09 July 2019
Julie and Paul met while on a scuba diving trip on Kangaroo Island in 1991, marking the start of a 22-year relationship spent exploring the great outdoors—until Paul received a shock Stage 4 diagnosis in 2012.
“We loved camping. Every year we’d pack up the campervan and discover a new part of Australia. The Kimberley and NT were our favourites, where we could go fishing for barramundi.”
In 2002, Julie had a cancer scare.
“We’d just come back from a trip. I felt out of sorts and exhausted. I had planned to go to the doctor the following day, but Paul made me go that night. When the doctor examined me, they said, ‘Good thing you came tonight; tomorrow may have been too late’. I had a tumour in my bowel that had ulcerated and was causing me to lose blood rapidly. Paul saved my life that night.”
That experience taught Julie a valuable lesson: catch a problem early enough, and you can often do something about it. And that was what was ringing in her head when Paul was told his devastating news almost a decade later—“We will get through this”.
“Paul had noticed a pain in his side in early 2012. It wasn’t initially cause for concern. He worked in a very physical role, so he was used to having day-to-day aches and pains. When it didn’t go away, he thought he might have a cracked rib.”
A trip to the doctor prescribed chiropractic work. But still, the pain was getting worse. That’s when they were referred for an x-ray.
“Paul told me that he could see by the look on the radiographer’s face that something wasn’t right. She told him to wait there while she left the room. Later, when we were both home, he did something he wasn’t meant to do—he opened the package and looked at the scan. We both knew that wasn’t what a healthy lung looked like.”
For Julie and Paul, it was a tough two weeks of limbo. They knew something was wrong but they didn’t know what to call it.
“I’ll never forget when we went to that appointment. As soon as we sat down, the first words out of the doctor’s mouth were, ‘When you leave here, you’ll need to get your affairs in order’. That’s when we found out that it was Stage 4 lung cancer.”
Paul immediately started chemotherapy for the pain, and had radiation treatment in between. He was also part of a number of clinical trials and tests—anything he could do to help other people.
“The treatment went on for several months. I remember sitting in the car with a friend and saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to live in this hell’. You can’t plan. You don’t know how long you’re going to have him. It was excruciating.”
In the last few days before he passed, the doctors knew Paul was getting close. He asked to be moved to Flinders private hospital, because he wanted the home to remain a safe retreat space for Julie to grieve.
“He couldn’t talk, in those last few days. But his mind never went. A friend was sitting next to his bedside, holding his hand. Paul gestured towards me. ‘I don’t know what you’re saying,’ our friend apologised, but I knew. ‘He’s telling you to look after me,’ I said.”
Paul passed away on 16 February 2013.
“I’d been impacted by cancer, through people I knew, so many times before. But it’s only when you’re there with someone through the whole journey that it hits home how devastating this disease can be.
I do try to focus on finding the positives. If it meant that my friends and I raise a bit of money, or that our story helps someone give up smoking—that’s what’s important now.
If Paul could be diagnosed with a terminal illness and still want to take part in trials in the hope that it would make a difference for others, imagine what the rest of us can do.”
Three months after Paul passed away, Julie took part in her first Relay For Life with colleagues, family and friends, which has since become an annual tradition.
“We raised $7,500 that first year. We were so proud. It’s a really special feeling.”
After hearing about the Ambassador program from a friend who happened to be an ex-volunteer, Julie put up her hand two years ago.
“If I never had to work, I would have volunteered all my life. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m hoping to retire in a few years and commit to helping Cancer Council SA full-time. I know first-hand that cancer can make you feel like no one understands what you’re going through. I just want to let people know that they’re not alone—that there are people, services and resources that are there to help.”
When Julie was finding the responsibility of being a carer particularly challenging, she called the cancer nurses on 13 11 20 to make sure she was doing the right thing.
“Just knowing that there’s someone there you can always ring is so reassuring. It’s like a safety net. I also loved the Cancer Council SA booklets that we picked up in the waiting rooms. Having all the need-to-know information that you could take with you was a great help.”
When you call 13 11 20, an experienced cancer nurse will answer to provide cancer information, to connect you to services, or just to listen.