'I had to sacrifice my baby-making organs for a chance to stay alive.'

My phone call with Jennifer Willis featured both tears and laughter.

Speaking to me from her bed – after apologising for any moans of pain that might uncontrollably creep into our conversation – the 36-year-old Melburnian was equal parts fatigued and determined; like someone who has been to battle, but is preparing for war.

And that word – ‘war’ – is the only way I can describe the havoc cancer secretly wreaked inside Jennifer’s body. The last eight weeks of her life have been thrown so catastrophically off course by the disease, the media and communications adviser has been stripped of her driver’s licence, ability to work, her independence, and most of all, the certainty of her future.

When 2017 rolled in this was not how Jennifer, only recently hired at Berry Street, the foundation dedicated to helping vulnerable children, envisaged her life.

Jennifer Willis. (Image provided)

This chapter began in the days leading up to her 36th birthday, in April, when she underwent a routine day procedure to remove a large cyst located on her ovary and a build up of endometriosis scar tissue in her pelvis. While slightly concerning, cysts are not uncommon and, in most cases, are not immediately concerning. Doctors sliced Jennifer's ovarian cyst and drained its fluid. She was sewn back up and sent home.

The days that followed would be spent with her sister - who was visiting Australia from her home in the UAE - who slept on Jennifer's couch. Before, one morning, Jennifer would wake to find her pillow red and damp, soaked in her blood, a deep gash in the middle of her tongue. She had suffered a seizure in her sleep. A panicked scramble out of bed and a rush trip to the GP for a scan, her sister in tow, would illuminate a lemon-sized lump.

A brain tumour. One that carries a 20 per cent survival rate.


“The GP rang me that night and said, 'I’m sorry to tell you this but you have a large brain tumour and you need to get to a hospital as soon as possible,'" Jennifer tells me. "I was in shock, I think.

"I had been saying that I was forgetting things for ages, and the tumour was in the area of the brain for memory."

A flurry of more scans, anti-seizure medications and appointments wound up in major brain surgery, leaving a wide scar across the top of Jennifer's head, fat stitches stretching out like train tracks from ear-to-ear.

“I got home five nights after my brain operation and my mobile phone rang," Jennifer tells me. "It was the doctor calling about my ovarian cyst - to tell me I had a rare carcinoma. They had sent me a letter telling me to come to the hospital immediately.

"I had to tell them I had already been in hospital, for my brain tumour."

“I got home five nights after my brain operation and my mobile phone rang..." (Image provided)

By a cruel twist of fate, Jennifer had been gifted two primary cancers, unconnected to each other, at the same time.

If a brain tumour is bad news, an ovarian carcinoma tumour - characterised by its abnormal, aggressive, rapidly dividing cells - is no better.

Now, with a fresh incision along her scalp, Jennifer was faced with an ultimatum most women would dread: Give up your chance of ever having children, or your cancer-riddled ovaries will kill you.

Another sacrifice. She would undergo a radical hysterectomy at 36 - before ever having the chance to become a mother.

"They removed all my baby-making parts, most of the non-essential abdominal organs, and other bits and pieces of my body," Jennifer explained of the procedure - the necessary procedure that forced the start date of chemotherapy and radiotherapy for her brain cancer back.


With the phone pressed to my ear, this decision strikes as one that is unthinkably difficult; one that would make my world shift from its axis. For Jennifer, the woman whose life is at risk, it's not quite so dramatic.

“To be honest, for me, it wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought it would be," she tells me, before her voice cracks with sadness.

"I had a high grade tumour, so we will have to wait a year to see what’s left. I’ve got a shitty life prognosis and I know that, I wouldn't want to have a child knowing I might not be around... I don't think that would be responsible.

"Everyone keeps telling me I seem normal, and look better than they expect, but to be honest I'm scared."

I will not gloss over the sticky caveats that come with Jennifer's cancer, because her life is changed.

After living through a six-week, three-operation battle of scalpels and medication, where she lost hair, sleep, and a slither of her skull, if Jennifer keeps anything, she would like to keep a shred of her independence. But without a partner to share the load, and unable to work or drive, she is facing the prospect of moving back home with her mother.

"I cry every night when I have to give myself injections," she tells me. "It all feels like a dream. But I will be strong and brave because there’s not any other choice right now. There's no other choice."

The next chapter will be nine months of chemotherapy, including two bouts of radiotherapy, which will target any cancerous cells lingering in Jennifer's brain.

Hopefully, by the time Easter 2018 slides onto our calendars, Jennifer will be told her body is poison-free.

Until then, she waits.

“I really am hoping that I’ve only got one type of cancer now, and the surgeries were enough to get rid of the ovarian cancer. If I look after myself and do the right things I think, I hope, I can beat it.

"I’m planning on being one of the 20 per cent that gets through this."

While brain cancer kills more children and people under 40 than any other cancer, survival rates have barely improved in the last 30 years. People with brain cancer today only have a 2 per cent greater chance of survival than they did in 1982. 

To help people like Jennifer, please donate to the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, here. To assist Jennifer with medical and living costs, you can also donate to Jennifer's GoFundMe cause, here.