To her family, Boronia Howell was “the angel on earth that we knew”. They were shattered when she was diagnosed with lymphatic leukemia at the age of 64. She fought the disease courageously for over a decade before losing her battle in 2003.
Just over a year later, Ms Howell’s husband Ted succumbed to prostate cancer that had spread to his brain. Then her brother, Kevin Thomas, was struck down by same type of leukemia she had suffered. The family thought it was odd. Even to the doctors, it seemed too unlikely to be a coincidence.
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“They went through a lot of tests to try and find a genetic connection but they found nothing,” Ms Howell’s daughter, Robyn Miles, said. “They were hoping there might of been a connection because it would have given them some insight into the illness.”
Ms Miles herself had already been through the trauma of a cancer diagnosis at the age of 26. She lost a baby when she was five months pregnant, and during surgery to remove it from her womb doctors found she had “full blown cervical cancer”.
Her brother, Ted, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005.
The only thing all five of them had in common was the time they’d spent at the family farm on Cabbage Tree Road in Williamtown.
“It was kind of the hub for the family,” Ms Miles said. “We all congregated there.”
The Howells would tend to a thriving vegetable garden, as well as chooks and cattle.
A large drain ran through the property, a source of endless entertainment for Ms Miles as a child and in the years to come, for her own children.
“We actually had a rope where you could swing across the creek to the cubby house. But the kids never made it. They would always end up in the drink and that was half the fun of it,” she said.
For Ms Miles, her greatest fear is now for her own children. Her daughter has already had a slew of health problems, including miscarriages, thyroid problems and Graves disease.
“That farm is my childhood and that’s where my children spent 90 per cent of their childhood,” she said.
“It’s turned something that was our fondest memory into our scariest one.”