Dealing with grief and loss

Dealing with grief and loss

3 August 2016

After losing their beloved husband and father to melanoma a year ago, Ann and her children draw strength from knowing he started an amazing research legacy at Melanoma Institute Australia (MIA) to help find a cure for melanoma. Although Ken is never far from her mind, Ann shares with us how she has coped with this great loss and survived the first year without her family’s guiding light.

Ken's melanoma journey

Ken was just 17 years old when he had his first melanoma removed and life went on. It was 27 years later in 2002, when he was diagnosed with melanoma a second time.

Ken's two kids, Tara and Stuart, were just 12 and 8 years old. The family man endured surgery and drug trials to fight the disease and was "relatively well" for four years, his wife Ann recalls. Then in 2009 the family received the devastating news that Ken had stage 4 melanoma and only months to live. But Ken was determined not to give in. The next six years was a tough battle, but Ann says, the stubborn and determined man never gave up fighting.

"Ken believed that a cure was just around the corner. He was driven to survive," she says. "His catch phase was 'keep me alive until there's a cure'."

Ken quickly became known as an enthusiastic supporter and participant in MIA's research efforts to find a cure for melanoma. Over his 14 year battle with melanoma, Ken participated in a record number of clinical trials of new treatments, all of which have led to improvements in melanoma care. Ken was also one of the first participants in the first-in-human trial of dabrafenib. This highly successful clinical trial revolutionised the way melanoma is treated.

"Ken contributed greatly to the fight against melanoma. Through his efforts, dabrafenib is now a cornerstone treatment for melanoma patients worldwide," says Dr Alex Menzies, one of MIA's oncologists who worked with Ken.

"While he was on trials, Ken not only underwent various tests to assess how his melanoma was responding to treatment, but he also volunteered to donate multiple blood and tumour samples for laboratory research. This research has led to important insights, enabling further breakthroughs in treatment."

Dr Menzies says Ken also devised his own unique method of assessing how his body was responding to treatment, measuring every tumour and plotting them over time.

"This detailed analysis technique was adopted by researchers at MIA, led to several successful research projects and has now been adopted internationally has a detailed way of studying cancer."

For Ann, Tara and Stuart, knowing that Ken's contributions to the fight against melanoma will continue to result in breakthroughs gives them strength, and reminds them of how determined he was to find a cure for melanoma.

"Ken was our core. He was not going to back down. He was the one who was always optimistic and determined," says Ann.

The family is also extremely proud of the money they raised before Ken died, which was to go towards a family holiday to the US for Ken to meet his rock idols, The Foo Fighters. Sadly however, Ken passed away before he was able to make the trip. The family donated close to $30,000 to MIA for ongoing research into a cure for melanoma.

Coping with loss

Ann describes living through a melanoma journey and dealing with the loss of a loved one as one of life's "biggest rollercoaster rides".

She acknowledges that everyone deals with loss and grief in their own way. For her, connecting with Jay Allen from MIA and occasionally visiting a local support group have been sources of comfort, particularly now life for much of her support network has returned to normal.

"In the beginning, the first couple of months, you get supported by friends and family, but then you are left on your own and that's when it starts to hit you - the loneliness and isolation," she says.

"I tried to be the positive, strong person Ken was, but I was struggling. I fell apart a couple of months after Ken passed away. That's when I realised that you need to be supported by professionals — counsellors or your GP.

"These people are there to help you get through those dark times. It's important to put your hand up and ask for support from your GP or a counselling service," she says.

Remembering the good times and happy memories is also an important part of the healing process.

"Although we were positive about Ken's prognosis, we also planned for the inevitable and did so many things on our bucket list. We wanted to go and see the world, in case Ken wasn't there to enjoy his retirement. We had some amazing family holidays and I'm grateful for that now, because when I look back at pictures and videos, they are the happy moments I can look back on," she says.

Having recently sold the family home she shared with Ken and her children, Ann says she is looking forward to a fresh start and building new memories to go with their happy thoughts of Ken.

If you require help or support to cope with the loss of a loved one, please consult your GP or a specialist.