James was with his wife the day she was told “You have cancer”. In an instant, their world, their lives and their futures were turned upside down.
From the minute James met Emma, his life was turned upside down for all the right reasons. Their connection was instant, and they were inseparable. Together, they began building their life—making plans for the future, travelling for months each year and living life to its fullest.
Little did they know that these would be some of the best decisions they would ever make.
“We loved our music and we loved to travel—we’d travel all the time. Every year we’d spend four to six weeks in Europe. Reinvesting our money into holidays. When all this happened, I realised it had been the best decision we had ever made. We could have bought another home, a new car… but instead we had all these amazing experiences and memories.”
For so long, life was good. Until it wasn’t.
Barely six months after the happy couple made their move from Melbourne to Adelaide, Emma received a stage 4 cervical cancer diagnosis that would begin their three-year journey. A journey that would end in heartbreak.
“The doctors were brutal. Told us it’s the start of the end. They told us the survival rate for this cancer wasn’t good… That was a really hard time. It was a very lonely place.”
The diagnosis and prognosis came as a crushing blow for the James. All the pain he felt for Emma’s future and their future together took a toll.
Despite his own pain, James summoned all the strength he had to support Emma through six weeks of daily radiation with a side of weekly chemotherapy. The treatment regime was brutal for both of them.
“The medication Emma was on was horrible. You hear horror stories about it, but I was there to witness it… I saw all of it.
“The first lot of treatment nearly killed her. She was a small girl, and it was just like a punch. Some nights I would come home from work, and she couldn’t move. It would affect her breathing. She was in anguish.”
Despite the struggle of diagnosis and treatment, James and Emma overcame it all, together. Emma kept her hair and ‘lost the tumour’ and the two of them celebrated.
“We celebrated through all the checkups. We wanted to celebrate all the little wins.
“We celebrated the first check up, and then the second. But the third time we got called in for an appointment the next day and we just knew.”
Once again, Emma and James were faced with a crushing reality—the original cancer was in her lungs. So the barrage of treatments started again, this time causing Emma to lose her hair and the cancer.
Despite the cancer returning and the inevitability it brought, they chose to continue making moments and memories to last a lifetime. For James and Emma, life was all about being lived, and so they eloped.
“When we did it, we were in a pretty good place. It was the second time around—Emma had lost her hair and we knew there wasn’t a lot of time left but that whole experience was just unbelievable.
“It was the most beautiful day. But it was hard. In the back of your mind, even in that moment, every joy is acknowledged with this inevitability. Had it on your doorstep the whole time.”
And soon, that inevitability became reality.
There were tumours in Emma’s brain—nine in total.
This opened the couple up for yet another onslaught of harsh treatments to give them more time.
“First treatment was like a punch—it knocked her out, but the second one… it has such different symptoms. She responded differently and she faced a longer recovery compared to the first time. This one cooked her.”
Emma’s condition continued to deteriorate. Medications like dexamethasone were wreaking havoc with her personality and her appearance, her pain increased and there were no treatments left to try.
“In the last two weeks of her life I was just picking her up out of her wheelchair. You don’t realise at the time that it’s the end, you’re still hoping for recovery. There is such a sense of helplessness but you’re trying everything.
“On her last day, her pain could no longer be managed and so she was going in and out of consciousness because of the morphine. She came to at one point and said to the doctor “it’s time”. She looked at me and asked me if I was ok with it. I said I’m not ok, but I get it.
“When she passed her daughter was there and I was holding her hand for her last breath. It was hard. I still had the hope that she would come back one more time… for one more conversation. All you want is more time.”
Emma’s loss tore a hole in James’ heart. It left him feeling empty. It left him feeling alone.
“She was the first person to be supportive of me in every way, but also the first to tell me to pull my head in and guide me to the right thing. When you have that person by your side it makes you a better person. I miss that. And I miss my travel partner. I just miss her… I miss her so much.
“Losing Emma has left my heart empty—it’s a physical pain. Sometimes a pain that hurts so much that I can’t even breathe.”
For so long, James was left with the raw, painful memories of Emma’s final days. Of the brutality of treatments. Now, more than 12 months on, those memories have faded and memories of the many happy years they had before they heard the words “you have cancer” are at the forefront of his mind. He has found a way forward.
“Emma and I had a special connection and we both knew it. I have lots of moments to look back on. A lot of fantastic moments.
“There are times you try to suppress the memories because you know the pain that comes with them, but you WANT to remember. It’s often the small things that hurt the most. Sometimes it’s a song or a picture that pops up. But I am here, I’m embracing it. All of the emotions.
“Losing Emma took so much from me, but I have two grandsons now and I realise that while Emma’s loss leaves me empty, there are moments in life—like spending time at the park with my grandsons—that pours buckets of fulfillment back in. It’s the lifecycle. And, Emma and I were both quite spiritual so I know that we will find each other again.”
At Cancer Council SA, we are here for every South Australian impacted by cancer. Every day, we are investing in research to develop better treatments, earlier detection and ultimately save lives. But it’s only possible with your support.