By Mariana Rudan
Mariana Rudan with her mother, Ana, who is now battling a rare form of brain cancer. (Supplied)
In my experience, there are two stages in life when a woman needs her mum the most. The first stage is childhood, the second is when you become a mum to your own young children.
As a young working mum, my own 64-year-old mother Ana has been my emotional anchor. Until late last year, when she was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer.
While the cancer has been mostly removed, the person inhabiting that brain has changed profoundly.
Fighting for a diagnosis
Several months before we learnt Mum had brain cancer we could see that she had changed. Her memory was increasingly patchy, but we put it down to ageing. Slowly, we realised this was different.
I was on location shooting a story when Mum called me with the results of her CT scan.
“I have early onset dementia,” she announced, her voice shaky. My heart sank.
Days later, Mum’s symptoms developed.
She started shuffling, walking on her tiptoes — a walk so bizarre I thought she was joking at first. She wasn’t.
It suddenly got worse: her shuffles would burst into sprints, but her body could not keep up with the messages her brain was sending to her legs, so she’d topple over. Her speech became slurred and she was no longer able to move her arms. We demanded further tests.
Doctors say Ana’s tumour looks to be ependymoma, a rare brain cancer mostly found in kids. (Supplied)
I’ll never forget how the neurologist gasped when he placed Mum’s MRI results up against the light.
Her brain was filled with water, which had been trapped because of a tumour that was growing in the centre of her brain.
She was told she had only weeks to live, due to severe hydrocephalus, if she wasn’t seen to immediately.
They admitted her to St George Hospital and the next day they removed enough of the tumour to allow the fluid to drain from her brain.
But that was just the start.
Brain cancer in numbers
- Around 1600 Australians will be diagnosed in 2018 and 1200 will die
- Kills more Australian kids than any other disease
- Biggest cancer killer for adults under 40
- Each year a classroom worth of children die
- Five-year survival rate is just 22 per cent
- Costs more per patient than any other disease placing financial strain on families
Source: Cure Brain Cancer foundation
Living Groundhog Day
Every morning at 4am, Mum would wake up and begin to sob. She’d call my sister, my brother, me. “Please come and get me,” she’d cry. “I’m in hospital, the nurses say something is wrong with my brain. How did I get here? Please come and take me home!”
It was like Groundhog Day. No sooner would you explain something, Mum would be asking the very same question.
Trickier questions followed like, “Is my mother still alive?” Each time we’d delicately explain that “baba” (grandmother) had left us some time ago, each time she’d burst into tears, experiencing the grief as though it was the first time.
We begged her to write it down, to keep a journal to read as soon as she awoke. We wrote important facts like: “You are here, because you’ve had a tumour, but you are going to be fine. We are all with you. We come each day. Your Mum and Dad died years ago, but your husband, son and daughters are with you and so are all five of your grandchildren.”
We’re still lucky
Mum has slowly begun to remember things again.
Yet the mother I’ve known my whole life, my witty, ever-reliable Mum who’d been my closest confidante, my greatest ally, is gone.
The doctor’s said Mum’s tumour looked to be ependymoma, a rare cancer mostly found in kids. We discovered that brain cancer killed more kids in Australia than any other disease, but that ependymoma had a higher survival rate than most paediatric cancers.
I realise we’re lucky, because Mum is still with us, able to give her grandkids a cuddle, but I still find myself yearning for the Mum I once knew.
Giving brain cancer the boot
I live in hope that one day they’ll find a cure.
After Mum’s battle with brain cancer, we discovered that the survival rate for brain cancer patients was a staggeringly low 20 per cent and that no meaningful progress had been made in 30 years.
We soon discovered that brain cancer hadn’t been a government priority until recently and that no major funding had ever been offered to help find a cure.
So, my brother Mark Rudan decided to do something about it using what, as a former professional player and coach, he knew best: football.
Together, we created the ‘kick it for brain cancer’ fundraising initiative.
On April 6 to 8, the Hyundai A-League will host the first “kick it for brain cancer” round with the aim of raising much needed awareness and $1 million.
Ten years ago, leukaemia was one of Australia’s greatest killers. Now, the survival rate has soared because the government and Australians made it a priority.
I hope that we can achieve the same result, so lives can be spared from this brutal disease.
Mariana Rudan is a journalist and former SBS newsreader and football host of The World Game. All donations to the “kick it for brain cancer” campaign will be dollar matched by philanthropists, supporting the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation’s advocacy and research funding.