Actor and playwright Kate Mulvany was just three years old when her parents were told to pick out a coffin for their daughter.
Her mother had taken her to Princess Margaret Hospital after a fall, only for doctors to diagnose her with renal cancer.
“My Mum said that [she’d] just never heard [me] scream. [I] never, ever screamed that way,” Mulvany told ABC Radio’s Conversations with Richard Fidler.
“They said, ‘well, as you know, this is a very severe cancer’. Mum said [she] had no idea what they were talking about.”
Doctors had, in fact, discovered a tumour the size of an AFL football her stomach.
“Mum had always just thought it was a pot belly and doctors had always said, ‘she’s just eating too much of that Italian spaghetti’,” Mulvany explained.
“[But they said] it was terminal. It was, ‘we don’t really know where to go with this’.
“I was very, very lucky that my tumour hadn’t spread.”
There was another shock to come much later, however, when the cause of the cancer was revealed — the deadly chemical weapon Agent Orange, used in the Vietnam War by the US military.
A legacy of her father’s time at war
“I was born with renal cancer from my father’s exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War,” Mulvany said.
Kate Mulvany on stage as Richard III with the Bell Shakespeare Company. (Supplied: Prudence Upton)
“My father, even though he was from Nottingham, was conscripted to fight to serve Australia in the Vietnam War.
“It rained on him all the time. They didn’t have protective gear over there.”
Mulvany said her father’s role was a “tunnel rat”, but he also worked in a store, preparing packs for troops.
“Dad was very well loved in his platoon for sneaking Playboys and cold beers into the packs before he took them to the guys in the field,” she said.
“While he was doing that, he was breathing in — as everyone was — this very insidious chemical.
“[It was] there to defoliate the trees so that the Viet Cong and NVA had nowhere to hide, but of course the legacy has lasted a lot longer than that.”
A parent’s guilt
After her diagnosis, a young Kate began aggressive treatment, but she believed her parents were the ones who truly suffered during that time.
Mulvany was left with scoliosis after her treatment — the same condition Richard III had. (Supplied)
“I have to say when you’re a child with cancer, so often you’re the vessel of it,” she said.
“Your parents suffer the disease. It’s truly your parents that suffer it.”
Mulvany said her late father began to “question his role” in her illness.
“He would walk in and see this child getting sicker and sicker, thinner and thinner, balder and balder,” she said.
“I can’t even imagine the guilt he would have felt.
“But along with the guilt comes the anger, because no-one was answering our questions. Everyone shut up, and it was just the veterans trying to fight this and their families.”
From the hospital to the stage
It was during her time in hospital that Mulvany’s love of performance was born.
“If I mimicked the Muppets or Frank Spencer … or Lizzie from Prisoner … I could do them,” she recalled.
“It would make the nurses laugh, it would make the kids laugh and it would make my parents laugh.”
“I went, ‘Oh, there’s something in this performance’.”
Eventually, Mulvany’s cancer went into remission and she was able to pursue her love of acting during high school.
She has gone on to act for film, stage and television — winning a Helpmann award last year for her performance as Richard III — and has written more than 25 plays.
The memories are no doubt clear in her mind, just as clear as the memories she has of being a child with cancer.