Family tragedy steels resolve to help cancer patients

woman stares into distance
“I was aged 24 and my whole world crumbled”

This was the life-defining moment UQ School of Public Health Associate Professor Marina Reeves learnt her mother had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

At the time, Dr Reeves had just completed her PhD and commenced work at Cancer Council Queensland.

“Mum’s diagnosis came within two weeks of me working at the Cancer Council,” Dr Reeves recalls.

“For us as family, even though it wasn’t us being diagnosed, it completely flipped our lives. It was a very challenging time.

“As Mum’s disease progressed, I decided to have my children younger than first planned, both to lessen my own risk of breast cancer, and so my children Sam and Zoe would have the chance to know their grandmother and vice-versa.”

Tragically, it was during the maternity leave period following Dr Reeves’s second child that her mother Maria passed away.

The confusion, desperation and heartache that surrounded that time will be forever embedded in Dr Reeves’s subsequent work.

Her highly-personal research focus now lies in improving outcomes for women with metastatic breast cancer by studying the role of weight, body composition, diet, nutrition and physical activity in those with the condition.

“There is basically no evidence of what women who find themselves in that position should do as far as exercise and nutrition are concerned,” Dr Reeves says.

“That group is my Mum.

“Mum had a daughter who was a cancer researcher and nutritionist who couldn’t tell her accurately what to do, because there is no data to answer the questions.

“I thought to myself: ‘That’s not good enough’.”

Dr Marina Reeves with her family on graduation day.

Daughter stands between mother and father holding award

Dr Marina Reeves with her father and mother.

Dr Marina Reeves with her father and mother.

female PhD graduate stands between mother and father

Dr Marina Reeves with her family on graduation day.

Dr Marina Reeves with her family on graduation day.

The lack of proven research led to all manner of treatments being recommended for Dr Reeves’s mother by well-meaning friends

Meanwhile, a naturopath endorsed coffee enemas, which quite possibly accelerated Maria’s decline.

“Strong research is going to have profound psychological and physiological impacts,” her daughter says.

“Naturally, I want to contribute to improving the quality, and hopefully, the quantity of life that those with breast cancer experience.

“One aspect that isn’t often considered is the guilt endured by women with metastatic breast cancer.

“A lot of women live with guilt that they aren’t doing enough, or perhaps doing things to worsen their condition, but nobody can say if that is even justified.”

Although statistics paint increasingly positive signs of survival rates and life expectancy for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer compared to past generations, Dr Reeves knows it is not all about faceless numbers.

“About 3000 women still die each year in Australia from breast cancer,” she says.
“They are all somebody’s partner, or sister, or friend, or mother.

“It’s a condition that forces people into incredibly tough positions and decisions.

For a young woman it may mean delaying chemotherapy until after childbirth, or conversely, terminating a pregnancy.

“The work I do includes a lot of long hours, hard work, stress and a constant battle for funding, but I do it because I hope it will have some impact for a group of women who are really struggling against great adversity.”

pink breast cancer ribbon

This story is featured in the Winter 2019 edition of UQMedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.