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Melbourne mum with breast cancer on dying as COVID pandemic took hold in Australia

As the COVID pandemic took hold in Australia, Melbourne woman Marlene Parsons was dying.

She had been slowly dying of breast cancer for 28 long years – but now her time on earth was really drawing to a close.

Here, in an article written before her death on October 7 2021, Marlene shared her poignant story.

It is written here, as she wished it to be, and contains the message she wants you to hear.

Her story is shared in tribute to a remarkable woman.

In memory of Marlene…

Marlene’s story

For the past 28 years, Marlene Parsons has had breast cancer, but this time the doctors are right, she is finally dying.

But she doesn’t want your sympathy. She considers herself lucky.

Marlene playing Nan with her grandkids Summer and River.
Marlene playing Nan with her grandkids Summer and River. Credit: Marlene Parsons/McGrath Foundation

Lucky, aside from one thing.

Marlene is dying during a pandemic.

As strict COVID-19 regulations came into place across swathes of Australia, Marlene’s care home, McCulloch House, in Melbourne, closed its doors to visitors.

“COVID has had a huge impact and we’ve had to get letters of compassion for my family to be able to leave Melbourne and visit me,” Marlene says.

“When they gave me a diagnosis that I had weeks to live because my liver was shutting down, they let my son, his wife and their two kids visit me even though no visitors were allowed.

“Apart from the patients and doctors, they were the only people in the hospital.

Reading time! Marlene Parsons and her grandchildren spend quality time together.
Reading time! Marlene Parsons and her grandchildren spend quality time together. Credit: Marlene Parsons/McGrath Foundation

“You could hear children laughing and everyone would stop and look at them in the courtyard and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s how it used to be and that’s what we hope to get to again’.

“I’ve said it quite a few times, but dying in COVID is a pain in the a***,” Marlene admits.

But, she reiterates, she doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her.

She has done what she set out to do.

She gave her children a good life, she saw them grow from boys into good men and she has met her grandchildren.

She feels blessed.

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‘We were the three musketeers’

“My daughter-in-law said to me today, ‘How do you feel, Mum?’ And I said I feel really good, I’m not scared, I’m sad because I won’t see my grandchildren grow up,” Marlene says.

“When I was diagnosed with mets (metastatic breast cancer) I said I want my boys to have partners who will climb into bed with them the day I die and hold them. They’ve got them.

“Now they are both married to the most amazing, supportive, strong women that will hold them up.

“We were the three musketeers for so long and it’s going to be really hard, I know that. That’s the part that makes me sad, leaving them. I’ve looked after them and protected them all their lives.”

Marlene’s two sons, Mat and Nik.
Marlene’s two sons, Mat and Nik. Credit: Marlene Parsons/McGrath Foundation

Knowing she was living on borrowed time also gave Marlene a strong drive to help others.

She was involved with the Breast Cancer Network Australia, founded a support group to help other women navigate breast cancer and brought dragon boating to Gippsland to encourage other women to focus on their health.

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“Is Nanny dying?”

One of her proudest achievements was holding writing workshops in rural Victoria for cancer patients so women could tell their stories.

In 2006 they published a collection, Heartsongs in the Key of C: Women Writing About Breast Cancer.

What is evident about Marlene’s larger-than-life outlook, is the importance of family.

Mat and Jade’s wedding day
Mat and Jade’s wedding day Credit: Marlene Parsons/McGrath Foundation

Originally, she was not supposed to live to see her grandchildren born, let seeing four of them welcomed into the world.

Which is why Bailey, six, Summer, four, River, three and Orlando, 14 months are the icing on her cake.

“There’s nothing on my bucket list. I just want to be surrounded by my kids and my grandkids and my friends and my mum with all the chaos that involves,” Marlene says.

“Two weeks ago, we had a visit with my two sons and their wives, and three kids and two dogs, and my mum, and it was chaos. But it was the best chaos,” she adds.

“No one has told Summer I’m dying, but I have the oxygen cylinders beside me and she knows how to switch it on for me when Nanna needs oxygen.

“We have a really close relationship and for the last two weeks she needed to sleep with me every night.

“She wanted to sleep in my arms, with both hands over our hearts and we slept like that all night.

“The other day she said to Jade (her mum), “Is Nanny dying?”. She said ‘She’s really, really sick, we don’t know,’ then she said, ‘I don’t want Nanny to die, it will make me so, so sad.’

“When she lay down with me, she said, ‘Nanny when you die, do you know you float up in the clouds and you meet this really, really, really nice man and you won’t be lonely anymore, but you’ll be in my heart so that’s Ok. And a little baby will be born and you’ll be their Nanny.’

“And I said, ‘Wow, where did you get that honey?’ and she said, ‘I just thought it.’”

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“I’ve said it quite a few times, but dying in COVID is a pain in the a***”

Apart from her family, when it comes to her treatment, Marlene can’t speak more highly of the McGrath Foundation.

“Marg has been with me for the last 28 years; she was there from that initial diagnosis,” Marlene says.

“I can talk to her about anything.”

Initially diagnosed back in 1993, Marlene was just 35 and a single mum to Mat, nine, and Nik, seven.

Mat, Marlene and Nik in 1993.
Mat, Marlene and Nik in 1993. Credit: Marlene Parsons/McGrath Foundation

When the doctors gave her six to 12 months to live – and at a stretch 18 months – Marlene was shocked.

“He told me to go home, get my affairs in order and have quality time with my kids but I said he couldn’t just take every bit of hope away,” she said.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Marlene’s cancer journey.

Over the course of the next 28 years the brave mum underwent various treatments, from trials to routine chemotherapy, Marlene put her hand up for it all.

“I don’t hear the word no,” she says.

“As a single mum there was that burning desire in the back of my heart from day one that I was going to give them a good life. They tell me they had a brilliant life,” Marlene adds.

Marlene lost her battle with cancer in October 2021, but her strength, smile and memory lives on.

McGrath Breast Care Nurses help individuals and their families affected by breast cancer by providing invaluable physical, psychological and emotional support, from the time of diagnosis and throughout treatment. This support is available for free and without a doctor’s referral. To find your nearest nurse visit the McGrath Foundation.

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