05 June 2019
Six years ago, Peter Tann had just finished his own course of cancer treatment when he received the devastating news that his only grandson, Alex, had brain cancer at just three years old. Here he shares the experiences that motivated both him and his wife to volunteer as Cancer Council SA Ambassadors.
“It was very early 2013 when it all started. Alex was just three years old. His parents, my son Phil and daughter-in-law Jo, had just given birth to their second, Jenny.
Everyone noticed Alex’s demeanour changing, but we thought he was just jealous of having another baby in the house. Then there was the vomiting—but we assumed it was gastro.
Doctors thought it could be anything, like an ear infection or a virus, and the very worst case scenario could be brain cancer. Worryingly, he had started bumping into things. We realised that he couldn’t see—his vision was failing.
A neurology scan showed a tumour the size of a fist growing in his brain.
You can’t explain what it’s like to hear something like that. I really struggled to deal with it at the time, having just finished my own course of treatment for prostate cancer. I’d been focussing on getting on with things and hadn’t really had time to properly adjust intellectually to my situation, so it all came out when we heard about Alex.
And it all happened so fast. He was diagnosed at 5.30 pm on 3 January, and just four hours later, he was in the operating theatre.
They removed the tumour in his brain, and discovered two further lesions in the spine.
After the surgery, he was put onto chemotherapy to keep the growth under control. He spent more time in hospital than out for the best part of a year. He’d be in for a week for treatment, then get released, then get an infection and need to come straight back.
When chemo was over, the next step was radiotherapy. But for someone as young as Alex, it was incredibly risky. Doctors wanted to wait until he was five, but in the end he couldn’t quite wait.
At the end of both chemotherapy and radiotherapy, there had been no growth in the lesions—a fantastic result. But the treatments had definitely had their side effects. Alex lost his sight when his optic nerve died after being under too much pressure. His hearing was damaged by the chemo and radiation.
He now wears a cochlear implant and uses a cane. He goes to a wonderful school—South Australian School for the Vision Impaired. It’s become his new normal.
I firmly believe that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, and that every experience like this—though awful at the time—helps you to prioritise what’s important in life.
I’ve retired early, and my wife, Fran, will join me next year. The stress of my job just wasn’t healthy, and we’ve been looking forward to travelling around Australia in the caravan.
My wife is a two-time breast cancer survivor, and she found her first lump during a routine Breast Screen SA mammogram—so we both appreciate how important it is to get prevention messaging out there.
Fran has been a Cancer Council SA Ambassador for about 10 years. After tagging along with her to volunteer a few hours here and there, I stepped up to join her as an Ambassador in 2014.
It’s a wonderful thing for us to do together, and a chance to share our stories to help people really understand that screening and prevention is so important.
We are both advocates for any available screening as neither of us would be here today if we hadn’t taken the opportunity of screening and regular health checks with our GPs.
If your bowel kit comes in the mail, do it. If you feel like something’s not right, see your GP. No excuses.
Too many of us have seen loved ones go through cancer. By speaking at events, maybe we can help make a small difference in years to come."
If you are interested in giving back, you can learn more about Cancer Council SA volunteer opportunities, which can develop into the Ambassador program.