Di­ag­no­sis a warn­ing to oth­ers

Otago Daily Times - - GENERAL - MIKE HOULAHAN Health re­porter

WHEN So­nia Gil­lan went for a scan she ex­pected would find she had arthri­tis, she laugh­ingly sug­gested the doc­tors would in­stead find she had can­cer.

It was a bad joke, and it had a ter­ri­ble punch­line.

Not only did the scan dis­cover she did in­deed have breast can­cer, but the 37­year­old’s dis­ease was so far ad­vanced that her prog­no­sis was ter­mi­nal.

‘‘I have a nasty sense of hu­mour, but when the doc­tor said I ac­tu­ally did have can­cer I couldn’t be­lieve it.’’

The scan showed the dis­ease had reached her bones, and was un­treat­able.

Breast Can­cer Aware­ness Month has just ended, but Ms Gil­lan said her story was a warn­ing peo­ple had to be aware of their health for all 12 months of the year.

‘‘It does hap­pen to peo­ple; peo­ple do die pretty young from breast can­cer.’’

As par­ents of two young boys, life for Ms Gil­lan and hus­band Matt is a con­stant whirl at the best of times.

But add scans, on­col­o­gist ap­point­ments and nurses to the mix and the net­work of friends, fam­ily and vol­un­teers which has swung in be­hind to help the Gil­lans has been vi­tal to fam­ily life con­tin­u­ing.

‘‘A meal train was or­gan­ised while I was in hospi­tal and peo­ple kept bring­ing us meals — we didn’t need to cook for months,’’ Ms Gil­lan said.

‘‘Once I was out we said ‘this is a bit much now that I’m home’ but they still kept go­ing . . . it’s been amaz­ing, and peo­ple have been so gen­er­ous and helped out so much.’’

The Gil­lans’ sons, aged 5 and 4, know Mum has a sore back which will never get bet­ter — but do not yet com­pre­hend the drama which has en­gulfed their young lives.

‘‘They have strug­gled to un­der­stand that Mum won’t get bet­ter: they ask to be lifted up and I have to say no, Mum can’t do that.’’

Par­ ents and teach­ers know the fam­ily’s sit­u­a­tion and had helped to keep the boys’ rou­tine as nor­mal as pos­si­ble.

The Gil­lans had no fam­ily his­tory of the dis­ease, but since Ms Gil­lan’s di­ag­no­sis they had been ex­am­ined and had ge­netic test­ing.

Her dis­ease first man­i­fested as back pain, which steadily got worse.

Treat­ment es­ca­lated from pain killers to phys­io­ther­apy, but af­ter a year with no im­prove­ment, her doc­tors de­cided in Jan­uary to give Ms Gil­lan an MRI scan.

The shock­ing di­ag­no­sis meant a cou­ple con­tem­plat­ing buy­ing their first home were now con­tem­plat­ing ques­tions such as whether it should be wheel­chair ac­ces­si­ble, in case Ms Gil­lan was no longer able to move freely.

For now, the Gil­lans

❛ They have strug­gled to un­der­stand that Mum won’t get bet­ter: they ask to be lifted up and I have to say no, Mum can’t do


live a life of un­cer­tainty: if the can­cer’s spread is slow she may have years to live, but if it picks up pace her life ex­pectancy will drop dra­mat­i­cally.

‘‘The ra­di­ol­o­gist said we don’t know long it will be, but you will live with it for a while, and he started talk­ing about what you will do in five years — so it’s not im­me­di­ately fa­tal, hope­fully,’’ Ms Gil­lan said.

How­ever, a con­ver­sa­tion which brought the re­al­ity of Ms Gil­lan’s sit­u­a­tion home to her was a dis­cus­sion about pal­lia­tive care and hos­pice.

‘‘It turns out that they are about pain re­lief and en­sur­ing qual­ity of life . . . they have a nurse who comes up to check on things and they are re­ally cool,’’ she said. ‘‘It was quite a sur­prise be­cause I didn’t know how that was go­ing to work out.’’

Ms Gil­lan is now in­tent on mak­ing sure she leaves a legacy for her sons so that they do not for­get her.

‘‘I worry about whether they will re­mem­ber me — I don’t re­mem­ber that much from when I was 5,’’ she said.

‘‘We got given a hol­i­day, which was pretty cool, and I hope they re­mem­ber things like that . . . I want to live hap­pily, so they have happy mem­o­ries, not sad mem­o­ries.’’


Strong sup­port . . . Matt Gil­lan and his wife, So­nia, who, at just 37, has been di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal can­cer.

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