Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cancer is everyone's story

My brother, your mother, a beloved politician

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BRISBANE -- Cancer is like an unprovoked assault -- a sharp slap across the face from a stranger who disappears into the crowd, leaving you with a feeling of cold horror.

I don't have it. My brother, Anthony Gerard Madigan, does and he probably won't see his 49th Christmas, which is a far more cold and horrific prospect than the aforementioned slap.

One moment he's a robust 47-year-old. The next he's an old man or the equivalent of one given his sudden and, to me, still strangely inexplicable proximity to death.

In a column designed to bring news from Australia, it may appear self-indulgent to burden readers with a personal tragedy.

But cancer is the original multinational, with a branch in every country, refusing to recognize boundaries as it leaps cultures and datelines with effortless ease.

This week it claimed Canada's own Jack Layton, aged just 61, head of the New Democrat Party. Mr. Layton's death robbed him of potentially the most fulfilling period of his life, and it robbed the nation of an Opposition leader who promised to bring a fresh perspective to the national debate.

In Australia, it claimed much-loved journalist David Nason, who was just 57, and whose still youthful face peered out from the pages of the national broadsheet The Australian this week as colleagues across the country eulogized him.

Cancer is everyone's story. If it hasn't touched your life yet, it will if you're fortunate enough to live beyond a few decades.

You, your child, your dad, your spouse, your friend, your favourite nephew is suddenly faced with a sinister internal disorder as a group of formerly well-behaved bodily cells behave like a band of drunken soldiers.

They grow in strength and bravado until they turn savagely on nearby tissue, and suddenly you're sitting ashen-faced at one of those grim family gatherings where bad news is announced, to be digested with the sandwiches and tea.

Cancer still slithers through the world largely unmolested by modern medical science, growing more robust as old colleagues like diphtheria and cholera fall by the wayside.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare tells us breast cancer is the most common form in women but, in this sun-splashed country, melanoma is also on the rise.

It's been projected that by next year, melanoma will have overtaken lung cancer as the third most common cancer for men. For women, the most common cancers in 2011 are projected to be breast cancer followed by colorectal, melanoma and lung.

For men, it will be prostate cancer followed by colorectal, melanoma and lung.

My brother appears to be in the minority but he's covered at least two bases at once with both liver and pancreatic cancer.

He started his working life as a diesel fitter and rode the global mining boom to riches through his 20s and 30s, working in the Middle East, central Australia and Asia.

He once told me he and colleagues built a D9 bulldozer in a remote village in Papua New Guinea -- slowly creating the massive machine from parts airlifted in daily while locals gazed on in respectful awe of their God-like talents.

At 47, he was overseeing the maintenance of a heavy earthmoving mining fleet in Indonesia, living the good life in a beachside compound with his wife and three kids in a house with servants and drivers.

But global adventuring had left a legacy. Somewhere in his travels, he'd picked up hepatitis C and didn't even know it. Hep C is a precursor to both liver and pancreatic cancer.

In January 2010, he had a mild earache and a funny feeling in the tummy and decided to fly to Singapore for a quick checkup, only to be told cancer could kill him in as little as four months.

He was on a flight back to Queensland within 24 hours. My sister and I met him at the airport and drove immediately to the home of family patriarch Paul, an accomplished neurosurgeon who for 30 years has been the first port of call for any Madigan suffering ailments ranging from a cut finger to bowel cancer.

And there, on the verandah as cousin Paul and his newly accredited doctor daughter, Katie, gazed helplessly at the test results, the brutal reality crystallized in my mind. There's no umpire, no court of appeal, no bargaining position -- cancer holds all the cards.

But, with Paul's help, Tony decided to hit back anyway. His namesake is Tony Madigan, a once-famous Australian boxer who fought Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) in the 1960s Olympics in Rome but lost on points.

Tony fought like the boxer for the following 12 months and with chemotherapy in his corner appeared to be another world champion.

Chemo worked like some magical elixir -- a gift from the sorcerers of medical science. Only eight months ago, after spending Christmas with him and his family, I looked at him almost enviously as he strolled around his beachside apartment.

Lean, tanned, wearing a casual shirt and jeans, the beery miner -- what you Canadians might call a roughneck -- appeared to have been transformed into something you might also call preppy. He could have been casually swinging a tennis racquet with a sweater tied around his neck.

"This bloke will outlive me,'' I thought as he set out to return to light duties at his company's head office in the Western Australian capital, Perth, where he established his family in one of the two homes he owns there, and stepped up the chemo.

Chemo, I've now learned, is a bit like a powerful army that can send the invading cancer scuttling off to the hills in apparent defeat.

But cancer has been around a lot longer than an antineoplastic drug. It eyes off its opponent, regroups, reloads and returns to the battlefield with vengeance in its heart.

Four weeks ago, Tony was told to go home from his most recent trip to hospital and put himself in the hands of a palliative care team. He'd lost on points. There was, as doctors say gently, "nothing more to be done.''

But there is. Tony gets on with life even as he arranges his own funeral, cheerfully complaining about the cost. He talks to his sister on the phone, writes a letter to his elderly and distraught parents, thanking them for his wonderful life, makes provisions for his family and stoically refuses the temptations of self-pity.

Gentle queries about any suffering he's undergoing bring just one admission -- he feels guilt for causing such grief to the many people who love him. "I know it's strange, it's totally irrational, but it's still there,'' he tells me as we talk about growing up on a sugar-cane farm in North Queensland, riding bikes and swimming in creeks.

In these situations hope is like a fragrance always lingering in the air, and the wisest counsel is to be realistic about what it offers but never let it go.

"Christmas!" I said when I last flew over to Perth to see him. "We won't say goodbye, we'll say 'see you at Christmas.' "

But, as he now reminds me on the phone, he's in no position to make plans, not even for something only four months out.

"I can't make any promises Mick -- I can't say I'll still be here at Christmas.''

 

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2011 A12

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