real life

'Telling my kids their mum was going to die was the hardest thing I've ever done.'

Telling my two young kids that their mum was going to die was the hardest thing I have ever done.

In 2006, as Director at fast moving consumer goods company Unilever, I was moved to Vietnam with my family. My wife, Jodi was a special needs teacher and taught mostly autistic children. We were having the time of our lives in Vietnam. I had just extended my contract from three to four years and was away with my team when I received a call from Jodi complaining of abdominal pain.

She was 39, fit, healthy and with no family history of cancer, so we weren’t particularly concerned at that time. In fact, bowel cancer wasn’t at all on my radar.

The following day Jodi went to the GP, and things escalated quickly from there. Scans were done and by 11PM that night an ambulance turned up at our house.

Jodi was airlifted at low altitude to Bangkok for emergency surgery. The scan showed that Jodi had a tumour in her colon. The specialist was worried that she might burst her bowel if she was to fly at normal altitude as the tumour had almost entirely blocked her bowel. The surgery to remove her tumour went very well but three days after that a specialist told us that the cancer had spread to Jodi’s lymph and liver, she had stage 4 bowel cancer, and at best she had two years to live. Life as we knew it changed forever.

Image: Supplied.

To commence treatment, we decided to return as quickly as possible to Adelaide where both our families lived. A mix of chemotherapy, major abdominal operations, radiotherapy, and Chinese medicine didn’t seem to make much difference. Her blood markers were all heading in the wrong direction.

In August 2009, we realised we had run out of treatment options. Jodi and I both decided to take our two young kids down to the beach and told them that their mum was really sick, wasn’t getting better and is going to die. We didn’t want to scare them, but we wanted to give them the opportunity to talk to us about what was on their mind. It turned out to be the right decision.

Jodi lost her battle with bowel cancer in January 2010 just before her 42nd birthday. It was a battle she fought with incredible bravery and dignity.

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I hated watching someone I loved deeply withering away in front of me and feeling helpless to do anything to stop the rampant cancer.

I was grateful for the 18 months that we were together following her diagnosis but I found myself so under-prepared for her death. So much more to do and say to each other! How would the kids cope without their mother? How could I live without her?

Video by Jodi Lee Foundation

I was and am still so proud that Jodi was my wife but am even prouder that she was and is the mother of our two beautiful children.

Her passing left an emptiness and grief in me that at times felt insurmountable. I realised you can’t control grief. You listen to it and let it run its course. I decided I needed to narrow my focus to three things. Looking after my kids, looking after myself and preventing anyone else having to suffer in the same way that our family and friends did. That was the main reason for setting up the Jodi Lee Foundation in August 2010.

The second reason for establishing the Jodi Lee Foundation is in the statistics. Bowel cancer is Australia’s second biggest cancer killer yet if detected early, up to 90 per cent of bowel cancers can be successfully treated. Unfortunately, less than 40 per cent of bowel cancers are detected early.

Fuelling this statistic is the fact that bowel cancer often doesn’t present with symptoms until it is too late. It is often referred to as the ‘silent killer’.

Image: Supplied.

I can’t bring Jodi back, but the lives we have saved through the Foundation’s prevention efforts over the years is extraordinary. We still have a big job ahead of us. It is likely that 17,000 Australians will be diagnosed with the disease this year, and that number is expected to increase to 20,000 by 2020.

When the Government sends out the simple bowel screening test (as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program) to people from age 50, only 39 per cent invited to participate are completing the test.

A common misconception is that bowel cancer is an “older man’s disease” when in fact it affects men and women almost equally. There has also been a 186 per cent increase in bowel cancer cases in adolescents and young adults (15-24 years) over the past three decades.

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We often hear those diagnosed with bowel cancer saying that they feel they got the wrong cancer. How can a cancer that is so prevalent and preventable suffer from a lack of focus and funding? Part of the reason is that this ‘silent killer’ is exactly that. No-one wants to talk about it. Where are the Olivia Newton-Johns and Kylie Minogue’s of bowel cancer? They must be out there because the incidence of bowel cancer is significantly greater than breast cancer.

Image: Supplied.

We have battled for years to try to find high profile people to join us in the fight to eliminate this disease. We won’t stop trying but we had to take a different approach! If those with a high profile who have been personally impacted by the disease won’t speak out, let’s find high profile people who have had someone close to them impacted and hope they are happy to speak out.

That approach gave birth to our ‘Degrees of Separation’ campaign. Our message is simple. It may be your mother, father, grandmother, uncle or friend who has been impacted by the disease. And by taking a simple screening test you can help prevent bowel cancer and save a life. Take the time, take the test. It might just save your life.

Jodi is missed terribly by her family and her army of close friends. She was a wonderful wife and an inspiring mother to Jack and Arabella. She was generous, non-judgemental and kind. Her smile, her sparkling eyes, and wicked sense of humour drew people to her. She was a truly special person who is deeply missed. Not every story has a happy ending but Jodi’s story could have been so different if her cancer had been detected earlier.

Please make a commitment to protect yourself from this preventable disease. Complete the screening test and follow through with any following doctors’ advice.

For more information and to donate, visit the Jodi Lee Foundation website.

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