Cancer walk celebrates life journeys
When Alwyn Beach learned that her ex-husband Keith had cancer, her immediate thoughts were for their sons Matt and Nick, then aged 12 and 14.
When Keith was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1999, doctors discovered two tumours. One in his abdomen was successfully surgically removed, but the second - wrapped around his pancreas - was inoperable.
Experimental blood treatments and chemotherapy followed his diagnosis, but Keith progressively got worse, suffering first renal failure, then deep vein thrombosis; both conditions exacerbated by his cancer treatments.
He died on Father's Day, September 1, 2002, just short of his 54th birthday.
Sadly cancer had not finished with the Beach family. Keith's younger brother Brian, a pallbearer at his funeral, died the following January, aged 52, of kidney cancer. Their father Gordon had died previously of lung cancer, just before his 60th birthday.
For Alwyn, Matt and Nick the last decade has been one long battle after another with cancer; impacting on their lives in a variety of ways. Latterly Matt's former partner TJ was diagnosed with leukaemia, and he helped nurse him through a bone marrow transplant and ongoing treatment.
While his father's battle helped Matt understand more about what TJ was going through, nothing prepared anyone in the family for the horrendous strain the illnesses placed on them all. "When Keith was diagnosed, we were separated but we shared care of the boys," said Alwyn. "We still had a close relationship so naturally I was there to help Keith too."
That help included taking Keith for treatment, and being there for him and their sons whenever she was needed. "We tried to continue good parenting, because despite what Keith was going through our sons needed us very much. They were just starting their college education, yet at a time when they should have been doing normal teenage things - enjoying school, sports, music and the like - they were coping with illness and grief."
Matt sees those last three years with his father as extra precious; years that help shape him to face what was yet to come in his life.
After Keith's death, Alwyn became a Nelson Cancer Society volunteer and committee member, helping others as she had been helped. Cancer, she says, is such a small word for a huge range of illnesses.
"Nothing can ever prepare you for a family member suffering cancer, but there are practical things you can do." Being practical for instance meant Alwyn moving in with Matt to help him support TJ, and Matt having help from the Cancer Society when TJ was ill.
Both Alwyn and Matt are fervent supporters of Relay for Life, taking part in their first Nelson relay in 2004, and every one since then. Matt - a musician - often helps provide entertainment, and both walk in the caregivers' lap.
Alwyn was present at the first meeting from which Relay For Life originated, and ended up being asked to do "a little job". That little job was taking care of the money, which Alwyn, who works for KiwiBank, was happy to do.
"Things were done a bit differently then," she recalled. "Everyone brought their money along to Relay. I ended up with the money at home so after counting it - all $42,000 of it - I stashed it in the freezer overnight to keep it safe."
Ten years later, come Saturday, Alwyn and Matt will walk in the survivors' and caregivers' lap at the 6th Nelson Relay for Life. "It's good if you have a survivor to walk with. Keith isn't here, but we will walk to celebrate his journey and also ours."
Both plan on keeping up what has now become a family tradition, united by shared love, experiences and memories.