Doug Cunningham was living in Cape Town, South Africa, when his five-year-old son Murray started waking up with headaches in March of 2015.
"Murray was a great kid, really funny, really sporty, just a great kick-about young boy," Doug shares over the phone.
Each morning, the youngest of his three children would complain of a pain in his head and even vomiting, but as the day went on, he seemed to be fine.
After a week, Doug and his wife decided something wasn't right. They took Murray for testing that would ultimately lead to a diagnosis that changed their family forever.
Murray poses with his parents on a familiy trip to Kenya.
"Through a long series of tests and his condition getting a lot worse, he was diagnosed with ependymoma, a tumour in his skull just on the nervous system," Doug says.
It's a rare form of brain cancer with no cure, and doctors told Doug his son needed immediate surgery to remove the tumour.
It was devastating news, and Doug and his wife received counselling, where they were told to take each day as it came as they entered the world of childhood cancer.
"There's no easy path and you do feel so helpless," Doug says, adding that parents have to focus on the little hurdles they and their children overcome.
"You try to celebrate those moments where you've gotten through something."
One of the first challenges was making sure Murray survived long enough for his first surgery.
Fortunately, he was able to undergo surgery just a few days after his diagnosis and 99.5 per cent of the tumour was removed from inside his skull.
Murray was described as a happy and sporty kid.
Both expats in South Africa, Doug and his wife waited until Murray was well enough to travel and then he and his mum flew home to Australia.
"It was just to make sure we could zap the rest of it," Doug recalls, adding that he remained in Cape Town with their two daughters before also returning to Australia in June 2015.
Over eight weeks Murray underwent intensive radiotherapy, finishing in August that year.
Murray grinning as he ended his first round of treatment.
When two follow-up scans came back clear, it seemed the five-year-old's childhood cancer journey was over.
It wasn't until March 2016 that Doug's world fell apart again. A new scan showed that not only was Murray's cancer back, it was worse than before.
"It had come back and – as you often hear with these things – it was quite aggressive growth, all through the brain and down his spine," Doug says.
Murray playing with Doug.
"It was at that point we were told he had roughly three months to live. [We said] let's make everything about Murray for however long we have."
Despite the devastating news, Doug and his family were determined to make Murray's last weeks and days full of happy memories and incredible experiences.
They travelled to Kenya together to see an elephant Murray had been sponsoring for years, and used their connections at home in Australia to set up once-in-a-lifetime experiences for their son.
Murray with his parents at a waterhole in Kenya on one of their final family trips.
On June 5, 2016, Murray passed away, just 10 weeks after the results showed his cancer was back.
Like thousands of families across Australia, Murray's parents and siblings were devastated by his death from a childhood brain cancer without a cure.
"The whole process is without a doubt the toughest thing that any family goes through… you hope you don't have to go through it ever again," Doug says.
"It's an emotional ride with a lot of lows and as a parent you feel even more helpless in the fact that you can't fix it. As parents you think that it's your job to fix [your kids] and help them up when they've fallen… that's the toughest thing."
Murray with his sisters Phoebe and Stella playing on the beach.
It was especially hard for his two daughters, who were nine and seven when their brother got sick and saw everything he went through.
Doug and his wife were open with the kids, adding, "You don't want to keep secrets or lose that trust in the family."
After Murray's death, they took a year to deal with his passing. In September 2017, Doug saw an ad about this Kids' Cancer Project and decided to use his experience as motivation to make a difference.
Murray playing at the beach.
He reached out and began a journey that brought him to the role he's in today, as the Project's appointed new Chair.
Now, two years later, he's helping lead the push this Childhood Cancer Awareness month, working hard to remind Australians that you can't "press pause" on childhood cancer.
It's estimated around 100 children aged 14 and under are diagnosed with brain cancer every year in Australia, and an estimated 36 will die from the disease in 2020 alone.
Murray smiles for the camera in one of the last photos before he passed.
But with between the coronavirus pandemic and financial strain being felt across the nation, childhood cancer isn't at the forefront of most Aussies' minds — except those fighting it every day.
"These people battling childhood cancers are still going, they haven't pressed the pause button," Doug warns.
Those children still need support and funding into research that could save their lives, and Doug is adamant people can't lose focus on how vital the battle against childhood cancer is.
"It's something that we can't stop… so we definitely can't stop sending the message that we need support. We need to be making sure that we're working towards the science, solutions and survival," he says.
Though the road to a cure is a long-term journey and not a quick fix, he insists funding for medical research and studies is more important than ever.
"Pressing the pause button is just not an option. We can't do that for a year and then restart, we have too many studies currently being funded that we need to make sure they continue."
Saturday 26 September 2020 marked the second Australian National Childhood Brain Cancer Awareness Day, with this year's focus on ependymoma, the rare strain that took Murray's life four years ago.
For Doug, it's a reminder of how much still needs to be done to cure the disease that took his little boy.
This story was written by Maddison Leach and originally published on 9Honey.