A tribute to Sarah Bennison …

My youngest brother was six when we first heard that our Mum had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was about to sit my final year 12 exams, and my two other siblings were in the midst of middle school life.

No one can prepare a family for the roller-coaster ride you all take when a parent gets critically ill, and especially when she’s the primary family carer …. especially when it’s your Mum.

Our family was in shock but being the strong family we were, with an incredible support network of some wonderful friends, we got on with it. Mum completed her 12 weeks of chemotherapy and then radiotherapy and got all the terrible side effects, including horrendous mouth ulcers, and yet she never once complained.

By the time the new school year had started, Mum’s hair had thinned but life had returned to somewhat ‘normal’, I was now a Uni student helping drive my siblings around, helping prepare dinner and fold the washing. Five years later, all of us older and wiser, and we had a few great holidays together. Life was grand. We felt like we were the ‘lucky ones’, those that had experienced cancer but were still there together to tell the tale.

So, it was a massive shock to us all when mum’s spritely appearance hid a different story: the cancer was back but this time more aggressive and not in one isolated area. More testing, more anguish, more surgery, more chemo, more cancer.

This time it was non-Hodgkins lymphoma and a more serious scenario. But, given that she’d beaten it once before, Mum believed she could beat it again. So she took it all in her stride and six months later, life returned to that old faithful ‘normal’. This time she was bald and sporting a lovely wig which was itchy but did the job to make everyone feel things were ‘normal’. But as anyone knows who’s ever experienced cancer (especially twice), you are always looking for something, wondering, thinking, ‘what might it be?’ and never knowing what might be around the corner for you. There is constant blood testing, PET scans, CAT scans and regular doctor follow ups, and so ‘having had cancer’ almost becomes something you can put on your CV as you spend so much time getting through it. Another 3 years after that second diagnosis, Mum underwent heaps more testing which again seemed to reveal that cancer was present. But with more testing, she had, in fact, a rare lung infection which was treated with steroids. Round and round the doctors went; round and round our lives went.

I got married (Mum was the most stunning guest there) and it was a very happy and special time for our family. But, the thing with blood cancers is they are tricky. With a history like Mum’s, you can never quite relax. Regular testing was paramount and sadly within 6 months there was another diagnosis, and this time it was more serious again. It was a diffused B-cell lymphoma and treatment wasn’t as straightforward as before. A ‘stem-cell’ transplant was recommended. They harvested her own stem cells and re-planted them in her to use them to fight the cancer. This became an enormous ordeal in hospital, daily treatments and testing. One year on and Mum felt fit and well, if not a little tired from the experience.

But sadly, Mum’s cancer journey didn’t end there. Twelve months later, the horrible cancer beast was back bigger than ever and was now throughout her body. The stem-cell transplant hadn’t worked and the only thing left would be to find a suitable donor for a bone marrow transplant. Finding a suitable donor is a little bit like winning the lottery – very hard to do, but we managed to find a good match.

But then the next bit is really hard….much harder than climbing Mt Everest even. With an already weak body, Mum undertook four months of chemo to prepare her body and then she underwent the transplant. This was a horrendous time for us, and especially for Mum, who overcame extreme odds and never gave up for one second and desperately tried to stay with us. In the end, she developed a rare, awful infection which took her from us after 79 days straight in hospital.

It was over 12 years since we first heard those words ‘You’ve got cancer’ and I know not a day went by in that time where Mum didn’t give up hope that all would return to normal. We also shared her hope, but in the end it wasn’t to be. Mum was the toughest fighter, and while we miss her more every day, we are so grateful for the many wonderful years of memories we hold dear in our heart.

Amy Tabart, Sarah’s daughter.