A story of loss, and love, and hope
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.
8 Responses to “A story of loss, and love, and hope”
Oh, Lee! This post brought me to tears. I didn’t know about Anne, I’m sorry.
But you’re right – so many families go through the cancer battle – I lost my father and father-in-law to cancer (both different types), my mother is (currently) a breast cancer survivor, my mother-in-law a colon cancer survivor, and just last weekend I was told that a dear friend had breast cancer. Only one of these people was a smoker, but if we can do anything to halt the scourge, I’m right behind it. And there speaks a former smoker.
Let’s hope NZ will follow Australia’s lead.
Poignant and powerful. My nana died of tongue cancer from smoking when I was four. I never picked up a cigarette in my life due to that.
So sad Lee. My mum died of lung cancer, heavy smoker too.
Well told Lee – both my parent died from smoking-induced diseases and I have an ongoing hatred of the habit and those who peddle it. Thanks for the honesty.
Beautiful and sad, Lee. Four years ago this week I arrived in Barcelona where my brother had just been told he had lung cancer. He had been a reckless smoker all his life and even in the face of the prognosis kept on smoking. His greatest pleasure when I was there was to be pushed into the gardens of the hospital for a smoke. His death at the age of 52 came horribly swiftly – the cancer it turned out had spread like wildfire into his liver and his brain. He died within a week of my arriving. If anybody who smokes could have seen him suffering as I did that week, with full-on hallucinations from the brain cancer, I am sure that they would never smoke another cigarette. I hate the industry and everything about their manipulative marketing – the targeting of poorer people in third world countries because we in the “first” world have wised up a bit. Disgusting.
I am sure you think about your sister nearly every day. I still think of Alex and of my sister Sue, who also died of cancer thirty years ago.
Thank you for sharing your story, Lee.
Such a loss and again my sympathies to you and your family. Tobacco is a true addiction and steals so many too soon.
Thanks for reading this one too! And yes, it is hideous, isn’t it. I’ve never smoked, partly because I tried one of Anne’s when I was very young (I’m 8 years younger) – and wondered why anyone would persevere. But when it gets hold of you, it’s hard to break the habit.
For many years I facilitated tobacco cessation classes. My parents both smoked and I spent my youth hiding their cigarettes and such. The premature loss of your sister definitely grabs at my heart strings. The power of the addiction of tobacco can not be overstated. Hugs to you.