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In 2018 Juliana Sargeant was diagnosed with colorectal cancer just months after giving birth to her third child.
Jump to each section of the article:
Here Juliana describes hearing the diagnosis and her initial reactions.
Here Juliana talks about how they told their pre-schoolers she had cancer.
Here Juliana talks about her time at St George’s.
Here Juliana talks about dealing with other people’s reactions.
I'm quite a practical person so for me, I was hesitant to believe what they were saying initially. I thought, “Okay, Mums been through this, so I have a background knowledge of the process. But I've only just turned 40 and I've got three little kids and I've got enough on my plate without having to deal with this as well!” This would pretty much finish off a lot of people.
I just sat there in silence processing it in my head. My husband, luckily, is quite similar in that respect. He's an engineer and is quite practical about things. It's really annoying sometimes because the emotion comes after but he just sat there with me and I remember him grabbing my hand when Rene (the surgeon) actually said, “You have cancer”. Just hearing those words it’s like, “This is real. He’s a surgeon. He’s not going to muck around.”
He said we need to have the scans and everything and have all the facts before we talk about the plan. Both of us could cope with that. We thought, okay, there’s a plan. We've got to do A, then B, then C to figure out what we are going to do. At that point, both of us were sort of unaware of the seriousness of what was actually going on. It was a shock but I think the emotion was delayed until a bit later on, until we had the full facts.
It was a bit of rollercoaster. We went straight to Mum and Dads because they are in Timaru and we told them. They were very distraught because Mum's been through the experience. I guess, me being their child, it’s a whole lot worse. I felt the same - in a way I thought, “Well at least it’s me and not my kids.” There was no tears, there was no crazy behaviour or throwing stuff or breaking down in depression, or anything like that. It was still, “Right, I'm a Mum of three little kids. I'm fully breastfeeding one of them. I have to be here. I have to deal with this. We've got to have the scan to find out exactly what’s happening.”
It was just - as Dr Rene Van den Bosch had said to me - step by step we will go through this. Don’t think about the big picture, just think about what we can do right now. And that's basically how I’ve coped with it all so far. Just day but day, sometimes minute by minute. Just trying to think, “I feel okay right now so that’s fine.”
The first few nights I basically didn’t sleep because my mind was just going crazy with everything and anything I could think of. Even stupid stuff that didn’t even matter. Everything. Mostly child related because that was basically my job, that was my life, looking after these kids so it was really all night thinking. You'd start thinking of negative things. “What if I'm not here? What if in a years’ time I am not here? Who's going to do this? Who's going to look after the kids? Who's going to ride my horse? Who's going to look after Mum and Dad when they are old?” You know, all these things. “What's Mike going to do? Is he going to find another partner?” Just crazy stuff. But after a few days of that, I kind of got a bit of sense back and thought, “I don't need to worry about that right now. Just stop it. Just start thinking about the good stuff.”
I think, in a way, having the three kids, although it was crazy-busy, it was good because it did take my mind off it. Otherwise I think I would have constantly been thinking, “I’ve got cancer. I've got cancer. I might die. This might happen, that might happen”. But I was so busy with exclusively breastfeeding a baby and getting the other two kids off to kindy, looking after animals, preparing dinners and lunches and cleaning house. Everything you normally do, I still had to do. That stuff didn’t stop just because the day before someone told me I’ve got cancer. So that’s how it is.
And the Cancer Society gave me some books and things. I started to read them and that did help because it turned everything around into positives instead of thinking about all the negatives, which I definitely believe that a positive mind is huge, on coping with that diagnosis.
Telling their pre-schoolers
Our first stop was actually talking to the kindy teachers and asking how on earth do we explain cancer to a three year old and a just-turned-five year old. When there is so much going on in their wee lives right now, you want to protect them and not tell them anything. Not tell them Mummy’s sick but you know you have to. I was with those kids from the day they were born, I have not had a single day away from them.
He's just turning five, going to school and suddenly Mummy is going away for six weeks, up to Christchurch. So the kindy teachers were good and explained that you have to just talk to them like an adult really. Obviously miss out all the gory details, but explain to them what cancer is. So my wee daughter, who is three, she came up with, “There’s a germ in mummy’s tummy. There’s a naughty germ in mum’s tummy.” So that’s what we've carried on with. There’s a naughty germ in Mummy’s tummy and Mummy is going away because the doctors special medicine (the ‘lasers’ they called it for radiation), the lasers are going to come and shrink it down. Then I'm going to get cut from the doctor and he’s going to take away this naughty germ. Then I have to have some more medicine which is going to just make Mummy better. Then, hey presto, I'm fixed. That’s what they think in their heads so it’s kind of cute.
They all came with me up to Christchurch. They could see where I was. They came to St George’s. They saw the big machines and everything, which they loved. They thought it was great. The nurses and everyone there, the whole team explained to the kids and let the see the computers. So for me, when they left, it was actually easier because they had it in their heads where mummy was. I wasn’t half dead in hospital which some people might have thought I was. I was actually alright.
Time at St George’s Cancer Care Centre
Iain Ward was amazing and put us so at ease about it all. We had visions of radiation – I’m going to be radioactive, I'm not going to be able to hold the baby, I'm not going to be able to be near the kids for six weeks or anyone. Just crazy things because you don’t really know what you are in for. Then having the chemo with it, it was really scary because a lot of people have one or the other. He was amazing. He covered everything and just put us so at ease about it all.
After we'd had the meeting with him we went into a meeting with Dr Michelle Vaughan, who was the medical oncologist, and she covered all the chemo side of it. Although it’s a lot of information to take in, we both had our notes and were frantically writing down all the bits so we could try and remember it.
That was just the best experience being able to go through St George’s. I think it’s helped me hugely, just having that extra care and attention. I can't speak any more highly of them. Initially with Ian and Michelle, throughout radiation and chemo, they were so practical about it and spoke to me in a language that we could both understand, not just medical terms. If there was anything we didn’t know they were happy to explain it all.
The first time, pulling up to the carpark at St George’s Cancer care and looking at this place and thinking, “Oh gosh, that’s me. I’ve got to go in there.” We stepped in and it was clean, people were smiling and there was a giant big fish tank. It was quite the experience and not the experience we expected. We left there that first day thinking, “Wow, this is going to be fine. These people know what they are doing. They are experienced and they are friendly.” That was the biggest thing for me. I didn’t feel like I was just another number that they had to rush in and out. I felt like every single one of them took their time to talk to me and learn a bit of history about us as a family, even prior to the cancer.
Having (baby) Arabella was my biggest concern. Logistically, how it was going to work with my treatment and having the baby with me but not having family up there with me to take the baby and things. The manager, Viv, came down and met us and straight away she was like, “It’s not a problem. When you are here, just call me, I will come down. I will take Arabella, or one of the nurses will watch her. Someone will be with her the whole time you are having you treatment”. And I thought, “Can this be any easier? You've just answered all my questions straight away.” They did it in a way that all the questions that you wanted to say, they just said it, so I didn’t have anything to worry about. It got towards the end of my treatment and I was actually getting sad that I was going to leave! (Laughs) They are brilliant. Really nice people.
And even now when we go back to Christchurch, if we've got appointments, we pop in and see the team, just to say hi. And they know us. Of all the hundreds of people, they know us. You are not a number. I think that’s the important thing. I would highly recommended if people have insurance, or they have the financial ability, to use St George’s. I would not hesitate. That would be my recommendation.
Aside from Mum and Dad we told my brother and sister and they were extremely shocked and scared as well because they were starting to wonder, “Well, should we go and have check-ups and colonoscopies?” (Which they have in fact now done, so that’s good.) Then Mum, doing the Mum thing, got on the phone and rang all her relatives and my Aunties, and my Uncles and everything, and told them. So it really just put the whole family into turmoil for a while because, like Mum said, of the whole family, I was fit and young and strong and I had a really good diet and all these things and then, whammo, you've got cancer.
The hardest part for me actually was my Dad. He's been through it already with Mum and probably thought he'd survived that and he’s not ever going to have to feel like that again. And then I landed that on him. I just remember when we left the house and Dad was just in floods of tears kissing me goodbye. Of all the people, that was the one that really got me. Seeing your Dad cry is not something you see. So that’s really stuck in my head and I think it always will.
My husband, obviously being practical like I was, we are still just dealing with it and going through the steps and he's just right there through the whole journey.
With a lot of friends it was hard and they had different reactions. Some of the people are shocked and say how horrible it is, then start rattling off all the stories of previous people they've heard or know of that have got cancer, which is not really the best. You don’t really want to hear about it but you sit and listen because it makes them feel better. It’s actually a lot of the wider friends that have reacted the best and come forward and offered practical help - childcare and cooking meals and things like that. It’s funny. It’s not always the people you think. I've learnt a lot from it so far anyway, as far as relationships and friends and family.
[Did you get offered advice by friends?]
Oh yes, that was really common. Definitely the diet thing was the biggest thing. That seems to be the biggest thing available - you see it everywhere now. Diets causing this, that and the next thing. So there were lots of people that came up with some pretty interesting diet recommendations. I listened. I just learned that they are obviously processing it that way, the news of me having cancer. So I just listened to the information they had. And sometimes every now and then they would say something and I would think,“Oh well, there’s no harm in trying that. I'll give it a go”. Like the Vitamin C was highly recommended so I did.