My sister Anne died of cancer when she was 54. It was a sudden and devastating blow for all who loved her.
Anne was the oldest of our parents’ three children. Anne and Gaye were born 18 months apart; I was the ”after-thought”, arriving just two days before Anne’s eighth birthday.
Anne was a bit of a teenage rebel, and one of the forms her rebellion took was smoking. She first lit up at about the age of 16 and – apart from a couple of short-lived attempts to quit in her later life – developed a life-long habit.
One awful day in 2004, she rang me to announce matter-of-factly: “I have the test results, and it’s cancer.” Stomach cancer. Surgery was immediate, but the prognosis was good. In a year, the doctors told her, life would be back to normal.
Seven weeks later, while travelling on assignment in New Zealand, I stood shell-shocked and shaking in a hotel lobby as Gaye’s trembling voice on my mobile phone broke the devastating news that Anne had died during the night.
The cancer had spread quickly and relentlessly through her body. At her six-week check-up after surgery, Anne had been re-admitted to hospital. But it was too late. Nearly 40 years of heavy smoking had caught up with her. She died surrounded by love. Her three adult children, Matthew, Luke and Sarah, her partner of 15 years, Paul, and our mother – visiting on a long-planned holiday – were beside her.
We gathered in grief and disbelief. The most shocking was the swiftness of it all. Friends and family came from all over the country to say farewell, and we cried and laughed as we remembered Anne and her love of life. We played the music she loved and sorted through old photos.
There were tears and smiles again this week as Anne’s daughter Sarah – now a mother herself – set out on a two-day 200km bike ride to raise funds for cancer research in memory of her mother.
I went to cheer her on at the starting line as 1500 cyclists gathered in this common cause. My family’s story is nothing special; there’s hardly a family out there that has not been touched by cancer. Before the riders set off, there were emotional speeches and stirring music played over the loudspeakers. As we listened, I glanced over at Sarah, standing with her three cycling buddies. Tears streamed down her cheeks. As I put my arms around her, she whispered: “Completely unnecessary!” I wasn’t sure if she meant the heart-wrenching speeches and music, her tears, or the loss of so many people to this invidious disease.
The Ride to Conquer Cancer raised $5.3 million for the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. Through the kindness and generosity of friends and strangers, Sarah raised $3520. She pushed herself to physical and mental limits and found strength she didn’t know she had. She completed the ride and immediately signed up to do it again next year. Anne would be so proud.
I cheered too when the Australian government won its High Court battle against “big tobacco” earlier this month. In a world first, from December all cigarettes sold in Australia will be in plain packaging, bearing no logos or branding.
Will it stop people smoking? Perhaps not. But anything that deters even one teenager from putting that first cigarette between their lips is good enough for me.