The smile on seven-year-old Austin Melville face as he stood in the middle of Subiaco Oval and tossed the coin to start our 2017 Dig Deep Game between West Coast and Carlton was unmissable.
It's been a really tough 12 months for Austin and his family after his mum passed away from cancer last year. In this incredibly raw and honest guest blog, Austin's dad Colin shares their story to encourage continued investment in cancer research:
“Our cancer journey started in late 2013. Life really couldn't have been better at the time. We had built our first house in preparation for our expanding little family, I was working in a job I loved, Austin was 3 years old and my wife, Donna was pregnant with our second little boy, Hudson. Life was perfect.
At some stage during her pregnancy, Donna noticed a small, firm lump on the underside of her right breast. This was obviously a serious concern and Donna, being the organised and extremely diligent woman she was, acted on it immediately and saw a doctor. The doctor was quite blasé about her concerns and reassured us that it was most likely a blocked milk duct as a result of her body preparing to breastfeed and to not be concerned with it. Unfortunately this was far from the reality.
After Hudson was born and Donna had just finished breastfeeding our new little man she noticed the lump was still there and appeared to have gotten bigger. She returned to a different doctor for a second opinion who promptly referred her to go and have a scan that day. A few days later we had an appointment with a specialist who was the bearer of some devastating news. That was the day we discovered that at the young age of 33 and with a newborn baby, Donna had breast cancer.
The specialist informed us that it was a very aggressive form of cancer known as triple negative breast cancer and needed to be operated on straight away. He believed that with the right treatment that it was indeed possible to treat the cancer and potentially get back to a somewhat normal life.
Donna was booked in for a right breast mastectomy for the following day. With less than 24 hours to let the shocking news sink in, Donna was in a hospital ward preparing to undergo her first of what ended up being many major surgeries in an attempt to beat the cancer.
While in surgery the doctor found traces of the cancer in her lymph nodes and performed a full lymph node clearance of her right armpit which meant Donna would be constantly fighting fluid retention and swelling in her right arm for the rest of her short life. When she came out of surgery and everything went well I was ecstatic. Donna was recovering well and we moved onto the treatment phase.
While Donna was recovering from her treatments, we flew her Mother out from the UK. She was a massive help for us - especially Donna, and we were very sad to see her fly back once Donna had recovered enough for me to go back to work. Unbeknown to us Donna’s Mum had also been suffering and had an appointment she had to fly back for. Donna's mum was diagnosed with lung cancer that could not be treated and was unfortunately terminal. This came as a huge shock to us all especially Donna, and we set about making plans to fly back after Donna's scans and see her again.
After enduring long chemo sessions and radiotherapy treatment as well as many treatments for the swelling in her arm we had a follow up appointment with the oncologist. Donna had to endure many painful and invasive scans to see whether the cancer had spread or was still there.
After an extremely nervous and anxious wait, we received the results. There was no trace of the cancer anywhere! We would have regular scans every 3-6 months for many years to come which was a very scary thought, but for the moment we were over the moon!!!
We set out planning our dream holiday to Paris and England to see the family and Donna’s mum one last time. Unfortunately, we received the news we had been dreading and Donna’s Mum, Jacquie had unfortunately passed away before we could return to see her one last time. We flew back to the UK to help plan and attend the funeral. It was very emotional and devastating for poor Donna but we decided to carry on with our family holiday a month or so later as a reward for Donna and the boys after everything we had been through.
We took the little boys to Disneyland Paris for 5 days and went back to see the family in London. Donna's hair had started to grow back and she had started to love her new shorter hairdo! No more wigs or hats necessary!
Life was slowly getting back to normal, even though we had the dreaded scans to look forward to in the near future. We returned home and did our absolute best to put it out of our heads and get on with life.
One or two scans came and went and we still were told the cancer was under control. Life was actually kind of good for a change. Life went on as normal just waiting for the next scan. It all became part of the routine.
Not long after the holiday Donna started to feel dizzy. She saw a doctor who diagnosed her with vertigo which was a huge relief. The dizziness never went away and Donna’s eye sight started to blur. She saw an optometrist who couldn't quite put his finger on it. He asked us to leave it with him and he will think about what he could do for the next appointment.
A few days after that appointment, I happened to noticed Donna's eyes were strange. One eye was looking inward and the other was looking straight. We returned to the optometrist who was completely stumped. He suggested we return to the doctor and ask for a CT scan, which we promptly did. That same day I waited in the waiting room while Donna had her scan. It felt like forever. I can still remember Donna running out in floods of tears as she told me what the technician had seen. Donna had 3 tumours in her brain and had to see the oncologist immediately.
We raced over to the oncologist where she explained in detail what they had found. She explained that she believed they were treatable although extremely serious and we needed to run to the neuro surgeon’s office to find out what happens next.
We ran to the surgeon’s office where he told us the extent of what we were facing. The largest tumour was about 4 by 4 cm large and was at the back of her skull. This would take one brain surgery to remove, plus a month-long minor recovery before returning for a second brain surgery through the top of her skull at the front, to remove a 2 by 2 and a 1 by 1 cm tumour. Then there would be intensive rehab to learn to walk and talk properly again and hopefully regain her perfect vision.
Again less than 24 hours later I was having a last dinner with my wife in the hospital before serious, life threatening surgery.
The surgery went well and I visited Donna in the intensive care unit the following afternoon after over 8 hours of surgery. Nothing prepared me for the sight of my young wife with more tubes and wires connected to her than you could ever imagine.
I stayed with her until she woke from the anaesthetic. She struggled to talk and was in intense pain. The nurses were great and 5 days later she came home. We flew Donna's sister, Danielle out to help look after her and she got as much rest as possible before returning for round two of the surgery.
The second surgery was nearly ten hours long and involved a long recovery in the ICU and an extended stay in the rehab facility of Fiona Stanley. It was a long, hard road but Donna was able to walk with the aid of a walking frame and regained most of her speech.
Her eyesight never really returned to normal which really affected her ability to walk but she made do with what she had. She battled hard and was fiercely independent. It was horrible to see her struggling so much but also amazing to see the fighting spirit and determination in her!
Life went on as best as we could. We knew once the cancer returned as brain tumours that Donna’s life would be shortened and end prematurely as a result of the cancer but we tried to carry on and do what we could to have a normal life.
Unfortunately, Donna’s ability to walk slowly deteriorated. She was having difficulty supporting her own weight and was prone to falling. One particular day she fell and bumped her head while I was at work, which resulted in my Mum taking her to hospital. They wanted to keep her in for scans and to check her out completely so we had to wait for results from the doctors before we could take her home.
I finished work and met my Mum and kids at Austin’s football training. My phone rang while I was standing in the middle of the oval. It was Donna and I instantly knew it was bad news.
She told me she had bad news and I needed to come see her immediately. I dropped everything and raced to the hospital. There she told me the devastating news. The cancer had returned and was everywhere. There were many tumours in her brain, cancer in her liver, lungs and spine which was slowly paralysing her from the waist down. That day Donna took her very last steps. She was bedbound from that day forth.
Donna was always a super organised person and unbelievably mentally strong and independent. She immediately set out planning her funeral, organising keepsakes for the boys, like stuffed toys with her voice recorded inside them, her life insurance payout and tying up all loose ends possible. She did everything she could to ensure that life in the future for me and the boys would be okay and that we would be looked after. Selfless to the end and completely in control of her own life.
Donna had told me she never wanted to die in a hospice and wanted to spend her last days at home with the boys and I. I immediately left work and set about being her sole carer in home with the aid of silver chain. Donna was able to spend some amazing quality time with the children and I, as well as many friends and family as her health deteriorated.
She was inundated with gifts like her favourite foods and pampering appointments and things like that. We had a huge 36th birthday party for her just a month before she passed away. She knew she was loved right to the very end.
As the cancer took over she started to deteriorate mentally and it was very hard to see. Her muscles wasted away and her body was slowly giving up. Eventually, she took her very last breath as her body could take no more on the 8th of October 2016.
The boys and I are now slowly getting back to a normal life. I am back to work full time, Austin is in school and after school care while little Hudson is at daycare. Life as a single parent is really tough but we get through it together.
The boys will never forget their mummy and we miss her every day. Austin has been a really tough and resilient little boy and I'm so proud of him. We really can't wait to meet the eagles.”
Austin with our West Coast Eagles Dig Deep ambassadors, Luke Shuey and Andrew Gaff