As their beloved daughter went through her medical journey, Karl and Olivia Fretwell immersed themselves in her care. But the couple has discovered a new purpose, since.
For the six months following the death of their 15-year-old daughter Brooke, parents Karl and Olivia Fretwell entered a difficult period in their relationship. The last 13 years had been spent in a bubble of sorts, caring for young Brooke since her first brain cancer diagnosis. When the journey ended with tragedy, they realised the experience had taken its toll.
“Over all of those years, all we had worried about was Brooke,” Karl explained. “We never cared for ourselves or for our relationship. Then we grieved differently for six months, and until we recognised and accepted our different grieving processes, we couldn’t repair our relationship.”
After “fighting tooth and nail” to re-build their relationship, Karl and Olivia say their bond is now as strong as ever. They simply refused to give up on each other. That same mental and emotional resilience was a trait shared by their daughter Brooke during her life.
A tumour the size of a golf ball was discovered in Brooke’s brain when she was just two years old. Karl and Olivia were told by medical experts that their daughter had a life expectancy of two to five years. But after several major surgeries, the insertion of a cerebral shunt and months of chemotherapy, Brooke gradually improved.
In 2002, Brooke Fretwell was 2-years-old when she was diagnosed with cancer.
The tumour returned when Brooke was just about to enter kindergarten at five and a half years of age, but once again the brave youngster beat the odds with another round of brain surgery as well as radiotherapy.
Just before she started school in 2005, a second tumour was discovered which required surgery and radiation therapy.
Double didgits and a huge milestone for Booke!
Soon after her tenth birthday, Brooke made it past the all-important, five-year remission stage and, despite learning difficulties and loss of hearing caused by her treatments, earned the position of President of the Student Representative Council at her school. She also swam competitively, was active in church groups, enjoyed baking and loved to support her favourite NRL team, the mighty Penrith Panthers.
“Brooke never used her illness as an excuse,” Olivia said. “She just wanted to be a normal child.”
Karl and Brooke get into the Christmas spirit in 2014. Brooke a "pink" Panther's fan all the way.
Then, at 14, Brooke began suffering headaches and loss of balance. Tests showed she had a new type of tumour in her brain stem, one for which science had (and still has) no cure. She passed away four years ago, at 15 years old.
The problem with cancer funding
During the years spent looking after Brooke, Karl and Olivia became remarkably knowledgeable in the field of kids’ cancer. One thing that struck them as highly unusual was the fact that only four per cent of cancer research funding goes to help finding cures for childhood cancers.
“The children don’t smoke or drink, they don’t make lifestyle choices that make them more susceptible to cancers,” Karl says. “Cancer is the biggest killer of children by disease in Australia, with over 150 kids dying every year.”
“Imagine if a bus containing 30 children crashed every other month on a particular highway, killing all on board. Imagine the billions that would be spent on safety upgrades. And yet that many children die every year in hospitals, with very little funding to help find a cure.”
The couple are putting their money where their mouth is by organising regular fundraisers – such as an annual golf and high tea day, attended this year by 192 people – to support the work being done by The Kids’ Cancer Project. Karl and Olivia also publicise, however they can, the plight of childhood cancer research.
All the while, they mourn the loss of their beautiful girl.
United, we stand
Having come through a period of relationship turbulence into a place of love and safety, Karl and Olivia visit Brooke’s grave together every day. “It’s got the freshest flowers and the cleanest gravestone,” Karl says, with a quiet smile.
“We began our daily visits the day after she was buried. And if we’re ever away, we make sure someone else in the family visits daily.”
Olivia and Karl are not sure that they will ever recover from their loss, but they treasure the years they got to see their little girl growing up, and the fact that she managed to attend her older sister Rochelle’s wedding.
Going to the chapel. Brooke, Olivia and Karl on their way to Rochelle's wedding.
“Olivia and I made a pact with each other that we’d never break down in front of Brooke,” Karl says. “But in private times, particularly in the car on the way from the hospital, emotions would take over.”
“Since we lost Brooke, particularly in the first two years, I’ve often wondered how many tears the human body can produce. The emotion sometimes came on an hourly basis. How many tears can a human being have? How many tears are in my body? It seems a bottomless pool.”
Words: Chris Sheedy.
Donate to research and help find more effective treatments for kids with cancer.