May 06, 2016 0 comments

A life interrupted

By Joe Wrin, PhD Candidate Breast Cancer Research 

So here I am, sitting at my desk and typing on my aging MacBook, surrounded by my burgeoning pile of breast cancer papers and a litter of coffee cups. I have just started my PhD with Associate Professor Wendy Ingman, a project that will see me probing the interactions of the immune system with breast tissue. A few months ago, I sat at a different desk, working on a different cancer. So, how did I get here?

I always loved nature as a kid so it was natural to study science at university. After a stint at a California biotechnology company, I crossed the Pacific to start work in Adelaide. About a year into my stay, a woman appeared at the laboratory bench opposite mine. We talked about dogs and horses, she had an infectious laugh. We fell in love. Her name was Leeanne.

Joe's beloved wife Leeanne.
Joe’s beloved wife Leeanne.

Years passed, we had two children. Science is demanding and Leeanne felt she was missing their childhood, so she decided to take a year off and spend more time with the kids. I took a trip to visit my parents in California. And that’s when our lives fell apart.

Leeanne sent me a text when I arrived at the airport: could I get a cab home? Alarm bells started ringing. I arrived home to find her experiencing intense joint pain, she could hardly stand it. Her blood test came back: something was wrong with her bone marrow. Could it be leukaemia? With a tightening throat, I took her to a haematologist and he spelled out our future. Lee had a breast lump, it was suspicious of cancer.

The nightmare grew ever worse, a parade of events that couldn’t be happening. The surgeon confirmed it was treatable, but inoperable.:.  The bone scan lit up like a Christmas tree – it was metastatic disease. The oncologist told us there’s no cure for metastatic breast cancer. Her prognosis: 6-12 months to live. Followed by transfusions and Chemo: nasty orange stuff.

Joe Wrin has dedicated his life to fighting breast cancer, in memory of Leeanne.
Joe is dedicating his PhD to fighting breast cancer, in memory of Leeanne.

And then the little miracle. Lee’s tumour shrank and disappeared. We enjoyed a golden time together as the chemo and meds did their work. She was only out of bed about half the time, her bones hurt if she tried more, but it was a precious time for us.

And then her tumour marker began to spike. More chemo, more medication, but the marker kept rising. The disease was appearing in her lungs, her liver, her brain. Radiotherapy. Lee was bed-ridden. Her pain was out of control. I moved her to hospice care, I couldn’t look after her anymore. She was heavily sedated. The doctor advised: tell her to let go. Lee died the next day, just one month shy of her 50th birthday. She lived three and a half years past her diagnosis.

And that’s the short version of why I’m here. I returned to work after losing Lee, telling myself helping colon cancer patients was enough; but my heart kept urging me to do breast cancer research. And now I am here, I will do my best to help defeat breast cancer, the disease that tragically took the life of my Leeanne. I hope it works out. With your help, I’m proud to contribute to building a future free of breast cancer for future families.

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