Claire Romeijn was 29 when her doctor gave her life-altering news.
By Tahnee Jash
She had been experiencing severe abdominal pain three weeks after having a baby, but it wasn’t until her daughter was eight months old that she decided to find out what was wrong.
“When I finally had a colonoscopy and endoscopy, they couldn’t get the cameras through because the tumour was so large,” Claire says.
“It was a big shock to everybody.”
Following a diagnosis of bowel cancer, she underwent surgery and chemotherapy and for a period was cancer free — until she was back to see the doctor again.
“I got the second diagnosis that it was back, and I was now stage four,” Claire, who is now 33, says.
Without a cure and the cancer spreading to other organs in her body, Claire is now going through her last chemotherapy treatment available.
She spoke to ABC podcast Ladies, We Need to Talk about how she’s coping.
Talking about death with your children
As Claire was still processing the news, she knew she had to figure out how to tell her five daughters — in particular her eldest, who was 10.
She says she didn’t want to overload anyone with “disastrous devastating news” around being terminally ill.
So, the Sunday after receiving her diagnosis, Claire made fresh pancakes and told her children gently over breakfast that she was starting chemotherapy again.
“I said, ‘Mummy’s going to have to do chemo again’.
“My oldest was at the end of the table and she was very, very quiet, just processing it. [Then] she says, ‘Does that mean your cancer’s back?’ And I said, ‘Yes’.”
Claire says it’s been especially hard for her children and partner to process her diagnosis.
“[My eight-year-old] was crying [one] night and I said, ‘What’s wrong? And she said, ‘I don’t want a new mummy’,” Claire says.
“I said, ‘I will always be your mummy, that’s never going to change’.”
Clinical psychologist and director of the Death Literacy Institute, Kerrie Noonan, has spent her career helping people feel more comfortable talking about death.
She says it can be hard to explain it to children, especially when they’re young, but her advice is to talk openly.
“For young children, grasping death as a permanent thing is an important part of their grief,” Dr Noonan says.
Religion or spirituality can be a source of comfort when it comes to grief but helping children grasp the physical process is just as important.
“Often our inclination is to say to kids, ‘When I die, I’m going to heaven’,” Dr Noonan says.
“It’s not concrete enough for a young child to kind of understand.”
“So, [instead you might say], ‘When I die, my body stops working, I won’t have any pain anymore and my body will be buried’,” she says.
Claire’s still trying to work out the best way — and time — to tell her kids she’s terminally ill and says it’s been an overwhelming experience preparing her family for her death.
One thing that is helping her is creating special keepsakes for her daughters to cherish.
“My big girls will remember, I know they will but the five, three and one-year-old is a different story of what memories they’ll hold on to,” she says.
“I want to write a letter to them all individually, about how much I love them [and] funny little things their dad might not remember.
“I want to write a list of ‘Mummy’s advice’, for when they are older, but I’ll definitely be putting the aunties on the ‘period talk’ because I don’t trust their father,” she says, laughing.
Talking about death with your partner
Claire also worries about her husband and how he’s coping with all the changes.
“He’s not someone to dwell on the negative, so it’s really hard to get him to open up,” she says.
“We’ve had moments where we will grieve together, [but] he doesn’t talk about it, not even with mates.”
Avoiding discussion is a common way some people cope, but Dr Noonan says the best way through it is trying to being open with each other.
“I guess the first thing is to acknowledge just how bloody hard it is,” Dr Noonan says.
“[We think] ‘Oh she’s got enough to worry about, I can’t talk to her about how scared I am about the future, so I’ll just suck it up and keep going and same [goes] the other way’.
“Everyone’s protecting everyone, but no one’s actually talking and that can be one of the biggest barriers.”
After going through intensive treatments like chemotherapy, intimacy is often the last thing on a couple’s mind, but Dr Noonan says it could provide the comfort and sense of relief that the relationship is longing for.
“People may not want to feel like having sex as such, but they may really still have that great need to touch, connect and have comfort from that touching and connecting,” she says.
Claire and her husband find it hard to talk about the future, but something that’s helping them is focusing on the present.
“We focus on making memories,” she says.
“My husband gets through it by planning extravagant trips in his mind … he bought his own calendar to write down where we’re going and put [down] every country.
“[He] is super optimistic and it really kind of keeps me together,” she says.
‘I allow myself to be sad, but I don’t let it overcome me’
Claire’s been given a life expectancy date by her doctor, and she says there are days where she feels anxious about it.
“My oncologist ended my appointment with a ‘you better make holidays this year’ and that’s a real downer but it’s also a reality,” she says.
To help ease some of the anxiety, she takes antidepressants, but it’s her family who help her through those difficult days.
“I allow myself to be sad, but I don’t let it overcome me,” she says.
“I’ve got ive girls who need me, and they are the ones who make me get out of bed and try to keep [life] as normal as possible.”
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