Gemma and Matt Flanagan with daughters Harper and Isabella.
Gemma and Matt Flanagan with daughters Harper and Isabella.

Couple diagnosed with cancer five days apart

GEMMA Flanagan and her husband, Matt, were blindsided by a double diagnosis last year, but the Townsville couple are now cancer-free and making every second count.

It was like something out of a rom-com when Matt and I met.

Our eyes met, we fell in love, got married and started our family quickly.

Our daughters, Isabella and Harper, who were born 17 months apart, were both IVF babies. We were thrilled to have our dream family but, like many parents, were also struggling to juggle it all and stay sane amid the sleep deprivation that comes with having two toddlers.

We both felt fit and healthy - Matt went to the gym all the time, and I was running 7km every week. But at the end of 2015, the threads began to unravel.

Matt was having frequent loose bowel movements and passing blood. He was given antibiotics, as doctors thought it was a bacterial infection. Meanwhile, I'd finished breastfeeding Harper and felt that my right breast was a bit lumpy. An ultrasound showed fibrocystic changes so we were told to monitor it.

Everything appeared normal and we decided to try for another baby, using our last embryo. It didn't work, but to our surprise, we conceived naturally. I didn't get time to celebrate as I miscarried two weeks later. We got pregnant again but miscarried this time, too.

I couldn't bear it and decided to take a break. Matt was dealing with his own issues as his digestive problems had worsened. By March last year, he was going to the toilet 30 times a day, and was fatigued, moody and had lost a lot of weight.

A colonoscopy was booked.

It was still more than a week until his appointment when I was alarmed to feel a large, hard lump in my breast. I saw my GP the next day and had an ultrasound, biopsy and mammogram. Three days later, we got the call: I had breast cancer.

Aged 30, I went from being a concerned wife of a sick hubby to a cancer patient. Tests followed while I spent my days terrified of dying.

What would happen to my girls?

Some days my tears didn't stop.

The oncologist confirmed I had an aggressive tumour and would need chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation therapy.

'We will get through this,' Matt said repeatedly. He didn't cry while I bawled my eyes out. At least he'd be there for the girls, I thought.

But, five days later, life beat us down again. Matt's colonoscopy revealed he had colon cancer. He was 40. In shock, I held on tightly to him as the doctor laid out the next steps. That night, Matt sobbed in my arms, just as I'd done with him. When I said that I understood what he was going through, he knew I meant it.

We were going to be chemo buddies, but it was too soon to joke about it. There were no more assurances. We just tried to focus on fighting it. Some days my tears didn't stop. Matt was more positive, but I'd google too much and ask the 'what if' questions.

The next year was all about surgery and treatment.

We tried to keep life as normal as possible.

When we went for chemo together, we'd call it a date and try to have fun. But the side-effects were no fun: fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and pain.

Our family and friends were so supportive. My mum lives downstairs from us, so she was often around and would cook for us, and my aunt looked after the kids once a week.

Our friends started a fundraising campaign for us, so we wouldn't have to worry about our mortgage or bills while we weren't working.

Our kids were so little - Isabella was three, Harper almost two and that meant they didn't stop, which helped us stay positive.

We tried to keep life as normal as possible. I don't think they'll remember the bad side of it.

Walking also helped.

Cancer showed us how to appreciate every moment.

We knew that exercising during chemo stops side-effects such as muscle wastage, so we'd walk around the block after a chemo session. Then we signed up for Relay For Life, an overnight walk for the Cancer Council, and our walks got longer.

The walk last September was at the end of both our courses of chemo, and we managed 40km.

We're doing Relay For Life again next Saturday and have even become ambassadors. It means the world to us to raise money for support services such as therapies and accommodation.

It's almost a year since Matt completed his treatment, and a few months since I finished mine - and we're both cancer-free. In many ways, life is back to normal.

I have a bit of pain from surgeries and the chemo but nothing that affects me day to day. Matt has numbness in his hands and feet, which is common after chemo, but he's able to work and exercise, and is a healthy weight, and I'm running again, which feels great.

Our attitude to life, however, has shifted. I've taken a break from my bank job and am studying to become a teacher's aide - something I've long thought about. We say yes a lot more now.

Things always felt too expensive or difficult with the kids, but we don't think like that anymore.

Cancer brought Matt and I closer together, it surrounded us with love from friends and strangers, and it showed us how to appreciate every moment."

* Relay For Life events are held around Australia throughout the year. For more details, visit