It started one Sunday with a dull headache that caused little concern in an active teenage boy who ‘never gets sick’.
By the following Saturday, Tracey Lines’ son Braithe was undergoing emergency brain surgery for a tumour – and that was just the start of a six-month ordeal that turned their lives upside down.
The Townsville mother of two has since written a book about that journey to raise money for charity and help other families facing the same heartache and upheaval.
Ms Lines is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s only regionally based director and has a professional background including working as general manager – economic development for Townsville Enterprise and board positions with groups including the Singaporean Defence Investment Committee and Queensland Transport and Logistics Council.
She wrote the book as Braithe’s treatment unfolded – with the very first words sparked on the night her sick boy’s hair started falling out as he went to shower.
“Everybody was so good to us and so supportive, but sometimes when we were really doing it tough I didn’t necessarily want to talk,” she said.
“I didn’t want to deal with other people’s reactions or have people saying it was going to be OK, because they just didn’t know that.
“Once he got out of the shower and went to bed, I sat down and I was crying and crying.
“I have never been to sit down and write about how I feel, but then and there I just started writing and it was really cathartic and as I kept writing I realised I wanted this to be something the boys could read later down the track.”
She also saw its potential value to other parents facing the same issues with cancer.
“When it happens people can tell you what the procedures are and what the diagnosis is, but no one can tell you what it is going to be like to live through it,” she said. “You really have no clue how much it is going to turn your life on its head and what it is going to be like to watch your child go through that.”
Braithe was 14 when he developed a dull headache that GPs initially put down to a virus or sinus infection.
“It was nothing to worry about, just a dull headache that didn’t go away for a few days and by the Thursday – four days he’d had this headache – they said we’ll give him an MRI as a precaution,” Ms Lines said.
“On the Thursday night the hospital called and said I needed to get up to the hospital and they sat us down and showed us this MRI that showed a brain tumour.
“It just escalated so quickly. We went from having a dull headache that no one was really worried about and by the Friday morning he was in excruciating pain and he was losing his vision.
“It just happened that quickly. It was really scary.”
The tumour had grown to the point where it was blocking brain fluid, with the building pressure causing Braithe’s pain.
A successful surgery in Townsville relieved the pressure and achieved a biopsy for accurate diagnosis.
After a few days in intensive care, Braithe and his mum were on a Royal Flying Doctor Service flight to Brisbane for treatment at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital.
“We turned up there in Brisbane and I had a pair of thongs, a pair of tights, stuff I’d been sleeping in at the hospital – we had absolutely nothing. I said to (oncologist Rick Walker) ‘how long are we going to be here?’ and he said ‘six months’,” Ms Lines said.
“I said ‘we can’t stay here for six months, we’ve just left my other son at home’. This is a week after a dull headache, four days after finding out that he has something that is not sinus – it’s just absolute turmoil. Your life turns upside down. You are just not even taking it in and you certainly have no idea what it is going to mean for your life.”
Braithe underwent surgery to insert a central line to allow him to receive chemotherapy. He had six rounds of chemo and six weeks of radiation during his treatment in Brisbane.
Ms Lines’ other son Jaxon, then aged 15, remained in Townsville – with friends and family rallying around him to assist with tasks like grocery shopping and cleaning.
The separation was very difficult and during their time in Brisbane Ms Lines encountered other families from regional Queensland doing it tough.
Many parents lost their jobs due to the extended time they had to spend away in Brisbane as their children battled cancer.
Ms Lines is grateful to her employers for the flexibility they gave her during that time.
“I’d sit there beside his hospital bed with my laptop and do emails and take phone calls,” she said.
“It was pretty hard going, but we got through and, to tell you the truth, I feel like the luckiest lady on the planet.”
She understands that may not make sense to some – but says the family was lucky to have a neurosurgeon the calibre of Dr David Anderson in Townsville right when they needed him and they were lucky in that the type of cancer diagnosed (a non-germinomatous germ cell tumour) is one with a low risk of recurrence. And they saw their experience ‘bring out the very best’ in all around them.
“Braithe is now in perfect health,” Ms Lines said.
“When we got home on November 25 (2017), he weighed just 34 kilos. It takes a huge toll so much chemo and radiation. He looked really bad.
“But he is looking like his old self again now.”