When Kate Vines was diagnosed with a rare
form of cancer, she made the toughest decision a mum could ever have to make:
she had to choose her child or her life.
She was 33 years old when she was diagnosed
with medullary thyroid cancer in 1991. Living in Sydney with her husband Ray
and five-year-old son Paul, it was the start of a journey that would change her
Almost 30 years later, Kate - now 60 -
still has cancer. She’s far outlived doctors’ expectations, but she’s never
been in remission. “I thought I was a normal, healthy mum,” she tells Kidspot.
“But with hindsight, there were things wrong for many years.”
Feeling her throat constrict as she bent
over gardening, or falling asleep at the dinner table, was normal - something
she laughed off. It wasn’t until her sister-in-law spotted a lump in her throat
that she went to see her doctor.
“After a six-week wait I was diagnosed,”
she explains. “Medullary thyroid cancer was so rare that my doctor had never
seen it before.”
Kate had surgery to remove her thyroid in
the hopes it would stop the cancer from spreading. But it was too late - it had
spread to her lymph nodes and chest.
“One of the most heartbreaking things was
seeing Paul’s face after the surgery,” explains Kate. “I had these big staples
in my throat and he couldn't look at me.” She was told to prepare for the
“Ray kept telling me that I had to make it
to Paul’s 21st birthday,” she says. “Something the doctors thought was
impossible, but it gave me something concrete to aim for.”
With no known treatments available for her
illness, Kate looked for alternative options. She visited the Gerson Clinic in
Mexico where she spent weeks undergoing intensive diet-based therapy. She also
visited the Gawler Cancer Foundation in Victoria, which practices a holistic
approach to cancer treatment using meditation and other wellness techniques.
“When I returned, I realised my marriage
with Ray wasn't working anymore,” remembers Kate sadly. “We’d drifted apart and
the stress of living with marriage problems was detrimental to trying to get
Ray agreed to move out and Kate became
Paul’s main carer. “I had more surgeries to remove cancerous lymph nodes and
lumps in my breasts,” she explains. “Each one was harder than the last and I
realised I was barely coping as a single mum, let alone a single mum with
A year later, when Paul was eight, Kate
made the toughest decision a mother could ever have to make and gave up custody
of her child. She knew that it was better for Paul to have a part-time mum,
than no mum at all.
“It was heartbreaking,” she says. “I
couldn't give him the love and attention he needed and deserved. But Ray could.
I also knew intuitively that if I didn’t focus on myself, I would die.”
Paul, now 32, lives in Sydney with his wife
Natasha and two-year-old daughter Clare. He has hazy memories of the early days
of his mother’s diagnosis.
“I really don’t remember much,” he says. “I
was obviously incredibly upset as any child would be with such difficult news.
I missed Mum so much when she was overseas and it was incredibly stressful when
she was in hospital.”
Kate continued to see Paul every week,
before moving to Kangaroo Valley in 1997, hoping that being immersed in nature
would help her recovery.
“Although I spent a long time barely able
to get out of bed, it eventually had the effect I hoped for,” she explains.“I
had time to meditate and do the things I needed to feel well again. I felt
better than I had in years.”
After nearly three years in Kangaroo
Valley, Kate moved to Melbourne, where she met her husband Richard and started
a motivational speaking business. Ten years later they returned to New South
Wales and moved to Bowral, south of Sydney. Here, she lives a relatively normal
“My cancer has continued to spread,” says
Kate. “It affects my bones and I have a lesion in my brain. But it’s like my
body has learned to live with the cancer - the doctors just shake their heads
It was one of these doctors that said
something to Kate that stuck - that rare cancer patients have a raw deal. There
is no funding, no research, no treatments. It’s like rare cancers have been
deemed too hard. He suggested that Kate and Richard set up a charity, which is
exactly what they did.
Within a week, Rare Cancers Australia
became their full-time jobs. “People with rare cancers feel incredibly alone,”
explains Kate who acts as founder and head of patient care. “Most doctors may
have never heard of their cancers and have no idea how to treat them.”
With more than 52,000 people diagnosed with
a rare or less common cancers in Australia every year, Rare Cancers Australia
is doing essential work.
“We match patients with clinicians who have
a special interest in their types of cancers,” Kate smiles. “And we put them in
touch with research programs and clinical trials that they would never know
When asked if she would do anything
different, Kate’s answer is simple - no. “Giving up Paul was the hardest thing
I ever had to do,” she sighs. “But I knew he was happy, secure and living a
“I also believe in my mind that I’ve been
guided in a certain direction, and have had certain experiences, that have
enabled me to help others.
“It's been really difficult for Paul and if
I could have spent more time with him then I would have loved to. But we’re
very close now and my granddaughter Clare is a delight. I know he’s proud of
And indeed he is. “My mum is incredibly
strong and the most caring mum a son can ask for,” says Paul. “I feel very
lucky that she is around and I love nothing more than seeing her cuddling and
enjoying time with my daughter. There’s truly nothing like the love you get
from your mum.”
The original version of this article appeared here.