Kate Richmond’s 43rd birthday on May 22 was unlike any other she’d had before. It was full of snuggles and laughter and love; her children and husband surprised her with breakfast in bed and presents. But throbbing in the back of her mind was a devastating thought: “How many more days like this are there going to be?”
Earlier that month, the Mornington Peninsula GP and mum-of-two was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer that develops in the abdomen and is caused by exposure to asbestos, usually decades later. According to the Cancer Council, about 43 Australians were diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2014, with the majority being men due to exposure to asbestos at work. In Kate’s case, it’s possible the cause stems back to her childhood.
As a little girl, Kate would hug her dad everyday when he returned home from work. And in a cruel twist, it’s believed this innocent act may have led her to ingest asbestos fibres from his clothing. Her father unknowingly was exposed to asbestos in his job at a manufacturing company, where he worked for almost 18 years.
Kate, who is mother to Lauren, six, and Finn, nine, tells Mamamia the diagnosis last month hit her very suddenly. She’d been feeling unwell for only a few weeks. She was short of breath and had a tummy so swollen, she was struggling to put her shoes on or walk for extended periods. She’d always been previously healthy, so thought perhaps she simply needed to change her diet.
She eventually decided to take a day off work to get tested, and on May 3 a CT scan found she had excess fluid in her abdomen. Her medical knowledge meant she knew right away she had cancer.
"It wasn't what I was expecting to be told at all," she said.
"(When they told me) I thought I was going to have six months to live. My husband was with me and he cried. It was awful."
She was rushed in for surgery the very next day. Any organs that could have cancerous tumours - her uterus, her ovaries, her appendix - had to be removed.
A week later, her oncologist told her she had a life expectancy of two to three years.
"I cried and said, 'but I'm only in my 40s and I have young kids and I need to be around for them'," Kate says.
Kate says she deals with cancer a lot as a GP, but that hasn't prevented this experience as a patient from being "completely terrifying".
"I'm used to being the doctor who sees a scan and plans to work out the best way to give horrible news. Now I am completely on the other end of it."
She and her husband Brett have tried to protect her children from the truth as much as possible, but she says it has been especially difficult for their eldest.
"My son is struggling, he was in tears everyday last week... He's just worried, he doesn't really know what he's worried about but he knows it's bad," she says.
"Last month I was going to work and taking the kids to school and going about my normal life and four weeks later I'm at home, I can't drive, I can't care for my patients and I can't care for kids the way I would wish."
Kate still faces the difficult task of telling her dad, who never developed cancer as a result of his exposure to asbestos, about her diagnosis.
Only in 2017, his wife - Kate's mother - died from lung cancer after a three-year battle. She fears how heartbroken he will be by her latest news, even though there is no realm in which he should ever blame himself - especially given it's not completely certain Kate's exposure to asbestos came from him.
"My dad would think he was perhaps involved in making his wife and daughter ill, and that's awful."
For now, Kate says she is trying her best to keep things normal - her husband is working, her children are going to school, her in-laws are visiting to help - while she focuses on fighting the cancer.
She underwent her first of four rounds of chemotherapy last week. She also started an immunotherapy treatment called Pembrolizumab to try and keep the cancer at bay. However this drug is a huge bite to the family budget, costing more than $60,000. It's for this reason her network is rallying around her, setting up a GoFundMe page to help cover costs.
As of Tuesday, more than $16,000 had been so far raised.
"I feel very loved and I feel very lucky... I'm so grateful to everybody," she says.
Her hope is that this the treatment will give her the time she always thought she had with her children.
"I want to be here for so many more Mother's Days, I want to see them grow up."