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Real Life

Real life: Take 5 deserving family 2019: We saved Christmas

How could we afford to make this one better?

By Brittany Smith

Nicola MacGee, 44, Castle Hill, NSW shares her families Christmas miracle:

I puffed as I lugged the last suitcase through our front door.
"We're home again," I beamed to my hubby, Scott, and our daughter, Charlotte, eight. "Just in time to dust off the Chrissie decorations."
We'd been celebrating my sister, Carolyn's 40th birthday in Perth, where she lived with her children, Andrew, 20, Maddison, 10, and Thomas, seven.
With just 16 months between us in age, Carolyn and I had been thick as thieves growing up, but as adults, time had run away from us.
When she moved to the other side of the country 12 years earlier, I stayed in Sydney.
It made seeing each other even harder, so we relied on Skype calls and social media to tell each other everything.
A young single mum, Carolyn worked hard as a chef to provide for her children.
Some weeks they barely scraped by but she was determined to do it on her own. She was the strongest woman I knew.
By the time we were in our 40s, we had to look after our health more than ever so I visited my doc for a pap exam and breast check.
Carolyn and their children out to dinner in 2017. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
My eyes widened when she said she'd found a pea-sized lump under my left nipple.
"You'll need an ultrasound," she said.
My heart was racing but I pushed my nerves aside until the next day, when Scott and I went to Sydney Breast Clinic.
After eight hours of tests, a specialist pulled us aside.
"I'm sorry but we've found four tumours in your left breast," she revealed. "A mastectomy is your best option."
It was like I wasn't in my body anymore.
"I can't have cancer," I said, shocked. "I haven't even done my Christmas shopping yet."
It was an irrational thought, but it was all I could focus on. I was too busy to be sick!
But as the news sunk in, I thought of Charlotte. How on earth would I tell her?
When I mustered the courage later that night, she was so brave. She didn't even cry.
"Are you gonna die, Mum?" she asked.
I took a deep breath and wrapped my arms around her.
"We'll take this one day at a time," I soothed.
When I told Carolyn, she was shocked but as always, she encouraged me when I needed it most.
Me and my sister Carolyn (left). (Image exclusive to Take 5)
"You can beat this," she promised. "You're so strong."
I nodded, choking back tears.
Ten days later, I gripped Scott's hand as I was wheeled off for a mastectomy and reconstruction.
The op was a success but my surgeon said it'd been touch and go.
"We found three more tumours," she explained. "If you'd got checked any later, you would've been terminal."
I could only blink in shock, but I wasn't in the clear just yet.
Three weeks before Christmas, I started chemo. I'd always loved the festive season but instead of spending precious time with my family, I was in and out of treatment, feeling weak and nauseated.
Thankfully, my parents, Lynn and Michael, helped Scott out.
By December 25, I was a mess. I'd lost all my hair and the chemo had ruined my tastebuds. My brother in-law, Angus, toiled all day cooking a sumptuous traditional feast but it didn't taste right to me.
Scott, Charlotte and I tried to put on a brave face but we were terrified of what the future held.
Could this be our last Christmas together? It felt like all the joy had been sucked out of our special day.
Sadly, it was too expensive for Carolyn to fly to Sydney for the occasion but we spoke on Skype. With an excited look on her face, she showed me her 
left arm.
"I got the pink breast cancer ribbon tattooed on me," she said proudly. "Just for you."
Charlotte, Maddison and Carolyn in 2016. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
After 10 doses of chemo, I started radiotherapy, then finally after nine harrowing months, I was in the clear, at least for now.
Scott hugged me as we cried tears of relief. We'd been living in fear for so long and finally I had my life back.
I'd beaten the 'big C' but so many others were still battling.
To give back, I volunteered with the Cancer Council and joined the Hornsby committee to organise and raise awareness for their annual Relay for Life fundraiser. I thought it'd be a nice way to honour how far I'd come.
Carolyn was ecstatic when I told her about it.
"It really puts life in perspective," she said. "We can't keep putting off our catch-ups, no matter how busy we are."
We promised to spend Christmas together in Sydney the following year. It had been at least a decade since we'd last done that. Charlotte, being an only child, was especially stoked at the prospect of
playing with her cousins.
"My children can't wait either," Carolyn giggled when I told her.
By November, our plans were set. Carolyn decided she'd drive from Perth to Sydney.
We thought she was nuts for driving all that way with three children but as always she was adamant.
We were counting the days.
One evening, I was in the lounge room when Dad rang.
"Carolyn's in the hospital," he said, sounding dazed. "I think it's serious."
I shook my head.
"That's not possible," I argued. "I spoke to her just yesterday."
Before I could ask more, he explained he had to hang up, in case the hospital called.
My mind raced in disbelief until he called back 10 minutes later.
"I'm sorry, Nic," Dad choked. "She's gone."
"W-what?" I frowned.
"Carolyn's dead," he cried.
I collapsed to the floor in a fit of sobs. All Scott could do was hold me.
I felt like all the oxygen was sucked from the room. Carolyn had always been fit as a bull.
How had this happened? We soon heard she'd suffered a blood clot near her heart, caused by a dissected aorta.
It was just plain rotten luck.
Scott, Charlotte and me during my chemo. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
I couldn't believe it.
For months, Carolyn had supported me through cancer and the prospect of death.
Now, she was gone.
In a haze of grief, we hopped on the first flight to Perth. Carolyn's children were our top priority – she'd been their everything.
Without discussing a word, Scott and I were already on the same page.
"They'll come live with us," I told Mum.
The next few weeks in Perth were a whirlwind as we organised Carolyn's funeral and packed up the kids' lives.
By the time we got back to Sydney, a week before Christmas, Carolyn's death had barely even sunk in.
As parents to an only child, we were suddenly way out of our depth with multiple kids.
Carolyn's oldest, Andrew, was 22, so he moved in with my parents.
But we had Maddison and Thomas camping out in the lounge room while we scrambled to set up beds in the spare room. Luckily, my friends rallied behind us, donating groceries, linen and towels.
Scott was a sergeant in the police force and I'd been working part-time as a library assistant at the local primary school.
We were more fortunate than many, but the sudden expense of more people to provide for hit us hard.
With Christmas days away, I raced out to buy presents, determined to show Carolyn's children as much love as possible without their mum.
On the day, I forced a smile but we were all so heartbroken.
All of us together. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
Carolyn always had such a big presence, we felt her missing.
After that, we tried to bond as a new family.
Maddison and Thomas were resilient like their mum, they amazed me every day.
But Scott and I were doing it tough financially.
"I don't know how we'll get through Christmas this year, hon," I admitted to Scott as December crept closer. "And the kids deserve something special after all they've been through."Looking down at my phone, I frowned.
An unknown number was calling.
"It's Mitchell from Take 5," a man said when I answered. My mouth dropped open in shock.
Maddison, Thomas and Charlotte trying to guess what's inside the wrapping. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
They'd heard about our ordeal through the Cancer Council, who I volunteered for, and they wanted to donate gifts to us.
"Your Christmas must've been pretty tough last year," he said. "We'd love to help you have some happy memories this time around."
I was so humbled.
"Looks like our luck is changing," I said to Scott later.
Thomas and Scott open the toys and games. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
The kids agreed to let them help us have the Christmas we simply couldn't afford.
When the Take 5 team visited us, they had so many gifts they had to ask the Cancer Council to pack them in their large van.
We were blown away by our amazing Sony TV. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
Scott took the children to the park while we unloaded.
There were so many presents in the living room there was barely room to stand.
For the first time in my life I was totally speechless.
When the children walked in their mouths dropped open in shock.
It was a world away from last Christmas.
Thomas loves his Monster Jam truck. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
They squealed with excitement as they tore open the wrapping paper.
Maddison loves girly things, so she was ecstatic when she opened her gift from Priceline and saw some pampering goodies.
Thomas had a present that was an odd shape.
"I think this is a potato," he giggled.
It was actually Spider-Man shower gel but the children had fun debating 
what vegetable it looked like.
My mum and dad joined us for the celebrations. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
Charlotte 
had grown up obsessed with Harry Potter so when she opened her Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire she couldn't stop grinning.
On top of the presents, we received vouchers for experiences that will become cherished memories.
I can't wait to try out our new Sodastream. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
It will give us plenty of time 
to bond as one happy family.
We saved the biggest present for last.
When we ripped open the wrapping and saw the huge Sony X95G with 4K Ultra HD 
we all gasped.
It was the biggest TV we'd ever seen!
Maddison with her Build a Bot unicorn. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
I was so overwhelmed by 
the generosity of strangers.
If Carolyn could see her kids now, I know she'd be so proud and grateful they were being taken care of.
Charlotte's 'Best Friend Bear' was a hit. (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
Take 5, and all the other amazing companies, helped save our Christmas and I couldn't thank them enough.
Feeling stoked with Sunbeam blender (Photo credit: Rob Shaw / Bauer Syndication)
Take 5 thanks the following companies for their donations:
Priceline; Thermos; Eva Rado from jeronimo-u; Kee-moh Snacks; Woolworths; Nestle; Sunbeam; Elf on the Shelf; Aromababy; P'URE Papayacare; Australian Red Cross; Neptune Blanket; Monster Threads; Spin Master; Product of the Year; Bloomsbury; Nivea; T.K. Maxx; Goliath Games; Crown & Andrews; Jamberoo Action Park; Tesalate; Clearly.com.au; Bankstown Sports Club; Taronga Zoo; Greenwich Baths; Scenic World; School of Rock the musical; Strike Bowling; Event Cinemas; Palmers; Madam Tussauds; Big W; Hoselink; Hachette; Ecosilk Bags; Sony; Elinz Electronics; 
HP Australia; Victorinox; Entertainmentbook.com.au; Jelly Belly

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