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Just like your dad

03may03

DIANE Williamson's life has been a tragic whirlwind of inexplicable illness and death. The past 30 years have been a numbing procession of hospital visits and funerals as the 66-year-old has prematurely lost three of her six offspring while serious health problems have been experienced by two of her surviving children. One granddaughter died at the age of 11 months from a brain tumour, another had a malignant cancer removed at the age of 19 and a third has now been diagnosed with two brain tumours at 16.

Mrs Williamson is at a loss to explain why her family has been so devastated. She is convinced their misfortune is directly linked to her late husband's participation in the British nuclear tests 50 years ago.

Whatever secrets Mr Williamson had about the tests, he took them to his grave. Like thousands of other Australian servicemen sworn to secrecy, he never spoke about what he did, only telling his wife that he was at the Monte Bello Islands when the first nuclear device was exploded in Operation Hurricane, in October, 1952. "I can't think of anything else which could be causing what has happened to us," Mrs Williamson says. "What has happened just isn't normal, and the more things keep happening the more questions we have."

Robert "Bob" Williamson was 19 and a Royal Australian Air Force reservist when a young Diane Moseley agreed to meet him for a blind date in Perth in 1952. The couple married the following year, producing six children between 1954 and 1964.

Mr Williamson joined the RAAF as a military policeman, shifting his family to Adelaide in the early-1960s when he was posted to the Edinburgh Air Base. The family returned to Perth in the late-1960s when Mr Williamson, by then a sergeant, was discharged from the RAAF.

He continued to work – in mines, as a cinema projectionist, and as a truck and taxi driver – before becoming ill with cancer in the mid-1970s. Mrs Williamson says her husband never appeared to fully recover from an injury he sustained playing football on the Maralinga Oval in the early-1960s. Dispatched to the atomic test site on a routine patrol, he split his left index finger to the bone. The wound would not heal, with doctors determining more than a decade later it had become cancerous. They amputated down to the first knuckle but the cancer spread to Mr Williamson's arm and chest, prompting more operations and treatment. He died on April 14, 1978, aged 44. His official cause of death is listed as "disseminated squamous cell carcinoma of the left middle finger".

His death came five years after his fourth child, Graeme, died at the age of eight from a brain tumour.

The rest of the 1970s were a "blur" for Mrs Williamson, as she struggled with the loss of her husband and then another son, Alan. Life did not become any easier for Mrs Williamson and her children in the 1980s and 1990s – 11-month-old granddaughter Natalie died of a brain tumour, son Jeffrey, 36, died of cancer and daughter Susan, 28, had both breasts removed.

"When Natalie died, I was just numb," says Mrs Williamson. "At Jeffrey's funeral, I said `What a bloody waste'. I thought that was it. Then Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer and we started thinking there had to be something more to it." The final blow came last October when Mrs Williamson's grandson, Matthew, was diagnosed with two brain tumours at the age of 16.

Mrs Williamson says her friends regularly ask her how she has managed to cope. "I made up my mind a long time ago that I couldn't fall apart because I still had the rest of my family to look after," she says. "It's happened and we can't take it back, so we just have to get on with life. It's everyone who is still alive who keeps me going. But I worry now about what else could come. It's on my mind all the time."

The traumatic events of the past 30 years are also playing heavily on the mind of Mrs Williamson's only surviving son, Kenneth. The 46-year-old government worker says he is determined to find out why his family has suffered so much tragedy, and has begun searching for records of his father's service during the British nuclear tests.

"When we talk to people about what has happened, they are amazed and bewildered. Nothing like this has happened to anyone else we know so we want to know why it is happening to us," he says.

"I want to know what Dad did while he was with the RAAF, because I know he told Mum he went to Monte Bello. We've got five deaths and several instances of serious illnesses in three generations of our family, and it's all becoming a bit hard to comprehend."

Mr Williamson has not been spared. In 1986, his left hip turned black and died, requiring its replacement at the age of 30. His right hip was also dying but did not require replacement until five years later.

In February last year, Mr Williamson's son, Scott, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, requiring chemotherapy and checks for another five years.

"It's got to the point where I'm going to have genetic testing to try to find out what the hell is going on," he says.

The decision to undergo genetic testing was reinforced with the discovery of a tumour in the brain of Mr Williamson's 16-year-old nephew, Matthew. A second, different tumour was discovered several weeks later in what doctors say is a medical rarity. It is the fourth time Matthew's mother, Jacinta Williamson, has been forced to confront cancer since she met Jeffrey Williamson in 1972. Their baby daughter, Natalie, died in April, 1983, during an operation to remove a tumour one-third the size of her brain. "It was almost as though she knew she was going to die," recalls Mrs Williamson. "As she was going into the operating theatre, she sat up and waved goodbye with the biggest smile on her face." Mrs Williamson, 43, suffered three miscarriages before her fit-and-active husband developed liver cancer in October, 1991. He died seven weeks later, aged 36.

The speed of his decline shocked Mrs Williamson, who has been forced to confront cancer in her family two more times. Her eldest son, Robert, had a malignant melanoma removed from his right foot in 1999 when he was 19. Last October, Matthew was diagnosed with the two brain tumours which have required six months of operations and radiotherapy. Doctors have been unable to explain what is happening. One told Mrs Williamson when Jeffrey died that "some families are cancer families and some families are heart families and that we must be a cancer family", she says.

"The day Matthew was diagnosed with two different brain tumours, which is extremely rare, I knew there was more to this than just being a cancer family. I think there must be some sort of gene running haywire through the family. Something has happened to us," she says.

"We've spoken to our doctors about everything, and how it's not right, and we've been told we need to do genetic testing. Our kids need to be given the opportunity to know how much at risk they are and whether or not they are willing to have children and put them at risk as well, so that's our next plan."

Mrs Williamson says she can only describe her life as "surreal".

"One day, I am going to fall apart. I know that and I know I have to plan for it," she says. "But right now, I have to look after Matthew and his brothers and that's what I am going to do."


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Atomic tests payouts reach $5m
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How a dying rabbit was all it took to lift the lid on what it was really like at Maralinga
The key that unlocks the lies of Maralinga
Cloak of secrecy thrown on veterans
Hospital with no patient records
Aborigines died in test site bunker
Disabled son linked to atomic tests
Atomic bomb fallout covered the city
Nuclear truth revealed
How the RAAF used ocean as a nuclear dump
Crawling into a hotbed of radiation
Civilians exposed to atomic bomb test radiation
17,000 people exposed to atomic tests
Dark secrets
Files on atomic tests not inspected

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