No-one has savoured a senior high school prize-giving assembly quite as deeply as Chris.
Around the stuffy hall, distracted parents fidgeted as proceedings dragged on - but not Chris. She was soaking up every minute, smiling quietly, revelling in the fact that she had reached a goal she’d set for herself nine years earlier.
That’s when she’d been told her breast cancer had spread, and was incurable.
On that day in 2007, her world had turned inside out. Shock and fear consumed her. “Very quickly, very early, you get told that you’re going to die,” she says.
Soon, her thoughts turned to her husband, Elisha, daughter, Jaz, aged 11, and son, Yoni, aged nine. She thought, “If I can just live long enough to get Yoni through school…”
Now here she was, watching with profound satisfaction as her son, his friends and classmates celebrated their last-ever assembly. “Sitting there, I was thinking – I’m so lucky.”
Had she not been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer; had she not evaluated and prioritised the most important things in life, she probably wouldn’t have been there.
“I’m a teacher. Until my diagnosis, I spent all my time with other people’s children. When I was diagnosed, I suddenly knew that had to change.”
After her advanced breast cancer diagnosis, Chris dropped down to part-time work and set her sights on small goals. She took time to enjoy the little things in life and to live fully in the moment. Yoni took up running, and she embraced the opportunity to cook for him. With every meal she provided, she felt a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
At the same time, she was determined to seek out information about treatment that might extend her life. She found a GP who seemed particularly informed and on her wavelength. Together, they’ve worked hard to determine what’s best for Chris. Meanwhile, she has remained under the care of her oncologist.
She has been on various drugs, some funded by Pharmac, others she has paid for herself – and she has also had Vitamin C infusions and acupuncture. The financial cost to her family has been huge.
Chris stresses that she would never tell anyone else what to do; this is simply what she chose. “You have to figure it out for yourself based on how fit you are, how committed, how much you are prepared to give up – how much you are desperate to live.
“You just have to pick what you can do – what you can afford, and what you can sustain.”
For her, the side-effects of treatment have been manageable and she has continued working part-time. “I’ve been able to live, work, think, and be part of the community in a full way.”
However, there’s nothing easy about this. “Having cancer is a bit like having a job on top of your other job,” she says. “There are no holidays, no days off."
“I’ve had 13 years to bring up my kids, and I’ve been an active mother. They didn’t see me as someone that was dying; they saw me as Mum.”
She has also savoured time spent with her step-children, Bonnie and Omri. Meanwhile, her relationship with Elisha has deepened. “Many others’ relationships have fallen apart. I’m grateful that we have managed to become stronger and love each other more.”
What about worry?
“I think it can kill you. I really believe that,” says Chris. “I had to learn how to minimise the terror and panic. I had a lot of time to learn this.
“Now, I can be confronted by news and still get on with my life, and appreciate that afternoon or that evening. I’m more able to live in the moment. Reading and meditation helps.
“Terminal cancer is great for prioritising what and who is important in your life – and it’s not necessarily who you think. Some friends who I thought would stick with me found it too frightening, too long and tiring. Others came in when I least expected it.”
What’s it like having cancer in your life every day?
“It’s like being on a road, travelling fast, and being told ‘You’re going to have an accident soon,’ but not knowing when.”
How did you cope with the prospect of your children being left without a mother?
“I had to learn to let them go. I wanted them to be independent. Even though I wanted to spoil them, I had to be harder on them to help them grow up a bit faster. They are great kids. I don’t worry about them in the world. They are going to be good people and good citizens. They are going to be all right.
“Recently I was having a bad day with chemo, and I was talking to my son. I said: 'I haven’t died before. We won’t always know what to do. But as long as we care for each other we’ll find a way through, and it will be okay.'"
When Chris was told her cancer had spread, she searched desperately for news of someone – anyone – who had outlived a gloomy prognosis. She found no-one. But now, she is that person, and she hopes her story will give hope to others.
“Life expectancy is a bell curve. Lots of people are in the middle, but that’s just the average. There are some people at the end of the bell curve and I’ve strived for that.”