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Real Life

Rachael’s bittersweet journey: I refused to let cancer destroy our love

I'm terrified I'll either die or end up a quadriplegic, but my love hasn't wavered.

By As told to Take 5

Rachael Thorpe, 48, Florey, ACT shares her brave story:

I was waiting in line at an ATM and noticed the man in front of me seemed baffled by the machine.
"What on Earth?" he muttered.
"Need some help?" I offered.
He turned around, and I had to stop my mouth from dropping open in shock. With bright blue eyes and a wide smile, he was a looker!
I gave him a hand withdrawing cash and he nodded in gratitude.
"Um, fancy a drink?" he asked me. "You know, to, ah, say thanks?"
He introduced himself as John and we walked to a nearby pub. As we got chatting, we realised we had heaps in common. We both loved the beach, shopping at local markets and going to comedy gigs.
Like me, John was a single parent but he'd pretty much given up on love.
Not me, though – I was smitten with this handsome stranger.
There was a catch. John was only in Sydney for the weekend, visiting friends. He lived four hours away in Canberra.
I finally found the love of my life. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Still, our spark was undeniable so we exchanged numbers.
Each night, once my kids Kellen, 16, Piper-Jade, 13, and Saskia, 12, were in bed, John and I spoke on the phone for hours like giddy teenagers. We also took turns visiting each other on the weekends.
One day, after six months, we were strolling along the beach when John confessed he loved me.
I felt like my heart would burst.
"I love you, too," I beamed.
The kids and I eventually moved to Canberra to live with him and we became a happy family.
Nearly three years later, I got struck down with the flu. Feverish and sniffly, I had to stay home all week.
One morning, I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and grimaced. My head was pounding sharply, then everything went black.
When I blinked my eyes open, I was in hospital. John must've called an ambulance when I collapsed.
He went to work while docs ran tests. Then, I was given the results.
"We've found two tumours," the doctor said gently. "They're in your brain and at the top of your spinal cord."
I felt numb with shock.
"Am I going to die?" I choked.
We had the best honeymoon. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
He just looked at me with uncertainty on his face.
I was only 47 years old and had just found the love of my life. Was I going to lose everything, just like that?
When John returned, I took a deep breath and told him the bad news.
"No," he stammered.
Tears pricked at his eyes as he stared at me.
"Marry me?" he blurted.
I was stunned. With machines beeping and nurses rushing around us, it wasn't exactly a romantic proposal, but being John's wife was all I wanted.
"Yes," I sobbed.
We held each other and cried, in a whirlwind of sadness and joy. If my time on Earth was limited, this was how I wanted to spend it.
Back home, we didn't tell the kids about the tumours or our engagement until I saw a neurologist the following week.
Turns out, my brain tumour was a meningioma, which was slow-growing and likely benign. But the one on my spine was an ependymoma, a very rare tumour in the tissue of the central nervous system.
Radiotherapy and chemo wouldn't work because of their locations – surgery was my only option.
Docs wanted to leave the brain tumour and monitor it. But removing the spinal tumour was difficult.
"There's a 30 per cent chance surgery will leave you a quadriplegic," the doctor said.
Since it was so rare, most Aussie neurosurgeons had only performed the op once or twice, if at all.
If I wanted to avoid complications, I'd have to find an expert overseas.
Luckily, the tumour wasn't growing so I had some time.
That night we told the kids and they were so brave.
John on our honeymoon in Thailand. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
"But there's good news, too," I continued. "John and I are getting married."
They smiled through tears.
Nothing could be done about the surgery just yet, so I focused on wedding plans. I bought an elegant navy, halter-neck gown and picked out gold rings.
We wanted an intimate ceremony with family and a few friends in our backyard.
But since my diagnosis, weeds had overrun the lawn and the trees desperately needed a trim.
When I told my friend, Sharon, she put the word out and next thing, local volunteers arrived to take care of it.
All I could do was cry. These people were giving up their free time just to help us out.
Three months after my diagnosis, John and I stood before the celebrant. We'd written our own vows.
Me and John on our wedding day in 2018. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
"I promise I'll never buy more Christmas decorations than we can fit in the house," I joked. John was a little more serious and neither of us could stop our tears.
"I'll always be by your side," he vowed. "I love you, my princess."
When we were pronounced husband and wife, I felt so lucky.
These tumours had left me with daily headaches, balance issues and fatigue but they hadn't destroyed my relationship.
If anything, they'd made us stronger.
We went to Phuket for our honeymoon and spent days lazing by the pool, sipping cocktails.
Back home, we researched top surgeons for my spinal tumour. There was only one hospital in the world that specialised in it, in Washington DC.
A surgeon there had done the procedure 30 times. Best of all, if I took part in a study, the hospital would pay for the surgery, our flights and accommodation.
They made the backyard look just beautiful. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Thankfully, I was accepted into the research program and we will head over in March.
I'm still nervous about the risks involved but I don't have a choice. If I do nothing, I'll die.
Just in case, I came up with a bucket list. But I didn't want to focus on self-indulgence.
I wanted to make a difference.
My goal is to set up a free street library in every Canberra suburb and raise $50,000 for brain tumour charities.
I also want to renew my vows with John every year I'm alive.
I've raised $10,000 and launched five street libraries so far.
One of our free street libraries. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
I'm also working with Brain Tumour Alliance Australia, which supports patients and carers.
John and I renewed our vows this year. We asked our celebrant to treat it like a car renewal.
"Are you happy with the model you currently have?" she asked us with a chuckle. "Would you like to renew your contract?"
Life is bittersweet. I'm terrified I'll either die or end up a quadriplegic, but my love hasn't wavered.
I know John will be by my side, just like he promised, no matter what.

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