Childhood cancer results in career inspiration


Starr Mackie

Karli Cannon at work … her own cancer in childhood inspired her career choice.

“I had a premonition … I remember the exact time I woke up … 1.24am,” Suzie Cannon says, her voice breaking as she tries to recall the nights before her daughter fell ill.

Body rigid with fear. Sweat soaking the ins and outs of her pyjamas. A mother’s instincts lurching from her gut. Knowing something in the world is horribly wrong. Their lives are about to change. She tosses and turns until morning. A bad feeling niggling at her, unshakeable. She didn’t know at the time, but her daughter was about to have the fight of her life.

In 2021, more than 150,000 Australians were diagnosed with some form of cancer, and a third died as a result. That’s 135 lives lost a day and hundreds more destroyed. Cancer has no target, no age preference, no culture or gender bias and certainly no easy fix.

However, there are many inspirational journeys to recovery, believed to be gifted by fate, God, nature and magic.

“I had acute lymphoblastic leukemia when I was 10 years old that entailed high intensity chemo … for a period of two and a half years,” Karli Cannon says with not a glimmer of fear or regret in her eyes.

“I was about a week away from remission when I relapsed. I was 12 by then and I had a bone marrow transplant to cure me,” she says.

Despite her confidence and  smile, Karli, 20, had a tough journey to adulthood. She has no real memories from her childhood. Being a kid with cancer, she was unsure what her future would hold or how much of a future she had. She would start every Tuesday with a lumbar puncture (spinal tap), measuring the cancerous cells in her fragile little body. After that nurses would infuse her with bags of yellow chemicals, trying to kill the cancer killing her.

“I had total body intracranial radiation to kill every cell that was mine pretty much,” she says. “It was a bit of a balancing act of knocking everything away and leaving you enough to survive.”

Karli was ultimately gifted stem cells from a baby’s umbilical cord, and those cells saved her life.

In her years before cancer, Karli’s childhood dream was to be a dancer. To this day she does all kinds of dancing in her everyday life and makes her moves anywhere she hears a song. It brings smiles to people’s faces wherever she is, from shopping centres to the hospital and back.

Somewhat surprisingly, Karli loves hospitals. Something about them feels reassuring and comforting to her, kind of like a home. Suzie was understandably concerned when she found out her daughter wanted to make her living working with cancer patients back in 2018.

“I think we [Karli’s parents] have really encouraged her to not be defined by her childhood experience,” Suzie says. “The thought of her planning this career around, ‘this is all I know’… that really bothered me.”

But now, 10 years on from Karli’s transplant, she is a registered nurse, working in the stroke recovery and rehabilitation unit at a Brisbane hospital.

“It sounds so cliché, but I do want to do oncology nursing, ideally in the paediatric setting. I think that is a goal in the distant future, something you need to work up to,” Karli says.

However, there are risks involved in pursuing a career which is connected to personal trauma. Clinical psychologist Dr Helen Stallman says that putting yourself into someone else’s shoes means you first must step out of your own.

“To be able to do [healthcare] well in a profession and stay in that space you need to be able to process that [cancer experience] separately,” Dr Stallman says. “That’s not to say people can’t do it: lots of professionals have been through health difficulties.”

For Karli, people are more than an experience or an outcome, more than their trauma or their grief, more than a product of their past.