How cancer brought Tony a new sunrise

Before August 2019, Tony Dowling was enjoying a successful career in training and software development, working with businesses turning over between $5 million and $500 million a year. Life on Sydney’s northern beaches was idyllic with Tony’s wife, Tracy, and sons Max and Noah, heavily involved in local and representative basketball. Supporting others both close to home and internationally was a strong part of Tony and Tracy’s lives, through their faith and involvement in their local church.

Most of us are aware that life can change in an instant. But it’s difficult to fathom the depth of that change on physical, emotional and spiritual fronts until we face it head-on.

“My sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer just before Christmas,” said Tony. ”I was sitting, praying, one morning and literally just felt that stirring: ‘you need to go and get a checkup’. Okay, I’ve got a family history of cancer. Mum died of bowel cancer and Dad died of lung cancer.

“So I went along for my routine checkup. The doctor did all the usual tests, including blood tests, and said ‘If you don’t hear anything from us in a week with the blood test, everything’s fine.’

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“After he checked me out, I mentioned there’d been some blood in my stool. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘you know you’re getting older; it’s probably a bad case of haemorrhoids.’ He slapped me on the back and said ‘Mate, you look pretty good to me. See you next year. And, by the way, make an appointment to get a colonoscopy done because you’re over 45 and in the high-risk category.’

“So I went along for that in January 2019 and woke up from that with the doctor saying ‘Come into my office.’”

Tony sat down in the doctor’s office. The doctor showed him a Polaroid snapshot of a tumour about the size of a ping-pong ball in Tony’s large intestine and said “Yeah … that looks pretty serious. The biggest polyp I’ve ever seen or it’s a cancer tumour. But you’re in luck – the Number 1 guy just happens to be here.”

The specialist didn’t bother with a biopsy; he put admission forms in front of Tony right there, “and three weeks later I was having 15 centimetres of large intestine removed.”

They thought they’d “got it all”.

“We’ll just do a couple of other tests to be sure.”

The tests came back with a second round of news.

“No, we didn’t get it all. It’s spread to your lungs.”

The phone call was brief, just seconds. Then more tests.

“And that’s when you know it all starts getting pretty serious,” said Tony, “when you’re told in the closing minutes of an appointment with the Oncologist that ‘you’re stage 4’. We didn’t even know what stage 4 meant.”

Tony and Tracy “did the old Google” to find out. The doctors decided to do surgery to remove the middle right lobe of Tony’s lung where a large tumour was, and also remove another spot on the upper right lobe.

“But before we do that we’re going to hit you with some pretty full-on chemotherapy as well, in case it’s spread anywhere else that we haven’t found yet.”

Turns out that was a lot of chemo. With Tony unconscious, one of the nurses remarked to Tracy that she was “really worried about it. I’ve never given anybody as much chemo as I’m doing here.” She had been working there for 20 years.

Being very sick is putting things politely. At one stage Tony, who is 190cm tall, weighed just 63kg.

“During that time I would literally drag myself out of bed whenever I could, and just get to the beach. Some days I could drive myself; other days Tracy would get me there.”

Battling “chemo brain”, Tony would often go to the same place at the beach. He began to bump into a guy who, when they got chatting, said he’d been taking photos of the sunrise every day for 20 years.

“I just kept bumping into him again and again. I thought what he was doing was amazing.

“Then one morning I was parked in the car at Collaroy Beach. I decided ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving this place. I’ve got too much to live for: Tracy and the boys. My mum died when I was young and I’m not exiting on my kids.’

“‘What do you want me to do?’ I asked God. Then I heard ‘help Neil.’”

“I’m thinking, ‘Who’s Neil?’”

The next day, Tony bumped into the same guy on the beach.

“I’m Neil,” he said.

Tony remembers being prompted over and over again, ‘Help Neil, help Neil.”

“As I got through my journey – my surgery, more chemo – that lovely day of my last chemo treatment came around. And then I started to feel better, and a bit better, and was able to actually function in the world. So I went and met with Neil.”

“The world keeps turning, but your little moment on that day matters.’” – Tony Dowling

That’s when Tony and Neil White had the idea of building a website called Sunrise Daily, a collection of Neil’s sunrise photos. Neil had found some early success selling customised sunrise images in maternity wards but had struggled to bring them online. Tony, on the other hand, is well-versed in how to use online tools to connect people with products they love.

“The power of an image is so strong because we are all visual. And the dawn? It says ‘You know what, everything just keeps moving on and you’re a part of it. The world keeps turning, but your little moment on that day matters.’ When you capture it and put your own words on your sunrise, you have that reminder to celebrate that moment every day.”

Tony’s collaboration with Neil has brought online a way for people to remember how unique they are: new babies just starting in the world, with their sunrise in their nursery; people who request the sunrise from the date they, too, received a serious health diagnosis; others who speak power and life into new businesses by sending a friend’s sunrise to them to mark the day they stepped out to follow their vision.

But aside from being positioned to help Neil with his Sunrise business, Tony knew it was an opportunity to bring God’s love into Neil’s life at the same time.

Tony knew it was an opportunity to bring God’s love into Neil’s life.

The way Tony puts it, cancer saved his life. It made him re-evaluate what is really important in life and the blessings that came out of his cancer journey (with his faith in full swing) far outweigh the negatives.

“For sure. It changed everything – just an appreciation of how we can get caught up in losing sight of what’s really important to us. We all get busy in the Western world, working and building a career … all that’s important, but it doesn’t really mean anything when you’re lying in a hospital bed, when you’re told you potentially have 12 months to live.

“What matters is the people around you. The people you love, and who love you. The quality of the relationships you’ve got with them. It strips life back to its basic ingredients, to that childlike enthusiasm.”

“It’s massively changed my outlook on work-life, and building something like Sunrise Daily is what I feel like I need to do now; it’s something that has meaning, that goes beyond the surface. I know that when someone has their sunrise hanging on their wall, even if it’s a dark, windy cloudy day on which it was taken, it’s irrelevant because it’s that moment in their life journey that something changed significantly for them. Life changes us in so many different ways. It reminds me to consider ‘what have I done since then, or what else is there that I would like to do?’”

A glint of fun appears in Tony’s eyes … “for example, parents buy this sunrise for the day their kid was born, then the kid becomes a teenager and goes out drinking and crashes the car and they want to kill  him but then they look at that picture and think ‘that’s right, I do love him’ or ‘why kill him today?’”

And Tony’s current prognosis?

“I will be two years in remission in December 20211!! Amen!!”