We had no choice but to handle a cancer diagnosis together.
The “Birds of Paradise”, AKA the Beirne family, are an International Women’s Day Fun Run team spearheaded by mum, Maree, and daughter, Arabella-dedicated to combating Maree’s breast cancer diagnosis with equal measures of positivity and affirmative action.
Last year they raised $8,000 in support of patients just like her. They’ll again be proudly joining the Sea of Pink on March 12 -whether in Brisbane’s CBD or Papua New Guinea.
Birds of Paradise, native to Papua New Guinea and referenced in its languages as “Birds of God”, are symbolic of freedom and joy. It’s a powerful message, and one Maree and her family have channelled from within to confront her cancer diagnosis.
The Beirne family are expats who live in Papua New Guinea, where Maree and her husband, Michael, run a logistics business and raise their five children. One of their sons, 17-year-old Finn, has managed a serious kidney disease his whole life, and had a severe relapse while away at boarding school in mid-2021.
This introduced Maree and her 10-year-old daughter, Coco, desperate to see her big sister, Arabella, to make an emergency trip to Australia via mandatory quarantine.
Toss a sudden and unexpected breast cancer diagnosis into the mix–having just lost a close friend to the disease–and you’re starting to understand the obstacles that confronted this incredible family after Maree underwent an overdue routine mammogram while back on Australian soil.
For even without these extenuating circumstances, many people often underestimate the mental health toll a cancer diagnosis has.
Thanks to incredible supporters, like our Fun Run participants, Mater Chicks in Pink is able to boost Mater’s ability to treat the whole person and offer personalised care to each breast cancer patient. This proved to be a game changer for Maree.
“I’m a really private person and I internalise a lot,” Maree shares. “I catastrophised a lot. I didn’t want mental health help at initially…
"For the last 20 years I've been too private in handling our family health issues, from my son’s kidney disease, to my husbands type 1 diabetes, that even if I didn't have breast cancer, it was time that I went and saw someone. Because I always had that feeling of an elephant on my chest and could never seem to breathe deeply at ease.
"I had an overwhelming disorder where I was just completely burnt out and my mind physically took the diagnosis as a physical attack. I've had a sick child for 17 years with his kidneys and I probably should have gone and talked to someone before. It's a very powerless position. I really needed it.
"After I spent time with the psychiatrist, thanks to the team at Mater, I was a different person. I turned my life around, and I can’t speak highly enough of the mental health help that I received from Mater.
"Having that mental health support allowed me to work through what I had to work through and helped me heal both mentally AND physically.”
Arabella, a nursing student in Brisbane, postponed her studies when it became apparent Maree and Coco’s quick visit was going to materialise into a longer-term stay after her mum’s shock cancer diagnosis.
“Mum said to me, ‘Now it's time to fight’, and I remember that very well–I knew that we were going to get through this together,” Arabella recalls.
With half of their family still in PNG, and strict COVID restrictions in place, there was no chance the family could be together. Michael and their two elder sons, Don and Hunter, were back in lockdown in Papua New Guinea and unable to travel to Australia.
Arabella was thrust into a primary carer role for both her mum and sister, with 10-year-old Coco having to hastily adjust to a new school in a new country–a world away from her local primary school back home in Lae.
“We had no choice but to handle a cancer diagnosis together,” Maree said. “We did family FaceTime every night, even with the dog!
"I’d just seen my aunty go through breast cancer treatment. It was really scary, knowing that this was now my family's reality, with Mum. And I knew that Dad couldn't come down. And I remember just thinking ‘is this the beginning of the end?’ That was my first thought.”
Throughout it all, Maree’s maternal instincts remained sharply in place.
“The PET scan said it was only in my breast, but when Dr Chris Pyke performed my lumpectomy, he just saw something that he thought looked abnormal and through the grace of God, he took out nine lymph nodes, and I had microscopic cancer cells in one of the removed nodes,” Maree shares.
"I knew instantly I needed chemotherapy, which meant we knew that it affected Arabella enormously. Michael and I knew that from the beginning, that it would all fall on Arabella's shoulders, which is probably my... you can't say it's a regret, but for me it's probably the saddest thing, because Michael just couldn't enter (Australia). Arabella did all my chemotherapy, all my radiation. I had four months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation. It finished on December 22. Then, New Year's Eve, we all got COVID.
"Then I had the hysterectomy. and that was about six weeks recovery. Everything fell on Arabella, nursing me, running Coco, everything. Arabella was the backbone of it all, and too much fell on Arabella.
"I knew the mountain that was ahead of me that I had to climb. And I knew I couldn't have done an inch of it without Arabella. (The support) Arabella showed and implemented allowed me to move through and work through what I had to work through now to get to where I am and to heal both mentally and physically."
“Mater set me up in a physio exercise therapy group with other ladies. I've got lymphedema, I've got a lot of complications, but Mater set me up with that and I've made friendships for life.”
Maree and Arabella’s experience offers a perfect illustration of the true value of your Fun Run support.
With your support, Mater Chicks in Pink is committed to ensuring these women are never alone and can access practical and medical support services that extend to mental and emotional health and wellbeing, too.
“Mater was amazing. Unbelievable. I’ve made friendships for life at the Mater, and I’ve become a better person,” Maree shares. “I don’t like to give cancer credit, but I feel I’m a better person for it. I do loathe to give cancer credit on any level, but there are definite silver linings.
"It’s made me slow down. And the raw reality is that in the blink of an eye, our lives can be taken from us. I can't explain that enough.”
“Mum is just amazing–head of the Lioness Club, does volunteer work with orphanages, organising Christmas parties at the cancer unit. We were raised that way, Mum would take us in to make lunch for the cancer patients, give ice creams to the cancer children. It's horrific… third world hospitals. But Mum's always done that. Actually, every year she hosts a massive breast cancer awareness lunch in Papua New Guinea for 300 local women.”
Through all the tears, grief, frustrations and loss of empowerment, there’s been a heartwarming silver lining, or ray of sunshine, emerge during this journey.
As Maree says: “I think the universe has delivered to Arabella because of what she did.”
It’s a blossoming love story–one that, like those ancient Birds of Paradise plants, knows the meaning of freedom and joy.
“I actually met my partner Darcy sort of through this breast cancer journey,” Arabella explains. “Darcy’s mum had breast cancer two years ago. We were best friends, but when Mum got cancer, I remember telling him because his mum had been through breast cancer, and he was just amazing to us, as he had full understanding of our situation.
"He kept dropping off care packages, and one of the days he dropped this little picnic and we all went out and we did a picnic with just Mum when she got back from hospital. He was just amazing and then he took me on a date. I had to take Coco, because Mum was too sick, so Coco actually came on our first three dates, and now we live together, and are expecting a baby! I think cancer brought us a lot of positives as well as a lot of negatives. It brought me my life.”
Maree can never find the words of gratitude towards the Mater Chicks in Pink.
“They supported and navigated me through the worst time in my life, and I want others to know, our circumstances were so difficult, due to the world pandemic, for me to go in for the fight of my life, but with the incredible help of Mater Chicks in Pink and friends and family, it is possible to triumph in the face adversity, because we are living proof.”
Thank you for joining the Sea of Pink in support of inspirational women like Maree and Arabella.