Gleeful squeals filled the room as my daughters, Taylah, 13, and Madi, seven, ripped into their Christmas presents.
"Awesome," Taylah beamed, inspecting her new art book.
My joy turned to worry as I glanced at my fiancé, Jay, 34, who grimaced with pain.
"Are you okay?" I frowned.
Thankfully, the sharp ache subsided quickly and Jay got back to enjoying our festivities.
A few weeks later, I woke in the middle of the night to find Jay on the bathroom floor clutching his side in agony.
Unsure what to do, I helped him back to bed and the pain forced him to sleep sitting up.
Next day, I urged him to go to hospital.
"I have to show up for work," he said.
"Especially the day before our holiday."
We'd planned a much-needed trip to New Zealand with our extended family but I hated seeing Jay in so much agony.
Eventually, his dad and I convinced him to see a doc straight away.
"They think it's hepatitis but they need to run more tests," Jay said over the phone.
It meant that we'd miss the holiday, but Jay's health was more important.
Not wanting the girls to miss out, we sent them to enjoy the getaway while we stayed put.
But with each test, Jay's prognosis kept getting worse until doctors stopped telling us their hypothesis.
It made me nervous.
Later, I snuck a look through Jay's chart.
Scanning the complicated medical jargon, dread seeped into the pit of my stomach.
Does Jay have cancer?
I didn't want to worry him, so I kept the question to myself.
A few days later, the hospital arranged for us to see an oncologist.
"Cancer treatment isn't easy," she began.
Our jaws dropped.
"Cancer?!" Jay exclaimed.
"You have a stage three liver cancer called Hepatocellular Carcinoma," she said, matter-of-factly.
"Didn't anyone tell you?"
We shook our heads.
Although I'd had my suspicions, no one had uttered the word.
We listened carefully to Jay's treatment options, holding in our emotions.
"You'll need chemo and radiation to shrink the tumour before surgery," the oncologist said.
The moment we left her office, I burst into tears as Jay wrapped me in a hug.
Over the next few days, we tried to process the diagnosis and when the kids arrived home, we broke the news.
"Dad has cancer," I said softly, "but he's going to be just fine."
The girls nodded bravely.
Soon after, Jay started intensive radiation to help shrink the 9cm lesion on his liver.
He lost a lot of weight and had very little energy.
I spent hours researching alternative methods that could help shrink the tumour, in addition to his conventional treatment.
We swapped to a vegan diet, and Jay and I began doing detoxes to give him the best chance possible.
Thankfully, after five rounds of radiation and targeted chemo tablets, Jay's tumour shrunk enough for surgery.
"I love you," I said, as they wheeled him into theatre.
"You too," Jay replied.
As the hours rolled by, I worried.
Only 14 per cent of people with Jay's type of cancer survive five years.
I couldn't bear to think of what would happen if the op wasn't a success.
Eventually, the surgeon called me.
"It went perfectly," he assured me.
Afterwards, Jay slowly recovered.
He was put back on chemo tablets indefinitely, with check-ups, blood tests and a CT scan every three months.
Thankfully the first two check-ups were clear and he didn't need radiation.
After missing out on last year's New Zealand trip, we were determined to visit with the family.
While we were away, I started feeling tired and nauseated, just like I had when ...
"I think I might be pregnant," I told Jay.
The Christmas before we'd toyed with the idea of having another child but as soon as we received Jay's diagnosis, we'd shelved the idea.
With all of his medications affecting his fertility, we both knew it was unlikely.
But back home, I took a test and there was a faint line.
Then, a blood test confirmed I was pregnant!
"Congratulations baby mama," Jay grinned.
After all we'd been through, it was a dream come true.
Days later, we told Taylah and Madi, who were stoked to be big sisters.
Tragically, our celebration didn't last long.
When Jay's third check-up approached, he had a bad feeling.
"I think the cancer's back," he said gravely.
"Don't be silly," I soothed.
"You've been doing so well!"
At hospital, I wasn't allowed in the meeting.
With COVID-19 looming, medical staff were taking precautions.
When Jay came out, he looked shattered.
"It's back," he told me.
I ran into Jay's arms and we held each other in tears.
"I'm out of options," he told me.
The doc had said that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes making surgery, chemo and radiation unviable options.
"There has to be another way," I sobbed, unable to fathom the thought of losing my love, and our kids without their dad.
I started researching alternative therapies.
With Jay's prognosis looking bleak, we refrained from telling the girls until we knew for sure that we'd exhausted all possibilities.
Whenever I'd cry, I'd tell them my pregnancy hormones were causing it but Taylah suspected it was something more – I had to reveal the truth.
"I knew something bad had happened," Taylah said.
"We're doing everything we can," I assured the girls.
In time, I came across an alternative treatment centre in Cancun, Mexico, called Hope 4 Cancer.
I read testimonials of patients who arrived with terminal illnesses and left cured.
One patient, Kate, was from Queensland.
I was skeptical at first but once I looked her up, I was sure it was real.
After having a chat with people at the centre, Jay agreed he wanted to give it a go.
But there were obstacles that made it almost impossible.
Not only did treatment and travel cost upwards of $60,000 that we didn't have, COVID-19 meant that the Australian border was closed.
We'd need a special exception to leave the country even if we found the money.
When word spread around Jay's family, his cousin, Erin, launched a GoFundMe page.
Within 24 hours, we'd raised $30,000.
A week later, it was $60,000.
Knowing how much people cared about Jay, filled my heart with joy.
Although we had the money, we still had to wait three months for the government to approve our leave.
Eventually, it happened and we arranged for the girls to stay with our family and friends, while we travelled 51 hours through Doha, Madrid and Mexico City to finally land in Cancun and begin treatment.
For eight hours a day, six days a week, for three weeks Jay was to undergo treatment.
But around the world, countries were shutting their borders and flights were being grounded. As the days rolled on, I became worried. What if Jay and I get stuck in Mexico without our girls?
I spent days looking for flights back home with no luck until one popped up travelling via America.
The price of plane tickets had skyrocketed.
It would cost $40,000 for the two of us and with my pregnancy at 27 weeks, I wasn't allowed to fly for much longer.
With the limit of people allowed back in Australia, I was terrified we'd have to have the baby in Mexico.
Desperate for help, I reached out to the consulate while friends reached out to the media who picked up our story.
A few days later, we were asked to go on Eddie McGuire's radio show.
"An anonymous friend of mine has heard about your story and would like to pay for your flights home," he said.
Jay and I burst into tears, touched by the kindness of a total stranger.
A week after Jay's treatment ended, we were thankfully back on Aussie soil, quarantining in Sydney before heading back to Melbourne.
Ten days later, Jay and I were so excited to be reunited with the girls.
The moment they were dropped at the door, tears streamed down Taylah's face.
"I missed you both so much," I said, enveloping them both in a hug.
As the weeks passed, Christmas began to loom.
My girls deserved some joy after such a traumatic year but we couldn't afford to spoil them.
"I don't know how we'll get by," I admitted to Jay.
Weeks later, I was at home when the phone rang.
It was Laura from Take 5!
"We'd love to help you have a special Christmas," she said, explaining they'd send gifts for my family.
Tears welled in my eyes.
I couldn't believe how generous everyone had been!
Now, Jay is feeling on top of the world after treatment.
Without chemo or radiation coursing through his veins, he finally has enough energy to live the life he wants to.
And better yet, his cancer has shrunk by 10 per cent and is constantly improving.
I'm due to give birth any day now and we can't hold in our excitement.
We don't know what sex the bub is, but we know it'll be the perfect addition to our little family.
After everything we've been through, we've learnt that people will go out of their way to be kind to those in need.
We've had our fair share of tragedy this year, but this Christmas, we're excited to celebrate what we do have – each other.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin, Anaconda, Are Media Books, Cider & Basil, The Cruelty Free Shop, GO Healthy, Grants of Australia, Penguin Random House, Mountain Designs, Target, Woolworths, Springform, Sukin, Wondery Skin Food, URBNSURF, Earth To Table, Edible Beauty Australia, Herbidoor, Purely Vegan, Seedsations, Smith & Daughters.