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How would you cope, if this happened to your daughter?

Alex and Deb Dunkley

By ALEX and DEB DUNKLEY

What would you do if your daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer?  Alex Dunkley, 28, was diagnosed with the biggest cancer killer of Australians under thirty-nine. Her mother, Deb, and Alex both tell Mamamia their tale. 

Alex Dunkley, 28 (daughter)

A few days before Christmas just after my twenty seventh birthday in 2011 I woke up ill and the last thing I remember is throwing up in the bathroom.

My mum found me half in the bath half out of the bath having a seizure and called an ambulance. The hospital discovered a large tumour the size of an avocado in my left temporal lobe.

From that day on it felt like my life was in fast forward. I didn’t have time to be scared or stressed or over think anything.

I had surgery two days after Christmas but the surgery wasn’t successful and two and a half months later I had another seizure, this time at work.  Up to this point I had just done what was advised, but from that moment I knew I had to take control of my own survival.

I was only twenty seven, had my whole life ahead of me and I wanted that life to be long. I wanted to travel, to explore the world and have adventures.

Someone suggested going interstate to see Charlie Teo and I flew to Sydney with my mum. Charlie gave me a choice. He could remove as much as possible with little risk or he could remove the whole tumour with greater risks and I may lose my speech.

I trusted Charlie at once. He had students from different parts of the world in his office learning from him, but not once was I not the focus of the consult, they were learning from him, through me, how to treat their patients with care and respect.

Alex, the day after her surgery.

I told him to take the lot and thankfully I woke after surgery and was able to speak. Not only was the tumour completely removed but it had not impacted my ability to talk.

I was offered chemo and radio therapy as follow up in Adelaide and decided to wait to see if it had returned at a three month scan. It hadn’t. Eighteen months later there is still no growth.

I feel I have been given a second chance at life. I feel like I am awake finally.

I was happy before but my life lacked direction and meaning. Now I have an insatiable lust for life, every second of life. I have quit waiting for life to happen and I am making it happen myself.

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The median life expectancy for my kind of tumour is three to five years and I know I am one of the lucky ones. The statistics aren’t good and they are not in everyone’s favour. Brain cancer kills people like me in the prime of their life.

But doctors can only tell you what has happened in the past, not what will happen in the future. So I just ignore this and go on my merry way.

I eat better, with a raw diet being my major change and keeping an alkaline level in my body where cancer cannot grow. I am on vitamin therapy to control my temporal lobe seizures instead of ‘chemical medication’.

“I have quit waiting for life to happen and I am making it happen myself” – Alex and three of her best friends after our 4 day trek to machu picchu – this was 9 months after her surgery with Charlie, a dream Alex had for forever which she could not have reached without Charlie saving her life first!

I refuse to take cancer lying down, I am strengthening my body naturally to fight any kind of return my cancer thinks it is going to make. I work in a less stressful job, make sure I get my 8 hours sleep and practice Kundalini Yoga and meditation.

I have a blog and do what I can to raise the profile of brain cancer so we can get funds for the research needed to increase the life expectancy of children and adults who get this disease.

That’s why we’ve organized our own community walk for brain cancer in Adelaide. I feel I have my life back and want others to feel the same.

Deb Dunkley, 58 (mum)

I awoke that Tuesday morning to the sound of vomiting. Getting up I went into the bathroom to see who was being sick.

Alex was in the bathroom, pale as a ghost washing her mouth out with water. She was shaky and complained of stomach cramps so I went to heat up the wheat bag for her.

Standing at the microwave waiting for it to finish, I had the overwhelming feeling that something was wrong. I walked back into the bathroom to find Alex half in and half out of the bath.

I hauled her out of the bath and onto the floor in the coma position. Her eyes were open but unfocused. She did not react to my voice. She was shaking from head to foot.

I travelled to the RAH in the ambulance with her. Initial diagnosis seemed to be that she had taken some sort of drug and I was planning on giving her the biggest bollocking ever.

But the CT scan showed a large tumour in her left temporal lobe.

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Alex with Charlie Teo and his mother, post operation.

You just can’t process this. There is the feeling that this can’t be true. But there it is. On the scan.  True. My 27 year old daughter has a large brain tumour.

The absolute worst moment for me was the 3 month check post operatively.

The surgeon told Alex that she would die. Not in those words but the message was abundantly clear.

I felt this rage well up in me. As a Mum, I classify myself as a fixer. If something is not right I fix it.

I could not accept that I was to lose my daughter to brain cancer within the next year, following multiple surgeries, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. I had already watched my Mother go through that for breast cancer. It just could not be allowed to happen to my daughter.

I was angry as all hell. I felt splintered into a million pieces. I would cry in the car; turning the music up loud. Not caring if people thought I was some demented woman.

One of my husband’s work mates sent us some info on Charlie Teo. I decided that he was our next plan of attack. I wrote a very personal letter to him; begging him to take on Alex’s case.

Within a few days we received a call, flew to Sydney and met him. Alex had her surgery with him in April 2012 and he removed a tumour the size of an avocado. Alex has suffered no side effects from the surgery except a bad short term memory.

I believed in him. I believed in Alex. And together they wrought what I see as a miracle.

Have I changed? Yes I have. I no longer worry about the things that used to concern me. Such as lack of enough money and what people think of me. I appreciate everything with new eyes.

I value my family, health and happiness above all else. I understand more fully how people feel when life deals them a hard blow. I know what it important now. And clichéd as it sounds I really do try to live in the moment.

I don’t want to waste my time being angry and sad. I learnt a lot of this from Alex. If she could look at life this way then the least I could do was the same.

Am I still afraid? Hell yes.

But I don’t live in fear of the future. I just make a point of appreciating every day I have with her and hopefully it will be many, many more.

Join a Walk4Life event or start your own this November. Walks are being held in Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne and Adelaide. 

The Cure For Life Foundation hopes Australians will collectively walk the circumference of Australia (25 000kms) in November to raise funds for brain cancer research to increase the median life expectancy at five years from five percent to fifty five percent.

Register online at www.walk4life.com.au