When BCNA arrives at the Gurrie family home in Melbourne, Jane Gurrie and her 19-year-old daughter Bridget are beaten to the door by Monty, the family’s sociable cavoodle. When Jane’s mother-in-law Robyn Gurrie arrives shortly after, she is subject to a similarly excited canine greeting, before stopping the dog from running outside. As Robyn remarks ‘we used to mind kids and now we mind dogs!’
Watching the love and warmth between three generations of Gurrie women, it’s easy to forget the other thread that runs in this pedigree: breast cancer. Twelve years ago Jane was the first to be diagnosed. Bridget, now attending university, was just seven years old and her brother Jack was four.
Despite their tender years, Jane and her husband always intended to tell the children the truth about her diagnosis. ‘We talked in the car on the way home and said we would be honest with the kids because that was what we have always tried to do.
‘We had a really great breast care nurse who advised us from the word go to tell the kids, and we bought some books about the topic because doing the bedtime routine with stories at night is often when the questions start to come up.’
Robyn and her husband Tim looked after Bridget and Jack while Jane went through treatment.
‘We really would have struggled without their help,’ Jane says.
‘Bridget and Jack would stay over there, or Robyn and Tim would bring them back home fed and bathed. I think the kids had such a positive experience with them in a time that was a bit traumatic,’ she says.
‘Well, we got Jack a Wii (video gaming console) so he was pretty happy,’ Robyn laughs.
Six years after Jane’s diagnosis, Robyn found a lump in her own breast.
Robyn knew from Jane’s experience that breast cancer treatment meant you will have a long-term relationship with
members of your treating team.
She and her husband weren’t impressed with the bedside manner of their original surgeon, so Jane stepped in to find a new surgeon for her mother-in-law.
‘I had one daughter-in-law who found me a surgeon and another daughter-in-law who found me a cleaner, so I am pretty happy with that!’ Robyn laughs.
‘I had such good support myself and I’m pretty comfortable speaking up about this kind of stuff,” Jane explains.
‘I really feel though that what I went through was nothing compared with Jane’s experience,” Robyn says.
‘I actually disagree with that,’ Bridget says.
‘Everyone’s experience is so significant and I don’t think you can really compare them. It’s a massive thing that you go through.’
‘That’s true. When you’re first diagnosed you know nothing about it – all the subtypes and different treatments and everything,’ Robyn says.
‘The My Journey Kit from BCNA with all the information was really helpful for both of us in understanding treatments and all the medical information you have to get yourself across,” Jane says.
Robyn also taught Bridget how to sew when Bridget was still in primary school – helping her practice sewing in a straight line and dropping over to fix Bridget’s sewing machine when it seized up. This family tradition inspired Bridget to make her end-of-year VCE (final year of school) project a fabric and fashion-based art piece exploring the physical, emotional and financial impact her mother’s and grandmother’s breast cancer diagnoses had on both women and the wider family. It also influenced her choice to study fashion design at university.
Bridget designed and sewed a garment consisting of multiple layers, each one wrapping over and around the next – much like how the different aspects of a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment make up an individual’s experience.
‘I didn’t really comprehend what was going on when Mum was sick, so to really dive back into it was quite rewarding because now I understand it as an older person as well, and how Mum and Ma had very different experiences,’ Bridget says.
‘Some people have asked if it was traumatic with Bridget asking all these questions about things that happened years ago, but it wasn’t really. We talk about breast cancer quite openly as a family – it’s not a secret,” Jane says.
‘There are so many people I went to school with whose mothers had breast cancer, so it feels like a common experience in some ways,’ Bridget explains.
‘But it’s definitely on my own mind, with my family history.’
Earlier this year, Robyn and the family celebrated the end of her five years of hormone treatment on Arimidex with a barbecue and pink margaritas.
‘When you get diagnosed with breast cancer you face your mortality, and I really just wanted to know that I would be okay,’ Jane says.
‘Now we celebrate more and stay positive. Who knows what could happen?’
Dealing with children and cancer
BCNA has recorded a podcast episode in collaboration with CanTeen Australia with tips on how to speak with children of all ages about a cancer diagnosis. To listen, search for “Upfront About Breast Cancer” in Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or click here to listen to it on the BCNA website.