Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand (LBC) recently included Northland couple Julie and Colleen in their Shave For a Cure campaign. Shave for a Cure is designed to motivate others to shave their heads in support of the 21,000 Kiwis living with blood cancer in this country. Here is Julie and Coleen’s survival story.
In 2015, Colleen was diagnosed as having multiple myeloma, also known as plasma cell myeloma – a cancer of plasma cells, a type of white blood cell normally responsible for producing antibodies.
“Initially I had osteoporosis so I was in treatment for that, and then I had a fall and fractured my sternum. I said to my doctor “does this mean the medication I was taking isn’t working?” and she said she’d do some tests to make sure there were no underlying problems, and it came back that yes, I did have multiple myelomas and needed a biopsy,” says Colleen of her 2015 diagnosis.
The diagnosis came on a day when the couple were up in Auckland celebrating Julie’s graduation. “I did my teacher training decades ago and at the time  I’d just finished upgrading my degree.
“I was graduating that day when Colleen got the phone call but she didn’t tell me until the following night after we’d got home – she’d known through all of my graduation and everything… It was unbelievable.” She says sadly.
“Well, it was her day, not mine!” Colleen explains, adding, “I didn’t want anything to spoil that. She worked so hard for it.”
“We just did an awful lot of crying,” Collen says of the aftermath telling Julie.
“I got a biopsy then had to be referred to a haematologist from Auckland who travelled up here just for treatment. My GP said there are treatments but it’s not curable.”
Together the couple decided not to give up. “It was like, ‘let’s get on to it’. Now we’re on this journey.” Coleen tells us, noting, “without Julie’s help it would have been a really lonely journey.”
For Julie, despite attending all of Coleen’s appointment with her, she couldn’t help but feel ‘useless.’
“You can’t do anything for the sickness bit,” she explains. However, shaving her head to help raise funds and support through March’s Shave for a Cure campaign gave her a greater feeling of purpose.
“It’s one way of making sure that the work can carry on. Everybody’s working so hard to make sure treatments are available for Colleen… and she’s brave every minute of every day. It’s just one thing that I can do to raise attention for it really.”
Julie shaving her head also helped Coleen feel supported when her hair began falling out after chemotherapy. A process Coleen found harder than she had expected.
“You know that hair loss is a possibility and you’re prepared so you think ‘it’s just hair’, but then it actually starts happening. When you first start seeing hair on a pillowcase… you can’t explain it, you truly can’t explain it… running your hand through your hair and coming away with a handful… it doesn’t come out nicely.”
While the diagnosis and treatment have been a hard journey to endure, the couple say it has brought them even closer together, something they had not believed possible at the start.
Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand receives no government funding. Currently, one Kiwi is diagnosed with blood cancers every 4 hours, with Leukaemia being the most common childhood cancer, while lymphoma is one of the most common cancers in 15 – 24 year-olds. www.leukaemia.org.nz