This mum of three was diagnosed with cancer - twice - in one year

Mother’s Day means even more now to Narelle Richardson

Narelle Richardson’s life was going along nicely during the first half of 2018. She and husband Lee had three daughters under five, and Narelle was even finding time to train for a half marathon.

By the end of 2018, Narelle had been diagnosed with cancer. Twice.

“It was so left-field. My world just turned upside down.” – Narelle Richardson

Showing no symptoms and later confirming she has no genetic predisposition, Narelle found out in June of her 35th year of life that she had thyroid cancer.

“It was so left-field. My world just turned upside down,” explains Narelle via video call from her home in Western Australian gold mining town, Kalgoorlie.

She swiftly had surgery for the cancer and began radioactive iodine therapy to remove any leftover thyroid tissue. Within hours, she started to experience stomach cramps. Alone in hospital because her medication was too dangerous for others to be around, Narelle thought the cramps must be due to her body having become a cancer battleground.

The cramps persisted beyond the therapy, though. Doctors couldn’t work out what was causing them. While on holidays down south in Bussleton four months later, Narelle’s cramps forced her into the emergency department. Finally, a blockage in her bowel was discovered. It was immediately operated upon and there was no suggestion of it being cancerous.

Narelle Richardson

Narelle Richardson recovers in hospital after her first thyroid cancer surgery.

“It was about five days later that they came into my hospital room and threw the grenade in the room, pretty much,” remembers Narelle about receiving her second cancer diagnosis in less than six months.

“It was heartbreaking.

“It’s really hard to find the words to say exactly how it feels. The word ‘cancer’ has so many triggers and it’s basically like someone saying, ‘You’re just going to die.’ That’s what my mind initially thought.”

Narelle had a “rare and aggressive form of bowel cancer.” After her emergency surgery, she had to wait an anxiety-inducing month for her full diagnosis. “When I googled the name of the cancer, it wasn’t just a poor prognosis. It was dismal. Everything was just dismal, dismal, dismal. It was horrible.”

Loss of a mother looms, again

Beaming with gratitude to be able to share her story ahead of Mother’s Day 2020, Narelle is someone who knows how close she came to not being here to celebrate. A painful possibility amplified by a tragedy that struck Narelle’s family when she was in year 12.

“I think the hardest thing for me was that I lost my mum and my brother in a car accident when I was about 17,” says Narelle, about trying to cope with how her daughters Bella, Amiyah and Edie might have to experience something similar.

“Because I lost my mum, being a mum is really important to me.

“God, this is not fair. I don’t want my girls to grow up without a mum” – Narelle Richardson

“I wasn’t close with my mum so I’m going to offer [my children] everything I didn’t have. I had this imagined future in my mind that I was going to be there when they had their kids –  all the experiences I missed out on with my mum. So much hope in my heart and expectancy that I was going to be there for them.”

“So I was thinking, ‘God, this is not fair. I don’t want my girls to grow up without a mum and leave my husband with three young girls.

“I thought, ‘God, what is going on?’ It was so hard to process [but] it was devastating.”

As she waited for the full diagnosis in late 2018, Narelle feared she might be at the end of her life. But when the results arrived, she was told that she had had Stage 3 bowel cancer.

Yes, that’s not good. Stage 4 is terminal. But with notes of gratitude and pragmatism in her voice, Narelle saw the diagnosis as a reprieve; “it was as though they caught it just in time.”

“It’s really amazing how they found that bowel cancer; I feel like the thyroid cancer revealed the second cancer.”

Waiting to hear if you will live or die

Still, despite the emergency surgery she had, Narelle needed to wait some more to learn if the cancer had spread. Being parents to a young family, including one daughter still in nappies, Narelle and Lee are still moved by how much support and love they received from their church family at Church of Christ Kalgoorlie.

Narelle also vividly remembers going back to the oncologist to learn if the bowel cancer had spread.

“I felt like I was walking in to hear my fate. Am I going to live? Am I going to die?”

“But from the perspective of my [Christian] faith, I felt God had given my heart so much peace.”

“There’s such a surrender in that that is hard to explain.” – Narelle Richardson

Reading the Bible during this period, Narelle was encouraged by Scriptures which spoke of God healing people and guiding them through tough times. Although Narelle was not sure if full healing from cancer would come her way, she was able to wrestle internally and arrive at a place of accepting God would always care for her daughters.

“I got to the point in my heart that, if my life is going to be taken away, I trust you God that you are going to look after my kids. That God loves them more than I do.”

“There’s such a surrender in that that is hard to explain.”

Narelle Richardson

Narelle with her daughters Bella, Amiyah and Edie.

Narelle’s rare form of bowel cancer is called signet ring cell carcinoma. Before her oncologist appointment in December, 2018, Narelle searched ‘signet ring’ in the Bible. And she found it – at the end of Old Testament prophet book of Haggai 2:23, where God speaks of a governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, as “my signet ring, for I have chosen you.”

“When I read that, I knew in my heart that no matter what, I felt like my life was in God’s hands. I just had to accept that he knew what was going on, even though I didn’t.”

“After that appointment, I feel like I was given a bonus life.” – Narelle Richardson

The appointment revealed Narelle had no more cancer in her body. She still had to go through chemotherapy for six month, though, because of the severe nature of the cancer she had: “Just in case of any leftover cancer cells.”

“After that appointment, I feel like I was given a bonus life.

No other place to find hope

“I see God’s hand in all of it” is how Narelle sums up the past few “intense” years which culminated last October with her being given the all clear, on both cancers. Recently volunteering with Cancer Council NSW (Narelle is from Newcastle, NSW) to share her personal story of survival, Narelle knows what she is saying about God and his being there for her.

Having grown up going to church but not really owning her faith, Narelle decided to commit her heart and life to God on a mission trip during her university study. She was 19 years old. Two years after the tragic loss of her mother and brother.

“Going through such tragedy and being at rock bottom – where else do you go for hope? Where else do you go for support and help?” responds Narelle when asked why she didn’t just dump God or Jesus Christ in her traumatic late teens.

“This is just a part of my bigger purpose in this world that God planned for me.” – Narelle Richardson

“I tried other avenues but … nothing really gives my heart peace through difficult times than God’s peace.

“I don’t understand the ‘why?’ of it all but I genuinely believe God will bring [forth] our purpose from pain. This is just a part of my bigger purpose in this world that God planned for me. I’m still working out what that purpose will look like after all the difficulties, but I do believe God carried me through and he sustained me and gave me strength and peace. There is nowhere else to turn, basically.”

After the chemotherapy in the first half of last year, Narelle has had another “major neck operation” to remove leftover thyroid cancer cells. She continues to be closely monitored despite officially being given the “all clear” from cancer since October. “I get quite anxious when I’m waiting for those next results. When it’s time to get a scan again, I’m wondering if it’s come back. But so far, so good.”

“I know what it’s like to go through Mother’s Day without a mum.” – Narelle Richardson

Apart from coronavirus measures and homeschooling her children at the moment, Narelle’s life does feel like it is getting back to normal. And Mother’s Day 2020 is going to be another special occasion to celebrate what the Richardson family has, in light of what almost was lost.

“It’s emotional. It’s a really precious time,” shares Narelle about Mother’s Day.

“It’s definitely not about the gifts, at all … I just love being here, really. That they have a mum to celebrate and I can still be a mum – and I’m still alive.

“I know what it’s like to go through Mother’s Day without a mum.

“I’m grateful my girls have me.”

This May, Cancer Council is encouraging people across Australia to connect with their friends, family or workmates for a cup of tea and a bite to eat – virtually. Being part of Australia’s Biggest (virtual) Morning Tea to helps raise money to support those impacted by cancer. Register here to host your Australia’s Biggest (virtual) Morning Tea this May, or call 1300 65 65 85.

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