She lost her son to cancer, but refuses to lose his memory

The McDonald Family. L-R: Daniel, Greg, Grant, Max, Diana.
The McDonald Family. L-R: Daniel, Greg, Grant, Max, Diana. Photo credit: Supplied

Teuila Fuatai for the Spinoff

Diana McDonald remembers the past 13 years through her son Daniel’s fight with cancer.

She laughs at his sense of humour. She reflects on his determination to attend university after being diagnosed with a grade four brain tumour at 18. She mulls over the difficulties she and her husband Grant had balancing his needs with their two youngest sons. She even giggles about the types of girls Daniel liked. And when she goes over his last words and final days, she is remarkably calm and generous in talking about them. 

It is the story no parent ever wants to tell, but one Diana McDonald, and even Daniel – prior to his death in September last year – have shared numerous times.

She explains why from her Tauranga home. "Daniel used to say to me: 'You know Mum, if I can help someone, or this will bring some sense to why I’ve had to go through what I’ve had to, I’m more than happy.'" 

In the lead-up to this year’s Daffodil Day, McDonald is sharing the story of how cancer shaped her family and how the Cancer Society helped them through that experience.

"When your child is diagnosed at 18, I just remember thinking: 'That’s unfair – he hasn’t even had a girlfriend yet.'"

Through his initial diagnosis to news the tumour had returned after seven years, McDonald describes how cancer transformed her son’s outlook on life.

"He used to be a little bit introverted. But once he got cancer, he became an extrovert. I think once you’re faced with death… the things you used to worry about, they just all dissolve."

One of her favourite memories is Daniel’s take on his post-surgery and radiation treatment appearance. His determination to go to university without taking any time off meant he started at the University of Waikato looking "very ill".

"I was a bit worried seeing him go off like that, but there was no stopping him," she says. "He was very skinny. He’d lost 10 kilos. He had a bald head and had scars from the surgery. And he said that a few times when he went into bars, people thought that he’d just got out of prison."

When she asked why he never mentioned the tumour, his answer was typical of many teenage boys. "He just said, 'Na Mum, girls like bad boys.'

"And that was Daniel," she says. "That’s probably why he got so far. He wasn’t going to let it get the better of him."

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business analysis and a graduate diploma in accounting, Daniel moved to Japan to teach English. It was during his two-year stint overseas they discovered the tumour was back. The news was particularly tough to bear. "It had been seven years by then," McDonald says. 

It impacted each member of their family differently, she recalls. "I found myself acting rather weird. I couldn’t get my head out of this place of him having brain surgery again. I got myself in a panic. 

"I ended up getting counselling through the Cancer Society," she says. "[It] just helped me settle myself and probably step back a bit."

Inspired by her experience McDonald went on to work for the Cancer Society, starting as a massage therapist in 2010, then a volunteer driving coordinator in 2017. Now she’s doing both roles.

Daniel, who returned from Japan at the end of 2012, began behaving quite recklessly. "It really started to freak people out. We ended up having a good talk about it."

After seeing the oncologist, Daniel travelled to Dunedin for stereotactic radiosurgery. The non-surgical treatment involved a concentrated dose of radiation to the tumour. Then things were OK for a few years, and Daniel moved to Auckland to work for law firm Cone Marshall. His long search for employment was documented by the NZ Herald.

Eventually, his symptoms returned when he was 30. At that point, treatment options were quite limited. Daniel had more chemotherapy and had another operation to try and debulk the tumour. The surgery was unsuccessful, with doctors unable to reach the tumour because of its complex location. He went home to Tauranga briefly before returning to Auckland – a difficult compromise for his parents.  

"Apparently, he’d go to work and when he’d walk out, he didn’t even know where he lived," McDonald says.  "It was really difficult to get to the point where he had to realise he wasn’t OK and for him to come home."

McDonald says she collected a “yellow” Daniel from Auckland. Blood tests showed his liver was not functioning. The trip was Daniel’s last from Auckland. He took one final plane trip with his parents in March last year to visit his cousin in Christchurch, then remained in Tauranga until his death.

When they made the decision to move him to a hospice, Diana knows her son understood. His last clear words to his mother, who had been his full-time carer in his final year, were "super comfy" as he was tucked into the hospice bed.

Reflecting on things, it is difficult to encapsulate the impact cancer had on Daniel and their family. McDonald says Max and Greg, Daniel’s younger brothers, dealt with the illness differently. Max seemed quite scared to see his eldest brother in the final stages of his life, while Greg took comfort in being close to him, she says.  Daniel’s request to have a fancy dress, 80s-themed funeral was another event to take in, and then there’s the love-heart Lego tattoo McDonald has on her arm to remember him by.

"He was happy," McDonald says. "He basically said to me, 'Oh, I’ve ticked off all my bucket list.'"

Marie Wales, Cancer Society supportive care manager, says hundreds of families have similar experiences to the McDonalds. In the past year, the organisation has met about 16,200 people affected by cancer. A further 60,900 have made contact via phone, and nearly 30,000 through methods like Skype and text. 

"We know that cancer is not just a disease. It’s about someone’s wellbeing as they live with a cancer diagnosis and how that affects their family and whānau," Wales says. 

Support teams of health professionals, like nurses and counsellors, are located throughout the country. They provide a variety of free services, including free hospital transport, counselling and home support visits. 

"We try and empower people to have control around what they’re going through. If they’ve got information and are educated, they can make informed choices about what’s important to them."

A range of networks can also be accessed through the Cancer Society, including support groups for those living with cancer. Daniel was part of the Tauranga group.

"We learn about what’s available in communities, so we have a really good idea about the barriers people are facing, such as accessing treatment, long distances to travel, and even which city centres have more resources than others," Wales says.

With this year’s Daffodil Day upon us, she stresses the importance of understanding the Cancer Society’s role and work.

"We don’t receive any direct government funding. We rely on the charity dollar, so August 30 is really important. One of our biggest roles is advocating for issues that concern the public and impact those with cancer."

This content was created in paid partnership with the Cancer Society.

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