Veronica Bennett

I am 37 years of age and was born at Darlinghurst, Sydney. A large family of five children, we are all very different, but very close.

From English/Irish descent my grandparents were regularly involved in our upbringing, living well into their 80's and 90's. My mum's mum is still alive at the ripe age of 88. Nan is the strongest woman I know and I thank her for instilling some of that strength in me. My beautiful mother is the second strongest woman I know and the most amazing mother anyone could ask for. She too has endured things in her life, a survivor of two bouts of breast cancer - this has not stopped her.

I had a happy and healthy upbringing. I was very active, participating in a number of sports throughout my schooling life and continued into my teenage and young adult years. I married at 25 and we had our first daughter a year and a half later. Our second daughter came along in November 2008 and our third girl was born three and a half years later. They are delightful girls who made my fight all that much more real and worth every minute of suffering, to ensure I was going to be around a lot longer for them.

I recall the day I was diagnosed. The words struck fierce, my chest tightened and my heart ached.

All I could manage was "How am I going to tell my girls!" There were so many emotions running through my body. My poor husband was in complete shock.

When you hear those words, you can never return to the same person you were before.

The family rallied together to work out strategies to cope with the news of my cancer. What did we need to do first? When would we be seeing the Specialists? How would we break this to the girls? Our daughters were amazing through all of it. We were very open, speaking honestly and often, with them from day one. My eldest daughter was nine years of age, she understood what cancer meant. She had a lot of questions and wanted to know if I was going to be ok. The other two younger ones found it hard to understand what was happening, especially because I didn't look sick in the beginning.

I often wonder if my cancer story is similar to others?  I was referred from one doctor to the next. The symptoms of numbness and shooting pain that I was feeling across the left side of my lip and jawline were not consistent with having a wisdom tooth extracted. I then noticed a small pea like lump growing on the lower left jaw. This grew slowly at first but increased in pain rapidly.

After three months of the run-around between Dentists, Specialists, and scans there was finally someone that was willing to look into it closer. Two days later I had a biopsy and surprisingly to all of us, the results came back benign. A tumour treatable by injecting a steroid straight into the site to shrink it, which was very uncomfortable and, what became evident after the second injection, unsuccessful. Instead, the tumour began to grow rapidly!

With the tumour growing rapidly and the pain nearing unbearable, I pushed to have the tumour removed. This was a four hour operation and recovery was quite quick. The wait for the results and hopeful ‘all clear’ was an agonising TEN days. Unfortunately, I did not receive the confirmation I had hoped for. Instead, I was hit with the devastating news that I had cancer and a very rare one at that. The doctors are still baffled as to what to call it. We know it is a Sarcoma, a soft tissue sarcoma.

I recall the day I walked into Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and how humbled I felt to be in such a special place. I finally had confidence in my Specialists and knew they would do everything in their power to help me - and boy did I need that!

There wasn't a lot of time for consideration on how this would impact my life. At this stage we needed things to start right away. I began an intense, and I mean intense, Chemotherapy treatment plan.

Six hours, every fortnight for six rounds to try to shrink the tumour.

I ended up missing one treatment, because I was simply too ill. The treatment was tough, the toughest thing I hope I ever will endure. I remember lying in bed one hot summers day and repeating over and over "I have my breath, my heart is beating. Just breathe.”

It was the intensity of the nausea. Nothing I did, or took, helped. I would stay in hospital over night after my chemotherapy session to have fluids, this allowed me to go home and recover, without spending too much time at the hospital. By my last round I really should have been admitted, I was insanely sick and weak but determined to stay home with my family, as I knew, that in a matter of weeks, I was going to be stuck there after my operation.

I know it must have been very difficult for those caring for me too. At my very weakest they believed in me and their persistence prevailed. My mum was with us every step of the way. My dad supported her through this and we could not have done it all with out her help. My sister - my guider, my healer, helped every moment she could. Other family members and friends were there when I needed them the most. I was sent gifts, supplies. A fundraising scheme was set up to help our family get through the most difficult thing we had ever had to face. The power of this togetherness, support and love was so great and gave me so much courage to keep fighting and pushing through.

As each day passed, moment by moment, I got a tiny bit better and could start to function. The best memories I have was hearing my girls footsteps racing up the stairs each and every afternoon after school. The girls coming into my room to check on me ever so quietly, not to wake me if I was sleeping. I would try to be awake for the stories, the laughter. Their bright little faces would refill the love chambers and I knew I could get through another night.

There came times when I couldn't eat, I was so sick. My dad would call and ask about my ‘feeling barometer’ - this was a great way to express how I really felt. Once I could down a Quarter Pounder was the top indicator, and the news always spread like wildfire through the family, as this meant I was starting to feel better again. I built up just enough strength for the epic nine-hour surgery in February of last year. Thankfully, all went to plan. I recovered exceptionally well and was back home with my girls and the family six days early. To be back with them gave me additional strength and helped with my recovery as I was missing them dearly.

I was then hit with the suggestion of more chemo and some radiation. Fortunately, I only had to have the radiation therapy. Like the treatments before, this too was an intense five day a week for six weeks treatment. We certainly mastered our navigation of the best driving route into Camperdown.

This treatment was intense as they would lock me into a face-mask for up to ten minutes. I needed to be in the exact same position each time. Closing my eyes to stay calm, I would dream this time away…. I would think about the great memories with my girls, family and friends.

My girls came in with me towards the end of my treatment. This aided in their understanding of where I had been spending all my time over the past year and answered a lot of questions they had.

Walking out on that last day after radiotherapy, my mask in hand, was exhilarating. I had the power to do anything! After everything I had endured, I was happy with myself for the effort, dedication and conviction to beat this. I had faced it all with positivity and was proud of that. I certainly had my very intense, dark times, but I had made it this far.

The best possible news was delivered after my scan in July; an early birthday present. I was deemed ‘cancer free’. The words echoed around the room, emotion took over me. To be able to relay this message to my family was exhilarating. The girls jumped for joy!

I have since had a year of clear scans and look forward to continuing on this path.

Now people ask me "has this experience changed you”?

Having cancer hits you hard. Of course you will never be the same person you were before. I have adjusted some eating habits, but nothing to the extreme. I chose natural therapies to compliment medical treatments. I certainly do not sweat the small things anymore. I take the time to enjoy the little things in life. I say "I love you" all the time and I am very grateful for every day.

I will live large. I will do the things I usually put off and I will continue to help others, as so many helped me. Life is about challenges and how you choose to face them. I choose love, faith, medicinal and traditional. I allowed people in and I stayed positive, helped by the loved ones around me.

My wish now is for good health and some solid evidence as to why cancer is so prevalent in Australia, and in the world. Cancer is not restrictive. Let it not restrict us.