For any of you who grew up in the ’80s, ’90s, or ’00s, you were probably introduced to cancer through numerous campaigns. There was the original Slip, Slop, Slap campaign, updated in 2008 to Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide, which introduced us to skin cancer.
If you read the words “there’s nothing healthy about a tan”, you’d be able to recall the advertisement immediately. “Lungs are like sponges” is another one that instantly brings a specific voice to mind.
And now 10, 20, 30 years on, it’s no longer just a shocking campaign we see on TV. We’ve all been exposed to the reality, the heartbreak of cancer. Sadly, we all have a cancer story – whether it’s the loss of a parent, a friend, supporting a colleague through chemotherapy, encouraging a skin cancer check-up, or tragically losing a child to the disease.
One in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85. It seems not a single life will be untouched by cancer. February 4 is World Cancer Day, an international day of awareness. This year’s theme is ‘I Am and I Will’. Well, we are The Latch, and we’re here to bring you the stories of two incredible, personal accounts of living with cancer.
One story is Marty, a young dad who was diagnosed with bowel cancer at 42. The second story is Alyx, cancer survivor and founder of Kee-moh Snacks who was diagnosed with breast cancer nine weeks before her wedding.
Shortly before Australia went into lockdown, Marty and his wife Jane travelled the world – visiting North and South America, trekking 800 kilometres along the Camino. “I felt the healthiest I had ever been,” said Marty. It was an overdue holiday, after 18 years on the police force.
During the last week of their holiday, he began to feel really fatigued – stomach pain, a loss of appetite, and an increase in toilet use. As soon as they got back home, his wife booked him in to see his GP.
“Within two weeks, I went from walking 800km – to not even being able to walk to the end of the hall.” He was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer in mid-December. 15,000 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, and, like Marty, 1,400 are under the age of 50.
“I had no idea of some of the bowel cancer symptoms until it was too late for me,” Marty said. He doesn’t think there’s enough awareness of lesser-known cancers, like bowel.
“Chemotherapy was the hardest thing my body has been through,” said Marty. He explained that it’s okay when he has a good week/bad week routine, but times when it’s unpredictable are “pretty bad,” and that he spends a lot of time on the couch during those weeks.
Emotionally, he lets people know when “it’s me time” and when he needs to be away from people for a few days to process things. “I have a very supportive family who just left me to myself when needed,” and in terms of the hospital staff, he said, “I could say I’m not ready to talk to you yet” before seeing them in a few days.
Although Marty tells us living with cancer is hard – an understatement, for sure – he made sure to place emphasis that there’s so much support offered, and that “you can pick and choose the support that you want or need.” Advice he gives to friends or family supporting a loved one with cancer? “The best thing you can do is understand them and what they need.” Sometimes it’s a talk, a cuddle or a cry, and sometimes it’s giving them space.
Speaking personally, he says he’s had “amazing help from great people” who have made it much easier for him to know exactly what it is he needs to do in certain instances and for certain things. His extended family and friends brought him, his wife and his daughter meals, helped with house cleaning, and his father has mowed the lawn for over a year.
Oh, and he also managed to get his black belt in Hapkido the same month of his diagnosis, training with his chemo bottle on. It’s a sport he shares with his daughter Maya – and yes, there was a Maya/Daddy contract signed to make sure she didn’t quit. He progressed “a little faster” than his daughter, and now trains “when possible”.
“Hapkido is the best thing I have ever given Maya,” he said. “I hope she continues after I can’t, and I’ll do everything I can to help her with it.” It’s also been incredible for him – he has a great circle of support there, who have been behind him his whole cancer journey.
One thing he wants to see this World Cancer Day? “I’d like to see younger people being encouraged to get tested for different cancers for different things they may not be aware of,” giving the example of bowel test kits. He’d also like to see more of a deal made about the lesser-known cancers.
“I don’t know much about many cancers, but because of my situation I’ve been pushed into learning about it the hard way.”
Being diagnosed with breast cancer nine weeks before her wedding was “probably rubbing salt in the wound,” said Alyx. What’s worse than that, is that the diagnosis should’ve been made 18 months earlier.
Alyx went to see her doctor and explained there was a tiny lump that she could only detect while sitting up…so she was examined lying down. The diagnosis? “You’re too young for breast cancer.” Looking back, she says that “thinking of all the what if’s doesn’t change my journey now”.
“Extremely isolating and lonely,” were the adjectives Alyx used to describe how she found cancer. “There was no guidebook telling me how to navigate [it].” She opted to become a hermit, baffled as to why people didn’t know what to do for her, and hurt she needed to tell them.
“The people I thought would rally did not. Less well-known friends surprised me with their empathy. Others disappeared from my life entirely.” She’s found people with the truest understanding of cancer and it’s unique challenges, are those she met in her support groups.
As for her cancer treatment? “I didn’t know that cancer treatment can make you very sick,” she said. Her chemotherapy made her extremely unwell, and very thin – she was unable to eat because of the side effects, which only made healing all the more difficult.
“My first mastectomy surgery, in particular, was very painful to the point that I was in shock, and spent two days in the hospital bed just shaking, unable to speak,” Alyx recalled. “I always say that I didn’t feel unwell with cancer until they started treating it.”
She was surprised to find that some further surgeries were needed due to side effects from chemo, and hormone treatment. The side effects from years of treatment and nine surgeries linger on, says Alyx, and “It’s taken me years to come to terms with my ‘new reality’.”
A positive that has come out of her cancer journey is that she founded her business ‘Kee-moh Snacks’ – as the play on words suggests, it came from her experience of not being able to eat due to chemo side effects. “Food is connection, joy and love, and helping other people enjoy their favourite foods again with family makes my heart sing.”
Something she rarely talks about – her biggest struggle – is survivorship. “I’m supposed to be grateful for having survived cancer, aren’t I?” The truth is, it’s not that simple. “Thoughts of recurrence of the cancer are always there, and survivor’s guilt can be debilitating.” Due to friends having advanced cancer or having passed away, she feels as though she has to make the most of life and every opportunity, to make up for the fact many loved ones can’t.
One thing she wishes people knew about living with cancer is that “Sometimes, we just want to go about our day and forget that we have, or have ever had, cancer – even though our scars are a constant reminder.” She tells us to not feel bad about telling a loved one with cancer about your future plans, and that they want to have normal everyday conversations about normal everyday things.
“When we’re talking about our problems and concerns, we’re not always looking for solutions or fixes – sometimes just someone to sit and listen.” Being flexible for them is also one of her suggestions, as things for someone with cancer “can change day by day”.
She agrees with Marty that general household help, and meals, are always required. She does recommend that if you want to take meals, ask what other people are planning to take as well, joking with us about how she now knows just how many lasagnes will fit into a freezer. Relatively bland food is best, as the type of cancer of side effects from treatment can affect the ability to eat.
Although “some cancers do receive more air time than others”, Alyx doesn’t believe that equates to awareness. “I actually don’t think there is enough awareness overall.” A meaningful way she believes people can take part in World Cancer Day? “Learning to talk about cancer to someone with cancer.” Oh, and please avoid the cliche that there are “good” and “bad” cancers to have.
“Some cancers have more positive survival statistics associated with them but the person with the diagnosis still has to endure the journey to get there – and then there are no guarantees.”
To find out more about bowel cancer and whether or not you may be at risk, visit www.bowelcanceraustralia.org. To find out more about breast cancer, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation. For more information about World Cancer Day, visit the official World Cancer Day website.