Hannah’s story

Hannah & Lena looking together at beach.Hannah Rose Luxford-Matthews was born on 2nd May 1988 at Griffith in Western NSW.

At age 20, on 22nd December 2008, my eldest daughter Hannah Rose died from a malignant melanoma that was initially diagnosed twelve months previously on 26th November 2007. Hannah underwent two rounds of surgery in Dec 2007 and August 2008, and also a month of daily radiation in September/October 2008 in Sydney under the care of Associate Professor Andrew Spillane from the Sydney Melanoma Unit, after each ‘round’ Hannah received the ‘all clear’ and went back to living her life.

Hannah’s life in 2008 was  consisted of being a second year livestock science student, studying externally through University of New England (UNE -Armidale), also working with livestock for Elders Pastoral at their Feedlot in Charlton Victoria and being a very keen competitor in barrel racing at rodeo’s in Victoria and NSW.  During the year that Hannah lived with having cancer she continued to live her life fully.  She had a beautiful group of friends and work colleagues who valued her enormously and in August 2008 had met her first ‘serious’ boyfriend and fell in love.

hannah lena chiltern rodeo 2008-03-09_k0065_thmHannah was a graceful, thoughtful, loving, kind, funny and compassionate young woman. A very talented horsewoman, intelligent, down to earth and loved the bush.  She tackled having melanoma cancer by taking things one step at a time.  She never feared what would happen, but put all of her resources into staying focused on being well and achieving a full recovery from melanoma cancer. Hannah had a positive attitude and kept her sense of humour operating!  To Hannah’s very last breath she was ‘fully alive’ and lived every moment.   This is the legacy she has left for us, to count our blessings and to live every moment.

The last three weeks of Hannah’s life were in Melbourne where she was an in and outpatient at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre under the care of Associate Professor Grant McCarthur.  Hannah was receiving chemotherapy and treatment for pain.  Hannah had another tumour emerge on the 26th November 2008 which then led her to the Peter Mac Centre where treatment began.  It was discovered there that the melanoma had spread to her liver and lung and this meant that surgery wouldn’t be an option anymore and she began what was initially to be a five month chemotherapy program on 2nd December 2008, but ceased after a few weeks as it had no effect on the melanoma.  Hannah became a member of the ‘ontrac@PeterMac’ team which is a youth designated cancer service for adolescents and young adults from 15-25 years of age.  This service is world’s best practice in health care and is leading edge.

Six days before Hannah died she became an inpatient because her pain was out of control. I was with her 24/7 every step of the way with her cancer journey and up until three days before she died we still held out for a full recovery.  We were so hopeful that Hannah’s body would find a way to heal.  By the 19th December we were told that the chemotherapy hadn’t had the desired effect and that there was nothing more that could be done medically for Hannah other than pain relief.  I do not have the words to describe what that situation is like as a mother to hear that your child will die.  Lead by Hannah again we took the road of living every nano second we had. Not to waste a second of it feeling sorry or sad, but really valuing every precious moment, recognising that we never get to relive a second of life once it has passed.  So in the last few days of Hannah’s life we were able to take her to Fitzroy Gardens into the sunshine to have a picnic with her dog Hamish surrounded by dozens of her family (Hannah is part of a huge family I am one of nine and Hannah had two dozen first cousins -Hannah loved being part of such a big family and it gave her such strength and support during the hard times).   and friends that had travelled from Mackay in Qld and Kempsey on the North Coast of NSW and then the day before she died her girlfriends from Charlton in Western Victoria 3 &1/2 hours from Melbourne, bought her horse, her beloved mare ‘Lena’ to visit her also. The bond Hannah had with ‘Lena’ is phenomenal and captured the essence of horse-human relationship and harmony.

The beauty of Hannah’s last days is indescribable, these simple acts of pleasure and kindness burned into all of our hearts for ever, they were so meaningful and simple and exquisite as we were all aware we would never have these moments again.

Hannah’s funeral was held in Gisborne Victoria on Christmas Eve 2008 on very short notice. Several hundred friends and family gathered there to celebrate her all to short life (of course including her dogs and horse Lena who lead a pilgrimage walk from the church to the cemetery where Hannah was laid to rest next to her beautiful cousin Max (then aged 9) who died suddenly ten years ago in a traffic accident.

I returned to my home town in Kempsey Northern NSW at the end of January.  We organised a memorial Mass for Hannah here where approximately 600 people came to pay their respects. After the memorial I ‘stopped’, it was time to rethink my whole life.  I am also mother to two other children Esther 18 and Joe 10 and have been a teacher at TAFE since 2001.   My journey with grief is indescribable; grief is such an infinite, endless emptiness inside that never leaves. I went through the daily actions of living my life.  I was looking after Joe, who is in Year 5 and gardening, writing, reading and drawing.  Esther was back at work (racing stable foreman & trackwork rider) and external university student (Southern Cross University- Coffs Harbour).

I couldn’t return to work I was just too empty and had nothing to give anyone.  This was at first so hard for me as I am very community minded and have always put my heart and soul into work and community.  All of a sudden nothing meant anything to me only my kids and putting one foot in front of the other each day.  I kept hearing Hannah’s reminders not to be sad, that she was OK, and that she wanted me to get fit again.  This came from 2001 -2006 when I lost 30kgs of weight and got super fit.  In 2006 three major things happened to me; I underwent a total hip replacement in Sydney, my mother Marie Luxford died and I separated from my husband),  in the year that followed 20 of those kgs crept back on and I’d lost my fitness.  While I was in hospital with Hannah last December she mentioned a few times how much she’d like to see me fit again.  I promised her I would ‘get back on the horse’ with that one!

In the middle of February 2009 (only two short months after Hannah died), I felt impelled into Curves gym in Kempsey.  I didn’t want to go, but my body was so ‘lifeless’, I was in a lot of physical pain, had back and hip problems.  Generally I felt as if I was full of helium and could float away.  This is such a difficult feeling as normally I am very grounded and earthy.  I had an interview with one of the trainers and made a written commitment to come to the gym three days a week.  Most days in that first month during late February and March I had to force myself there, but all the time was reminded of my promise to Hannah.  Most days I cried all the way there (I live 14kms from the gym), and then half the time would be quietly weeping while I was at the gym. But I kept going. By April I was starting to feel stronger and was feeling much happier in my body.  My pain in both back and hips had decreased a lot and the weight and cms was melting off me.

At the beginning of May I bought a new pushbike and started riding a lot and kept increasing my distances. (The whole time I’m riding my bike I feel very close to Hannah.) By June I was riding about 100kms a week, keeping up with my 3 sessions at Curves (riding into the gym and back clocked up 30kms), swimming and stretching and riding my horses again. At the beginning of June I was out on an amazing early morning bike ride at Port Macquarie and was having a rest at the top of a huge hill watching sunrise over the ocean when I was flooded with Joy and was openly weeping with gratitude for having my Life, I felt every cell alive and was keenly aware of how precious life is.  I was standing there weeping with Joy watching this magnificent sunrise when I heard a clear invitation to ride my bike to Melbourne to raise money and awareness in regard to adolescent and young adult melanoma. I said out loud ‘OK I will!”  So there began my focused campaign to build my fitness to new heights and to ‘RIDE4ACURE’ in Hannah’s memory.  I am supported by the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to undertake this ride and at this stage will leave Kempsey on 19th October 2009 and arrive in Melbourne on 26th November at the PeterMac Cancer Centre.  Along the way I will present a melanoma awareness campaign to various high schools en route. The journey is 1500kms and I am aiming to take 6 weeks to complete it. My Road/back up support crew is made up of family members (mostly Hannah’s young cousins) and friends.  I am now up to riding 150 kms a week up and down the Pacific Highway and cross training with aqua aerobics, 3-4 sessions at Curves Gym, 1 hour pilates/stretch session plus horse riding. I am feeling outrageously healthy!

In my journey with grief and sorrow getting fitter has been the best medicine for me.  My promise to Hannah caused me to get to the gym and on the bike.  If I had waited til I ‘felt’ like going to the gym, I’d still be waiting. Making myself walk through the doors because of a promise I’d made to Hannah and also needing to be the best I could be for my other kids was enough reason to start…..and from this small start ride4acure has emerged…..