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Heidi Wilk met her husband Matthew Morton in 2002. They relocated to Toronto from Montreal, started their health-care careers, married, bought a house and had a daughter.
Series Overview »
"We had the perfect life," reflects Wilk, a registered dietitian at Toronto Rehab.
Their world shifted in June 2008 when Morton collapsed from a seizure while picking up their daughter, Brooke, from daycare. He was rushed to hospital and swiftly diagnosed with a large malignant tumour in the right frontal lobe of his brain.
Morton was 32 with stage 4 brain cancer.
"It all happened so quickly: surgery, radiation and a terminal diagnosis with a 13 per cent survival rate in three years," says Wilk.
"My initial shock was I'm going to be alone; I'm going to be a single mom."
Morton was given dismal life expectancy statistics, but he chose to finish his medical fellowship, took an obstetrics-gynaecology position at Mount Sinai and he and Wilk went on to have two more children.
"Matthew and I decided we deserve happiness," says Wilk. "Why should we punish ourselves? We decided to choose living."
The business of end-of-life preparations
Morton's cancer had stabilized with an oral chemotherapy until 2012 when he had a recurrence and needed another surgery.
That's when Wilk and Morton began the administrative part of end-of-life planning. They met with their lawyer to draw up wills with a focus on who they would leave the kids to if they both died; and they met with their banker and accountant to ensure financially everything was in order and all accounts and bills were in both their names.
"Before every surgery, Matthew and I discuss his wishes for his funeral," says Wilk.
How to create a happy home life amidst terminal illness
Six years since Morton's initial diagnosis, Wilk underlines he has had cancer for most of their children's – Brooke, 7, Zachary, 4, and Joshua, 2, — lives. This is their normal.
She consulted with her paediatrician on how to talk to the kids, in particular Brooke.
"The key is you don't want to create anxiety for children," says Wilk. "I've explained that Daddy has a sickness in his head. It becomes important to go into more detail when the parent shows physical signs of the illness, for example losing hair from chemotherapy. This hasn't been the case with Matthew so far."
They sought out help for their children from
Chai Lifeline – a supportive program for sick children or children with a sick sibling or parent.
As a family, doing simple things together is the priority.
"We spend more time as a family of five than most families do and more than we likely would have if Matthew hadn't been diagnosed with cancer," says Wilk. "The small things are important: watching movies, laughing, going to the park."
The bigger life events like holiday celebrations and birthday parties are of special importance to Morton.
"I've let Matthew know that I feel intense pressure to make every moment and event memorable because we don't know if it's his last," says Wilk. "He understands and we've toned down these celebrations and kept them simple."
The time Morton has left with his family is unknown.
"What we hope the kids will take away is an appreciation for every day; that they know happiness; and understand you don't need a lot in life to be happy," says Wilk.
Leaning on close friends
Wilk learned to get over her pride and began accepting help from others: prepared meals, rides for the kids, and childcare.
Her close friends have played a leading role in the past six years of navigating the new normal.
"I don't think I could have survived without my close friends," says Wilk. "I can voice fears with them that I can't with Matthew. With one friend, we met so I could plan worst-case scenarios. This helped ease my anxiety."
Both Wilk and Morton have had supportive managers and workplaces through the six years of appointments, tests, surgeries and treatments.
"You have to have the support of work to survive," says Wilk. "My team understands why I may be anxious on a particular day and understands if I need to leave suddenly because of a development in Matthew's illness."
They've also been able to lean on their work colleagues for emotional support or as a sounding board.
Wilk doesn't know how long Morton has, but they continue to live every day. She knows there are additional resources they may need to call on in the future for her and the family. She's filed those away for the right time.
"Matthew's cancer diagnosis has made our marriage stronger," says Wilk. "It's one of life's major stresses and a testament to us as a couple that we're where we are and we're happy. If it was me who was sick, I know Matthew would do the same."
To learn more about Heidi and Matthew's journey, watch their video