-worn adages, but they are all true. Mum being sick has brought home in full measure that life is precious, and life can change in an instant. 

I now feel life is made up of two phases, before Mum got sick and after. There is a very clear definition for me. I find it hard to make decisions and I'm constantly doing silly things, because I haven’t been 100 per cent present, lost in aimless thoughts about the future.

Mum and I. Image: Supplied.


Sometimes the scariest things don’t have a timeline.

As everyone rang in the new year, I felt alone. I didn’t want this year to start because it’s going to be one of the toughest of our livesWe never imagined life without Mum and now it feels like we are on borrowed time. I have already started grieving the life we all shared together. 

There is a sinister presence now, even when we laugh together, we know it’s lurking, always present. I used to think I wanted all my loved ones to go quickly but now I am thankful for every day I have left with Mum.

There are moments of light.

My brother and I have become even closer. We both love our mum in the same way. She has always been our biggest supporter and our biggest rock. She is a true definition of a mother; she has dedicated her life to us. 

From making us homemade PlayDoh when we were young, to writing my English Lit assignments in high school, or to declaring one of her favourite moments in life was seeing me marry my husband or holding my daughter for the first time. I know my brother feels the same.

This experience has highlighted that my mother is even more incredible than we could have imagined. She's strong, determined, and positive. If there was a medal for best cancer patient, Mum would be a contender. 


She is doing everything the doctor asks; she forces herself to eat when she isn’t hungry, takes all her medication religiously, consoles others when they burst into tears, and is covertly making plans for Dad and us to live a life without her. "What am I going to do, feel sorry for myself and give up?" she says often. No, she is definitely not, she’s a fighter.

Listen to this episode of No Filter where Elle Halliwell shares what happens when cancer and motherhood collide. Post continues after podcast.

I want to talk about cancer.

I don’t want our cancer journey to be a secret, a hushed conversation behind closed doors. Pancreatic cancer is deceptive, not easily detectable. Everyone should have a health check at the start of each year, get your blood work done. That’s how mum discovered she had cancer. She had lost weight and didn’t feel like herself, so my Dad encouraged her to get checked out. 

She was told it was pancreatitis, but she had none of the symptoms, so she went back to the doctor. Every step led her deeper into cancer territory until her final destination was pancreatic cancer. The one cancer our family didn’t want to hear about ever again.

So, if I can share my word of the year, it is MUM. All my thoughts lead back to her, her journey is my journey. She is our inspiration, and we are in this together. 

And f**k cancer! (Sorry mum!)

Feature Image: Supplied.