In her final week, Sandra Milton was still dancing.
After two decades with a terminal diagnosis, she was still finding joy in life – in her children and her work helping others.
Having lost her husband and raised three children alone, Sandra did not just “survive” – she lived, despite her pain.
Sandra Milton, 63, was a mother, a grandmother, a traveller.
She was a woman whose spirit could not be crushed – a hero in every sense of the word and fittingly named Border Relay for Life Hero for 2017.
In 1997, only months after her husband died following a long battle with a heart condition, Sandra was diagnosed with kidney cancer, then myeloma (a cancer of the plasma cells) in her bone marrow.
Daughter Bec Gouveia and son David Milton will share her story at this weekend’s relay, cutting the ribbon and leading survivors and carers around the first lap.
“She was very determined, very strong,” David said.
“She was five foot two – five foot nothing by the end – a tiny little thing and she was really inspirational.”
Bec said her mother fought her illness for 20 years.
“She was one of the longest fighting myeloma patients, she had two bone marrow transplants and lots and lots of hurdles along the way.
“She suffered meningitis and was on life support for a week, and she had the shingles several times.
“She went through a lot, but she always had a smile on her face.”
The siblings hope cancer survivors and those still battling will be inspired by their mother’s strength and optimism.
“Even though it’s a terminal illness there’s hope of a normal life,” David said.
“In her last eight years she went overseas three to four times and took other big trips too, she really lived.
“We want people with a long-term terminal illness to know it doesn’t necessarily take over your life, if one person can take that hope away, she’s done something.”
Bec was just 14 when her mother was diagnosed, David was 12, and their brother Peter 13.
To Sandra Milton, her family was everything.
Youngest David was her baby – and always would be, despite becoming a father himself.
She spoke to Bec every day on the phone and loved her grandchildren more than anything.
“She did it all while still grieving her husband,” Bec said
“She did an amazing job to raise us three, we never went without.
“We traveled, we did everything and she worked so hard to make sure we had a normal life.
“She was amazing and I’m not just saying that because she was my mum – she was amazing.”
Sandra worked at Nolan House as a mental health nurse for 40 years and was passionate about helping others through their own cancer journey.
“Right through her illness she was working 12-hour shifts, going through chemo and the rest of it but still working,” Bec said.
“Since mum has passed away we’ve had a lot of patients come to us and say if it wasn’t for your mum we wouldn’t be here.”
Despite growing up filled with their mother’s joy for life, the pair don’t pretend the diagnosis didn’t affect them.
“It was very hard,” Bec said.
“At the time it happened I was about 14, you’re in your own world at that time you really don’t comprehend it fully.
“We were still grieving dad and it wasn’t until a couple years later the severity of it hit.
“We could be under 16 and having lost both our parents.”
David said there were many times when their mother had to be rushed to hospital, and the children were left with their grandparents to continue life and school as ‘normal’.
“It means you appreciate the small things more, like family dinners … you put in 100 per cent to get there,” he said.
Bec said there were many times when they thought they were going to lose their mum.
“You live on the edge all the time, thinking is this going to be the last Christmas with mum? Is this going to be her last birthday?,” she said.
“You try make every event special because what if it is the last.”
But it was the strength of their parents, especially the selfless dedication of their mother, that helped the children thrive and kept them laughing.
“We had the most amazing parents, if we’re half the parents they were we’re pretty awesome,” she said.
Sandra drew her strength from her Catholic faith, her family and the many people who helped her along her journey.
“She lived for us children and grandchildren,” Bec said.
“She’d set herself a milestone … She’d always say I want to see my three children turn 18, then 21, then get married. There was always a goal.
“When she died her last goal was to take her granddaughter, she was the only granddaughter at the time, to Paris so we’d just come back from a month-long holiday overseas, and she died three days later.”
This weekend’s Border Relay for Life comes only days after the first anniversary of Sandra’s death.
Bec and David want to honour their parents and their mother’s legacy by continuing her mission to help others.
“Once she actually got approached by a myeloma magazine because she was one of the longest surviving patients,” Bec said.
“She was over the moon, she always wanted to be famous so I think, ‘now ‘you’re getting your 15 minutes mum’.
“I just want people to hear her story.