Former Olympic and Commonwealth Games road cyclist Jacinta Gray has August 22 in her sights. The date marks the greatest challenge of her life, but it has nothing to do with sport – it’s the day her youngest child will start school and Jacinta has her heart set on being there.
Jacinta (née Coleman), 42, has terminal bowel cancer. Her shortened lifespan is being measured in weeks.
Her husband James tells Woman’s Day that he and Jacinta have only recently revealed to their children, Max, 13, Scarlett, six, and Rory, four, that their mother isn’t going to get better.
Shares James, “Telling them that Mummy potentially isn’t going to be here much longer was the hardest thing in this whole journey for me so far.”
Also incredibly difficult was the day of the cancer diagnosis, when a “mortified” Jacinta – who represented New Zealand at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur – turned to her husband and said, “I’m so sorry, James. You have married the wrong woman.”
James feels “utter disbelief”, he says. “It still doesn’t seem real, but it really is. It’s a big shock, but life still goes on. We have to keep the kids’ existence as normal as possible.”
Jacinta and James’ world in Papamoa, Bay of Plenty, started to unravel early last year when she experienced significant tiredness and pain in her left side. She thought it may be kidney-related and her doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication. No blood tests were taken.
Then in May 2016, Jacinta began suffering something akin to morning sickness. She felt bloated and noticed a big lump in her stomach. She took immediate action, stopping at a health clinic on her way to work. Hours later, blood tests revealed Jacinta was anaemic and an urgent ultrasound was recommended.
Jacinta, who works in home care, had the ultrasound after a day at the office. She tells, “I read the report in the car, then rang James and my sister Tamara. There was a 21cm mass in my ovary.”
Jacinta’s employer paid $1300 to fast-track a CT scan, which revealed the need for surgery and the belief she had ovarian cancer. “They cleared the books and got me in straight away at Auckland Hospital,” tells Jacinta. “They took out all the cancer they could – from my diaphragm, peritoneum, rectum, lymph nodes and both ovaries. I had a full hysterectomy.
“Then I had chemotherapy. I started a positive eating plan and I changed my life to de-stress, with meditation and a focus on spirituality. I wanted to enjoy every day. People talk about living in the moment, but often they don’t – they think of the next thing they’re going to buy or the things that will make them happy in the future, rather than reading a book with a child or giving them a bath.”
Special family time was enjoyed in between the surgery and the start of chemo, when Jacinta’s dad Brian paid for his whole whanau to holiday in Rarotonga. Tragically, Brian was diagnosed with the blood cancer multiple myeloma shortly before Jacinta’s diagnosis.
“Getting on that plane with my children and their cousins was one of the happiest memories ever,” says Jacinta.
She finished her first round of chemotherapy in February and an ensuing CT scan was clear. At Easter, a colonoscopy showed she was tumour-free.
Jacinta recalls, “It was really good news and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I am beating this.’ I thought I was one of those people who can overcome a terminal diagnosis. But then I started getting back pain.”
At the time, Jacinta was having monthly blood tests to monitor her tumour markers.
The pain coincided with a high reading and the oncologist informed her the cancer had returned. It was discovered the primary cancer was in the bowel and was out of control. What had been removed in surgery was secondary.
“Just when I was in a really bad state, thinking I couldn’t cope any more, I was referred to Waipuna Hospice,” an emotional Jacinta tells. “This referral changed our lives in terms of managing the pain, and the love and support we have received. It is an incredible place and I feel safe there.”
Max has had his first session with a hospice therapist and the younger kids are being helped through weekly play therapy.
With June being Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, tired Jacinta has mustered the energy to tell her story. “Cancer is everywhere and multi-factorial,” she says.
“Young people need to realise that being tired doesn’t need to be attributed to a busy life. Get tested and if you are not happy, then get a second medical opinion. Through this whole process, listen to your body.
“Of all cancers, bowel is the biggest killer. I want people to be aware. I just hope my story will make a difference.”
Words: Monique Balvert-O’Connor