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Julia only has a few months to live. And she wants us all to talk about it.

We don’t talk enough about death. Not frequently enough, not openly enough. Canberra woman Julia Domigan thinks it’s because we’re scared, “like we might bring it on quicker by saying something”.

She, on the other hand, is comfortable with that kind of conversation. The 35-year-old talks about her own mortality with a sort of matter-of-factness, an ease. It’s an acceptance she’s found only since knowing, more or less, when her day will come.

Julia, a lawyer and mother to a gorgeous 15-month-old girl, has terminal, metastatic breast cancer. She’s undergone radiation and is currently responding well to a new type of chemotherapy. Yet even though she’s “feeling good” right now, the inevitable could be just a few months away.

“We didn’t think that I’d make Christmas this year, but it looks like I probably will. And I love Christmas — I go crazy over Christmas!” she laughed. “So we get to plan what we’re doing in the holidays.

“But it doesn’t offend me for someone to say, ‘Jules, you won’t be here this time next year’, or ‘you’ll be dead,’ because that’s just true.”

“Having a cancer diagnosis was not the biggest thing that happened in my day.”

Julia was diagnosed in February 2018. She was 14-weeks pregnant at the time and living in Darwin for work with the Department of Defence, while her husband, Joel, was based in Canberra as a military helicopter pilot. She had a flight to see him booked that day.

“My husband calls me on my work phone, and he says, ‘Jules, the GP is trying to call you; you’re not answering your personal phone.’ I was kind of irritated that the GP was interrupting my day, so I called her back, and she said, ‘you need to come in quickly,'” Julia said.

“I went in, and she told me I had cancer. I drove out, stopped the car on the side of the road, called my husband and cried.”

pregnant with cancer
Image: Supplied.

After a tearful four-hour flight to Adelaide and another on to Canberra, she had several missed calls. There was a disaster unfolding at work; her friend had gone into labour; her mother, Sydney artist Mitzi Vardill, who'd been diagnosed with Stage IV gastric cancer four weeks earlier, had been hospitalised with blood clots.

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"I remember driving up to our place in Canberra in a hire car. My husband walks out, and he goes, 'So... crazy day, hey?'" she laughed.

"It was just weird that me having a cancer diagnosis was not the biggest thing that happened in my day."

It was another month before Julia and Joel learned the seriousness of her condition. Her cancer, which was triple negative — a type that makes up 15 per cent of cases of the disease — had spread into her liver and bones. Her prognosis was two years.

Julia's thoughts went immediately to her unborn child, Aurora.

"[I had] enormous guilt. A huge amount of guilt around not being able to be a mother for the whole life of my daughter. That was really scary. How do I parent when I'm dead? How do I show my daughter that I wanted to be a decent mum but just couldn't?" she said, her voice catching.

"And there was guilt around putting it all on my husband. He's reassured me since, but it's very hard to know that you're going to make the love of your life a solo parent."

There was grief for her own sake, too. As the holder of five degrees and a dream job it had taken her 15 years to earn, she mourned the loss of her career and what it could have become.

But her family and community rallied. Specialists donated their time and pulled in favours to ensure she had the best care throughout her pregnancy. As she was weakened by chemotherapy, friends helped with everything from day-to-day tasks to coordinating charity fundraisers.

"We just had an enormous amount of kindness and humanity flood our house and it was just beautiful," she said. "I mean, if the cancer wasn't there, it was honestly the best time of my life, being hugged and loved so much. You just don't normally get that when you're 35, you don't hear how much people care about you. It was really, really nice."

"I don't know who Rory is going to be."

Aurora — or Rory, as her parents call her — eventually came into the world via C-section at 35 weeks, a time chosen as the safest by her oncologist and obstetrician.

Julia was unable to breastfeed because of the chemotherapy in her system, but bottle-feeding allowed a fatigued Julia to get much-needed sleep and allowed Joel to bond with his little girl.

Image: Instagram.
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More than a year on, they're seeing her little personality take shape.

"She's stubborn as all hell, and she loves to stir. She'll do things wrong and look at us and wait to get told off," Julia said. "At the moment she just loves sitting on her chair, and she's proud as punch when she can get up there. She's such an amazing kid."

Together, their little team of three has travelled the world; Finland, Norway, the UK, Canada, Alaska, Fiji. All first class, because "why not".

While she knows Rory won't remember their adventures, she'll have the photographs and the stories from her dad.

But Julia has also planned to have a lasting influence in her little girl in other ways. She's bought 26 charm bracelets to give to women in her life; these are the women she admires, who have traits she wants Rory to learn. Her mother-in-law's kindness and devotion to family. The sense of humour of a friend from her stint in the army.

"I wrote them a letter and said, 'thank you for being a part of my life, you've made me a better person. And this is the part I've taken from you.'

"So for example, my best friend, who I've known for 25 years, has the most incredible integrity. She is my moral compass. She is the person I look to for what's right and wrong. And if she could give that to Rory, she would learn so much from that. And so I gave her this bracelet as a reminder for her to do that for me."

Image: Facebook.

Rory will have a bracelet of her own, with a new charm set aside for each birthday until she's 21, plus another for her graduation, her wedding and when she has a baby, if she chooses to. Each will come with a card from Julia.

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"God, that was hard. Writing those cards was one of the hardest things I've ever done," she said. "Mostly because I don't know she's going to be; I don't want to imprint anything on her. I don't want her to feel she has to, you know, be a lawyer to honour me or anything like that... So I've had to be somewhat vague, but also personal so that she knows that I love her deeply."

"When the chips are down, people go to love."

Facing mortality comes with practical considerations too, of course. There's Julia's will. Her funeral plans. Securing a childcare place for Rory once she's gone (it's too much of a risk to Julia's fragile immune system for Rory to attend at the moment).

And then there are tough discussions about Joel finding love again.

"Unfortunately, that came around in a really horrible way, because my estate will go to my husband, and I don't want any of my money to be paying for another woman's kid. That's not being selfish, that's making sure that Rory gets her due money for her education... But he's a very just person [he wouldn't want to deny the other child]," she said.

"So we have had that conversation, and unfortunately, the first time that didn't go well. But we've had to keep talking about it to figure it out."

Tracy Bevan speaks to Mia Freedman about losing her best friend, Jane McGrath to breast cancer.

That openness has been a crucial part of navigating the past 18 months.

Julia's mother, who passed away from her gastric cancer in September, hadn't taken that approach. She chose not to share her prognosis with her family.

"She didn't like the concept of death. She thought talking about it would mean being negative, and she was determined to have a positive outlook," she said.

"But I think you can talk quite positively about death. I think you can talk to your family and explain your wishes and it can be a really positive thing."

That's one thing she hopes people take from her story; that they talk, they plan for inevitable, if only for the sake of making things easier for their loved ones at an otherwise-difficult time.

The other is that people appreciate that hers not a story of sadness or negativity, it's one of humanity.

"I've seen that when the chips are down, people go to love and go to a good part of their personality," she said.

"We've got fabulous friends and family, but it's also strangers have just been so incredibly kind. I really believe in the humanity of people now more than ever before."

If you're interested in helping women like Julia, and their families, she urges you to donate to Breast Cancer Network Australia.

You can also purchase one of Julia's late mother's artworks, proceeds of which go to BCNA. Visit Mitzy's website for info.

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