The Gakowski family.
The Gakowski family. Dee Van Der Merwe

The long goodbye to dad in heartbreaking cancer battle

EVERY day this month, three little boys will blow out candles on a cake and wish their daddy a happy birthday… knowing that their hero will never see them grow up.

While the thought is enough to make anyone collapse into tears, the Gakowski family are celebrating with smiles on their faces and nothing but love in their hearts.

Suzanne and her three boys - Krystopher (nine) and twins Matthew and Lukas (eight) - are choosing to celebrate every single day they have left with their much-loved husband and dad Sheldon, who is battling a rare tumour that will inevitably take his life any day.

Sheldon with Krystopher (nine) and twins Matthew and Lukas (eight).
Sheldon with Krystopher (nine) and twins Matthew and Lukas (eight). Dee Van Der Merwe

"We were told back in March Sheldon only had 10 weeks to three months to live. We're lucky to see that stretched now to (nearly five) months," Suzanne said.

The Bucasia couple had moved to Newcastle to start a new chapter of their lives when the cancer was discovered in early 2013.

"Sheldon was in management in the mining industry and working really long hours, we'd just moved into our new home and he was really tired and got chest pains one night," Suzanne recalled.

"We thought he was having a heart attack. We took him to hospital and he was anaemic and had low iron levels, and they thought he had ulcers in the stomach.

"We thankfully had a really great doctor who said 'this doesn't seem right' and ordered a full CT scan where they found tumours in his liver. Hundreds of tumours in his liver."

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About four days after the Gakowskis found out the results, Sheldon was in surgery where a primary tumour was removed from his bowel.

It took two weeks before the family knew what kind of cancer they were dealing with.

"I'd have to say that was the scariest time in our lives; where we didn't know how quick this could be," Suzanne said.

"We were just heartbroken.

"Once we got the diagnosis of the GIST (which stands for gastrointestinal stromal tumour, found in the digestive system) it also came with a bit of hope.

"Ten years ago they had no treatment for this cancer; you just had three months to live as traditional chemotherapy doesn't work on this cancer.

"But they since developed a new genetic medication chemotherapy that can work for 10 years, or in our case, it works for 10 months."

Mackay couple Sheldon and Suzanne Gakowski.
Mackay couple Sheldon and Suzanne Gakowski. Dee Van Der Merwe

She said GIST was "a clever cancer" and could mutate and grow again around the chemotherapy.

"It's a very rare cancer, with I think only 26 or 28 people in Australia having it," Suzanne said.

"Most of the time if it gets to the liver, it's just a matter of time (before you die). Once we found that out we were hoping against hope against hope it wouldn't reach the liver."

Sheldon went through three rounds of chemotherapy in a Sydney clinic. "We were really lucky to have Professor Phillip Beale, a specialist in the Sydney Cancer Centre and Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, through the entire journey," Suzanne said.

"Last year when the first targeted chemotherapy stopped working, in August last year we learnt it failed dramatically.

"He was rushed to Sydney where he underwent a big surgery to remove a large tumour. It took nine hours after we found the one surgeon in Sydney (Dr David Joseph) who would do it because of how dangerous the surgery was."

Sheldon underwent two more chemo treatments, but in March this year the tumours had again mutated. He was in the process of liver shutdown.

"Unfortunately, we've now exhausted all the options," Suzanne said.

"Sheldon is now in palliative therapy, with a regime just designed now to give him time at home."

Since they were told the devastating news in March and stopped treatment, the family have made the most of their time together - heading to the beach at every opportunity ("our favourite place"), playing sport and going on little holidays.

While a game of basketball or day out to the beach was easy at first, Suzanne says the cancer has been "showing itself" more and more - which is a hard thing for their young sons to see. "They're very brave little boys," Suzanne said.

"They've been through a lot of change over the past two years after moving to Newcastle, then moving back here after their dad was diagnosed.

"They're very compassionate and really strong little boys but they're just heartbroken.

"They know Dad has fought really hard and has hung around for as long as he can, we've had some beautiful family time and had special holidays.

"We've really done the best we can to give them as many memories with their dad as possible in the last five months."

But now, she says, the boys know their "precious time" with their dad is coming to an end.

"Sheldon is getting very tired. He's been able to live a relatively normal sort of life throughout the cancer journey so for him to now become progressively tired it's a bit daunting for our sons to be seeing that," Suzanne said.

"So I thought 'right, I've really gotta make August a fun celebration'."

And celebrating Sheldon's life is something the brave mum isn't shy about doing - with an appeal on her blog going viral, even catching the attention of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

"On the 23rd of August Sheldon will turn 43," Suzanne wrote on her blog 'And then suddenly', which documents the family's cancer journey of the past two years (see more of her post on the blog).

"The harsh reality of this journey is this: It will be his last birthday that we can celebrate with him.

"We want to fill this place with birthday awesomeness … (our boys) need to read messages of birthday joy and kindness. We need to celebrate this in the face of the un-celebrate-able."

Suzanne urged people to send Sheldon a birthday card to "celebrate life and the days and minutes and hours he has lived".

Already, the family have received more than 200 birthday cards, including 90 handmade cards from Mackay Northern Beaches State High School students and one particular card that had her sons suitably impressed.

"We received a card from the prime minister, and the boys say that's going to be the best Show and Tell Day when they take that to school," Suzanne said.

"They've become such a conversation, and it's been great to see Sheldon talking to the boys about where all the cards have come from.

"We've had some from Perth, from Tasmania… Sheldon opens every one and reads them."

Talking about her husband, Suzanne says he's one of those people who "would do anything for anyone".

"He's very generous and gracious with people," she said. "He cares more for other people than he does himself. Through all of this I haven't once heard him complain and say 'why me?'

"He's always thinking about other people and me and the boys." Asked how she came up with the idea of the public birthday card drive, Suzanne said she was inspired by those who knew the family so well.

"People kept saying 'I want to do something, but don't know what'. And I thought 'tell Sheldon happy birthday'," she said.

"All our friends we haven't caught up with for years have written beautiful cards with memories and stories. Sheldon worked for 20 years at Hastings Deering in Mackay first as an apprentice then worked his way up to manager, so it's been beautiful to get cards from old workmates talking about when Sheldon had long hair and unironed shirts - it makes the boys laugh."

"So often people wait until a person has passed away to share lovely memories but I wanted people to share those stories now. Why wait?" she said.

Suzanne hopes Sheldon will be healthy enough to enjoy a big birthday bash on his actual birthday on Sunday, August 23.

"At the moment we are having a cake every day, because every day in August is a birthday celebration. For Sheldon, it's all about people being kind and passing on that kindness and celebrating life every day."

And as for what this rollercoaster journey has taught this strong and eloquent mum and wife, it's all about making the most of every day and being with the ones you love.

"Tough days. Great days. Teary days. Angry days. These are the days we walk. But hey - I'll take them any way they come, because I get to have these days with him right here."

The address to send Sheldon a birthday card is:

Sheldon Gakowski

PO Box 130, Rural View 4740


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