Dialog Box


This mum had to choose between her son and her life

7 Jun 2018 at 2:51 AM

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 life forever.

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 inevitable.

“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 better.”

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 cancer.”

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 life.

“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 now.”

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 about.”

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 normal life.

“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 me.”

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. 

Category: Rare Cancers in the News
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