Melbourne woman Rhonda Bjelan and her son Clayton decided to deal with the news that she had terminal cancer together. The result is ‘Incurable’, a raw and intimate podcast taking listeners from diagnosis to death.
A terminal cancer diagnosis is a shock, both for the patient and their family. It's the start of an emotional rollercoaster with an inevitable end.
But Melbourne woman Rhonda Bjelan, with the support of her son Clayton, was determined to make her experience one that could provide comfort to others going through something similar.
Rhonda had been told she needed to have a knee replacement and went for some routine tests. But the results were far from expected.
“I went along expecting to be told, ‘yes, you can have the operation’,” she says in the podcast Incurable, which was released this month.
“Instead, I went in and was told that I had cancer in my breast and in my lungs, and the following day I was also told it was in my liver. So that was a huge shock.
“They told me that it was incurable. All they would be able to do would be to control it. It was incurable.”
They told me that it was incurable. All they would be able to do would be to control it. It was incurable.
- Rhonda Bjelan
Rhonda's son Clayton, says the family was numbed by the diagnosis. But a few days later, he had an idea.
The 40-year-old, who works in radio, suggested to his mother that they make a podcast together to help other people who were going through something similar.
To his surprise, she quickly agreed.
They ended up recording their conversations in strange places, including hospital wards and the car – wherever they needed to.
Clayton says they talked a lot about regrets, and while death can be difficult to discuss, he hopes the podcast will encourage others to open up about it.
“We don't like doing that but we're all going to face that. And if we can actually talk about it then we can say, ‘what do I want to achieve? What do I want to do? Who do I want to spend time with?’ And then we can say, ‘well, let's start doing that.’”
At one point in the podcast, Rhonda says she’s not scared of death, but she fears what will happen as she approaches it.
“I suppose I have thought about the death part a couple of times,” she says.
“You hear all sorts of things about people that were given five years to live and then were gone in two. And people who were told they’d just got six months and they're still alive years later.
"There's an uncertainty there, but that's in life anyway. We don't know, any of us."
Clayton says recording the podcast was an emotional experience, though there was often a lot of laughter. They also disagreed at times.
Both mother and son had strong Christian faiths, but they disagreed over its impact on Rhonda's illness.
Rhonda felt she should be praying for healing, but Clayton felt things don't always work like that and that they should instead be praying for peace of mind as they went through the process.
He says they were happy to disagree with each other and it’s important to hear what families really go through.
“It doesn’t end all perfect and it doesn't end with us all agreeing either in that,” he says.
“But we both had this trust and Mum spoke often about the fact that this Christian faith allowed her to be very comfortable and at complete peace about where she was going after this life.”
He says if there was one thing his mother hated it was the use of the word 'journey' - a word that's often used for individuals and families going through this kind of experience.
“I haven't got another word for it, I wish I did. Because it's just something I'm going through,” Rhonda says on the podcast.
“Something I have to go through because I've got no choice. You know, it's forced on me. I don’t have a choice here. A journey, you have a choice. You can go on a journey, you can not go on a journey."
Katherine Lane is the head of cancer information and support services at the Cancer Council Victoria.
She says Rhonda's willingness to share her experience with other people is very valuable and a form of peer support.
“It can really help to take some of the guesswork out of what people may be going through and help them understand what is available to them, what questions they want to be asking, what support services may be available, and how to improve the experience they're going through as best they can,” she says.
Clayton says the advice Rhonda wanted others to hear was that people should spend more time together.
“Everyone goes, 'oh that's so obvious,'” he says, “but Mum kept saying that the reason she wanted to keep going on was just to be with my family. To spend that time together."
Clayton hopes the podcast will help people who’ve been given a cancer diagnosis know they’re not alone, with others around the world experiencing the same thing.
“We felt alone, and so one of our hopes is that as people listen to this, they might realise they're not alone, and there is something empowering about knowing that."
Rhonda died in September 2019, aged 57, less than three months after her diagnosis.
Afterwards, while grieving, Clayton faced months of editing the hundreds of hours of recordings they had made together.
He says as they were very close, it has been a difficult process, but sometimes it has felt like he’s still talking to her.
“That’s been really special, to have that conversation, and now it’s time to let everyone else in on the conversation.
“To be honest, there’s a bit of a loss that comes with that, but that’s the point of why we did it.”
He says he’s already getting messages that the podcast is helping others and finds himself wanting to pick up the phone and tell his mother.
Incurable is available on all major podcast platforms.
If you or someone you know needs support after a cancer diagnosis, you can contact the Cancer Council's free, confidential telephone information and support service on 13 11 20. If you are more comfortable speaking in a language other than English, you can contact the Interpreter Service on 13 14 50 and they can help you talk to the Cancer Council. More information can be found here.