At age 43, with two children aged 8 and 3, Jo faces a heartbreaking and devastating situation. Right when she should be making early memories with her family, she faces a diagnosis of terminal breast cancer. Those memories are soon all her children will have left.
In late 2018, in the week of her 42nd birthday, Jo was dealt a devastating blow.
In her own words:
The first day that I noticed the lump started as just another ordinary hectic morning in which I juggled getting to work on time, Mr 6 (Ben) to school, and Mr 20 months (Lachy) to childcare. During a rushed shower, I felt a lump in my armpit. I checked over my breasts, feeling for masses: nope, all good, no lumps. As I was still breastfeeding, my breasts frequently changed in texture, filling and emptying throughout the day. I mentioned it to my partner, Simon, who asked me if I was sick, and I just laughed. Like many parents, I was struggling to deal with yet another winter virus. I thought no more of it, immersing myself back into the myriad small problems that parents with young kids deal with daily.
A few weeks later I felt the lump again. Simon immediately booked a GP appointment, but I was tempted to cancel, arguing that it was probably just mastitis. “I’ve been working such long hours,” I reasoned. “I’ve got no family history of breast cancer—or really of any cancer. I’ve got no risk factors: I’ve never smoked, hardly drink anymore and I’m so young! Plus, we all want to go to the Show on Friday.” We put into place a typical ‘family’ plan for our rare whole-family day: chores in the morning, fun in the arvo.
We never made it to the Show to give the boys the promised fairy floss and I missed out on their sticky kisses. The GP appointment at 11 am stretched into a series of swiftly arranged medical tests: an ultrasound and mammogram and, that same afternoon, a biopsy. By 6 pm – right when we should have been returning home tired and happy from the Show – I had a probable diagnosis of breast cancer. By Wednesday the next week, I had a devastating diagnosis: highly aggressive Stage III triple-negative breast cancer, which had spread to my armpit lymph nodes and those under my breastbone. Five lumps had done a good job of hiding, including the small and neatly tucked away one in my right breast that had been lurking like a well-hidden assassin. A physical examination was never going to find it.
I stopped work. I stopped breastfeeding my toddler—a heart-breaking event for both of us. He kept asking. I kept saying no. So many tears were shed by all.
We struggled through six gruelling months of chemotherapy, me losing my hair and experiencing relentless nausea, anaemia and secondary viral infections. We endured three unpredictable and lengthy hospital stays, one of which was for an excruciatingly painful bone infection right next to my chemo port. Eventually, the tumour had responded enough for surgery to remove my right breast and 27 lymph nodes. Six weeks of radiation and another six months of oral chemotherapy followed. During this time, I was grateful to receive so much love and support from people who wanted me to recover. This included my dear sister who flew over from New Zealand, my mother from my hometown of Melbourne, friends from all across the country, and my community here in Adelaide. I couldn’t have gotten through it without you all…
I finished my treatment in November 2019 and was overjoyed to share the news with everyone that I had gone into remission. In January 2020, I was finally well enough to help my wildlife colleagues in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Kangaroo Island and Adelaide Hills bushfires. Things were finally back to normal.
Then in July 2020, I felt another lump, this time in my neck, while brushing my newly curly post-chemo hair. I had only just gotten used to the long numb scar that often felt like it was tightening across my chest. Hadn’t my luck finally turned?
How I wish I could return to the ordinary hectic mornings of getting kids ready and rushing off to work as a researcher and teacher. But I can’t. The cancer has spread to countless lymph nodes—and it’s now also growing in my lungs in a dozen places and in my brain. I am now Stage IV: my cancer is terminal and there is no hope for a cure. Even more devastatingly, triple-negative breast cancer is notoriously difficult to treat, and my advanced stage makes me ineligible for clinical or funded trials that might help. This is the scariest time of my life. My kids’ super-sweet, hold-on-tight hugs are soothing but are not enough to keep me here. I wish it were that simple.
Cancer has stolen my future. It will take me away from my cherished friends and treasured family, and my teaching, and my life passion: my research and work with Australian wildlife, particularly koalas. It will rob my boys of their mum and deprive Simon of his partner of 20 years. I won’t grow old with him and enjoy more years of loving companionship, nor see my darling boys grow up or celebrate their joys and wins in life. I won’t be there to comfort them when I am gone. While I so desperately want to live, every single morning I wake up brutally aware that I’m a day closer to the end. Some days I don’t know what to feel; I used to worry my kids would grow up too fast, and now I worry that they won’t. Every day I crave peace of mind, to know that they’ll be okay.
I’m terrified of what’s to come, but I’m bolstered by my dear family and friends and their commitment to helping us. I accept that someone has to go through this and I’m glad it’s not the other women in my life. I’m so relieved my experience has prompted friends to take control and get their own lumps checked, which luckily has meant an early diagnosis for some. Having time to make memories is what’s important to me and it’s how I’ll find my way back to you all. This is why I need more time: I want to live long enough for Lachy and Ben to have meaningful memories of me. I still have hope for better times for my family. It’s my dearest wish that the boys are surrounded by love and support when I’m gone, and that they remember me, so they can happily fulfil their dreams.
While we can’t undo this truly tragic situation, we can offer Jo a real chance to gain some time and make some precious memories for her family.
She’s made such a difference to those around her, and it’s time to give back to this extraordinary person. Funds will help pay for all important treatments: the swift recurrence of Jo’s cancer means she cannot access trials, so the potentially game-changing immunotherapy will come with a whopping out-of-pocket expense of $6,000 per dose, for up to ten doses.
There are also gap costs for ongoing chemotherapy and radiation ablative brain surgery. In addition to this, there will be greater family and household costs including childcare expenses and increased general support.
Over time, these will continue to grow as the family income drastically declines. Border restrictions have added to Jo’s difficulties, making it impossible for her family and friends to be with her and assist in practical ways.
She’s been advised to set aside funds for the two years after she’s gone in order to help Simon get back on his feet. All these costs are a massive strain on Jo’s current financial situation. The savings they once set aside for the boys’ future are long gone. They will soon be down to one income. They need help now.
Any donation, no matter how small, will help. Every dollar will go a long way. And please—share her story. Jo and her family won’t be able to get through this without us.
Thank-you for walking beside our darling, generous Jo.
What Funds Jo needs
Now we are looking at the day to day support for the boys so they can do life stuff to ease the pressure on simon. A new goal of $200,000+ has been set, and no amount of money can replace Jo, but your generous donation can help her be a peace knowing that you have helped her boys move forward and help them as they grow up.
Please continue to share her story.
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