Vicki's bowel cancer story (diagnosed age 55, NSW)

Some people are known for their sense of humour, some for their compassion, others for their courage.  Anyone who knew bowel cancer victim Vicki Morris will tell you she was all of this and more.

Vicki’s husband Peter writes:  Cancer is one of those things that you think happens to someone else and it is a shock when it comes to your own household.  It doesn’t need to be a death sentence, but the odds are difficult to beat. It takes someone exceptional to deal with it as bravely as Vicki did.

We found out about the cancer through the investigation of an unrelated breathing problem and it took Vicki little time to begin her absolutely inspirational response to our situation. There had been no symptoms and the sad fact was that she’d already had the cancer for about five years.

Vicki’s courage and humour in the face of death were exceptional. About six weeks after her diagnosis she told me that she had organised and paid for her funeral. She told me in detail of the arrangements she had made – including her choice of a purple floral coffin. About two weeks later, Vicki and our daughter Laura had a chance meeting with the lady Vicki had dealt with at the funeral director’s. Vicki, with her typical good humour, made the introduction:

“Laura, this is Jenny, she’s my … like a wedding planner, but different.”

Vicki’s positivity allowed us to make the most out of every day, packing in as much love, laughter and fun as we could. This included travelling to Central Australia, Bali, New Zealand, Russia, Poland, North China, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Germany France and Austria. We fulfilled our promise to each other to make the most of our remaining time together. That time ran out a little over two years after the diagnosis. She maintained that positivity and her last conscious act was to smile. I held her hand as she died at home.

Vicki had also used her remaining time to care for her aging parents and to make many arrangements for life to continue as normal after her death. She wrote goodbye letters to me and to Laura. She wrote letters to friends asking them to look after me. There was even a goodbye message to be read at the funeral – a message full of humour and warmth that made people laugh and cry at the same time. Her closing words were:

I have much to be thankful for.

My family, who I love immensely and my friends who I have shared so much with.

I ask that you remember me with a smile.

Shed a tear if you feel the need, but remember the wonderful times we had together.

Look after each other. Love each other.

Thank you for making my life so special.

Vicki enriched the world by her presence, saddened us by her loss and left us all with our unique memories of the way she touched our lives. I’m the richest of us all in this regard – I had a 35-year romance with Vicki starting from the moment I first saw her face and was captivated.

After 33 years of marriage I’m well aware of Vicki’s faults, but they were trivial and few. I’m aware of mistakes she made, but they were mostly minor and all forgivable. Considering all of this, she is clearly the best person I have ever known and I have been lucky beyond comparison. My consolation in losing Vicki is having had her in the first place. Since her death I have made it my goal to be more like her - I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay my best friend.

The loss was only made bearable by having two years’ notice, but it really hurts to think that the cancer went undetected for five years.

It would have been a minor and relatively inexpensive decision to undergo screening, yet our knowledge of the risk and the seeming invisibility of screening procedures gave no impetus to such a decision.

I accept completely that it would have been a personal responsibility to have testing done for bowel cancer, however the failure to make such a decision relates closely to the level of public promotion of screening programs.

Certainly, eliminating the costs of illness and premature death would go a long way towards funding a more effective system of education and screening.

Missing Vicki's opportunity for screening caused dire consequences, including:

• her premature death
• the shattering of our happy marriage and family life
• the costs of medical retirement,
• the costs of specialist treatment and hospitalisation
• the loss of Vicki's positive and exemplary contribution to the community.

In particular, the costs of losing Vicki include the loss of her paid and voluntary work at Lake Munmorah High School. Vicki was a foundation staff member when the school was built over ten years ago and she consistently exceeded her working hours and job description. She was extraordinarily motivated in adopting the many roles by which she promoted a harmonious and productive work environment for staff and she was enthusiastic in the extra efforts she took to provide quality service to students.

Vicki's death affected many people and this was clearly evident in the 350-strong attendance at her funeral service – especially so, given that it was held on short notice so that it would not be in the same week as our daughter’s wedding. Our plan had been to walk her down the aisle together.

The consistent theme in the formal service and in many subsequent conversations was Vicki’s positivity and the way she enriched the lives of those around her. As her husband I was fortunate enough to share the two years she had after her diagnosis and to join her in making the most of every day. Could it have been longer?

Vicki’s life and our happy marriage were positive examples to all who knew her and her death provides a compelling reason to more closely consider the benefits in improved education and screening for bowel cancer.

If Vicki had been in the target group for a properly resourced education and screening program she might still be with the many people who loved her.

If her premature death was preventable we’ve paid a high price.

The collection for Bowel Cancer Australia at Vicki’s funeral raised $1,699 and ongoing donations have increased this to $4,000.

Messages from Vicki’s cousin, film-maker and television director, Cherie Nowlan:

Dear Vicki,

I want you to know how much love and light you brought into my life growing up. I feel lucky and incredibly blessed that we were born into the same family. We were so excited whenever you arrived at Bridgman Road because you brightened our lives with fun, music, games, positive energy and SO much laughter. You were my favourite cousin but I think you know that.

You have inspired me in many different ways even though I know I could never match your loyalty, compassion, kindness, endless generosity, your ability to craft a hilarious anecdote from any situation, big or small, comic or tragic or to make the most wonderful, heartfelt and witty off the cuff speeches. I can only marvel at your extraordinary courage. Thank you especially for sharing the difficult challenges of the last couple of years. Your emails about all your adventures have been a treasure to receive.

You are a hero to our family and we are eternally grateful to you for being everything you have been to us.

What I can do now is continue to put the same kind of love and positive energy into the lives of my nieces and nephews as you did into mine and my sisters’ lives. Sadly, I will never excel at 'statues' the way you did.

In peace and love - now and for eternity.

Your loving cousin, Cherie.

Dear Peter,

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and feelings. I really appreciate it.

It is hard to grasp the enormity of what has happened to you but it seems to me that you are doing an incredibly good job of doing exactly that. The hurt and pain won’t go away in a hurry, I know. But the grief will eventually find a place in your heart where you can go on, as Vicki would want you to. Life really does seem to boil down to putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.

When you ask, ‘Vicki was so brave about her death, why is it so hard for the rest of us?’, I must admit, I’ve been asking the same question. What I do know is that Vicki was an exceptional person. It sounds a little loopy, but I’ve wondered if one of the reasons she was here was to show the rest of us how to live, love and die. I’m sure Vicki had her faults but I never saw any. As we've all shared, she was endlessly generous, even when it meant sacrificing her own needs and wants. Her ‘M.O.’ was to be optimistic and funny in the face of EVERYTHING, especially as a way to ease the pain of others. She seemed to gain so much insight and clarity from being in her situation. She said ‘it’s amazing what you can do when you have to’…and we laughed! I know she saw the cancer in some ways as a gift – admittedly one she’d have rather given back – but a gift nonetheless.

In the same situation, most people (including me I suspect) would have fallen in a heap and given up at the outset. Not Vicki. Uncle Col made me laugh and cry at the after party. He just couldn’t get over how she’d organised everything, thought so far ahead and written everyone letters. “She’s brilliant”, he said with pure and genuine admiration. I couldn’t have agreed more. And looking at how Uncle Col and Aunty Rae carry themselves, you can see where she might have got it from. The fact that she fought so hard for Laura was just more evidence of her courage and her huge capacity to love.

The fact that your marriage made Vicki so happy gave us all much comfort.

Most couples would have been pleased to have been half as happy as you were together. And gosh, she made the most of her life with you. What amazing times you had. Her tribute to you in her eulogy was much deserved and you must be so proud.

How funny and appropriate that you were at Laura’s hen’s night in Vicki’s place! She would have thought was hilarious. It makes me smile to think of Laura being every bit as organised as Vicki with her wedding celebration. We all think Laura is so much like her…I never saw Vicki cry very often either.

Actually, just the once, when she was telling me that it was hard to make her palliative care arrangements. Even then, there were just a few brief tears - followed by a joke!

I have continued to think about the legacy Vicki has left me. After listening to all the speeches at the service, I fully realised that Vicki showed me (and so many other people) how to be truly creative. That was one of her many gifts. As you know, from the time I was a toddler, she spent a lot of time with us, creating endless games and playing and singing songs on our piano. Her joyful presence made us joyous. She wrote to our grandmother and painted her pictures, which Nan kept and was very proud of. I wished I could paint like her too but could only trace!

Perhaps more than anyone in my life, Vicki made it ok for me to live in my own imagination. Of course, she probably didn’t think I’d try and make a living out of it but there you go…I did! I know she loved me as I loved her.

Love, Cherie.


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