Love for Connie: 'Villagers' bid cancer crusader farewell at public memorial

MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Photo of people lining-up to enter Connie Johnson memorial at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on Saturday 23 September 2017..Photo Luis Enrique Ascui
MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Photo of people lining-up to enter Connie Johnson memorial at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on Saturday 23 September 2017..Photo Luis Enrique Ascui
MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Samuel Johnson brother of Connie Johnson' is greeted during her memorial at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on Saturday 23 September 2017..Photo Luis Enrique Ascui

MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Samuel Johnson brother of Connie Johnson' is greeted during her memorial at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on Saturday 23 September 2017..Photo Luis Enrique Ascui

MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Samuel Johnson brother of Connie Johnson' is greeted during her memorial at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on Saturday 23 September 2017..Photo Luis Enrique Ascui

MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Samuel Johnson brother of Connie Johnson' is greeted during her memorial at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on Saturday 23 September 2017..Photo Luis Enrique Ascui

MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA , 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Samuel Johnson brother of Connie Johnson  gives a press conference while accompanied by family and friends at Fed Square on Saturday 23 September 2017. Photo luis enrique Ascui   PHOTO Luis Ascui

MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA , 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Samuel Johnson brother of Connie Johnson gives a press conference while accompanied by family and friends at Fed Square on Saturday 23 September 2017. Photo luis enrique Ascui PHOTO Luis Ascui

MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Connie Johnson's husband , Michael Johnson, addresses the audience during her memorial at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on Saturday 23 September 2017..Photo Luis Enrique Ascui

MELBOURNE,AUSTRALIA 23 SEPTEMBER 2017: Connie Johnson's husband , Michael Johnson, addresses the audience during her memorial at St Paul's cathedral in Melbourne on Saturday 23 September 2017..Photo Luis Enrique Ascui

For almost half of the 18 years that Connie Johnson's husband Michael knew her, she had cancer.

He saw her ravaged by pain and nausea, beset by an illness she had wrestled with three times throughout her 40 years of life, Michael Johnson told a memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne.

But he also saw her draw deep strength and power from the Love Your Sister charity she had established with her brother, Gold Logie-winning actor Samuel.

"I saw this woman who was so weighed down by cancer still have the ability to lift so many of us up," Michael said.

"By actively dying, Con was able to teach so many of us about actively living."

St Paul's Cathedral on Saturday was full with of "villagers", members of the public who had followed Connie's charity efforts from afar and been moved to contribute.

"[This crowd] is testament to the power of human connection, beautiful people and this village that became such an important part of Con's journey of her life," Michael said.

Connie's friend, Louise Munnoch, told the service that she and Connie had met and clicked as two women who were both mothers and who were both dying.

She said Connie hated the overuse of words like "warrior, hero and battler", which had a way of making cancer patients feel inadequate and less than human.

"Really, we often just want relief from the pain and fatigue and the overwhelming sadness that our life is slipping past us. We don't feel like warriors," Louise said.

She urged the audience to continue to lobby for funding for cancer research.

The memorial service was hosted by television presenter Myf Warhurst, who had known Connie since she was a teenager. It was live streamed on the Love Your Sister Facebook page.

Connie's death was announced a day after she received an Order of Australia medal from Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, who visited her at her Canberra hospice to award her tireless work for others battling breast cancer.

He described her as "a determined, inspirational figure and a great Australian".

Connie, the mother of Willoughby, 10, and Hamilton, 9, was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 2009, after having a tumour in her leg as a child and ovarian cancer in her 20s.

She launched the charity organisation Love Your Sister in 2012, aiming to raise $10 million for cancer research.

In 2013, Samuel left Melbourne on his unicycle and rode a world record 15,000 kilometres around Australia to raise $1 million dollars for the charity.

His ride ended after 364 days in February 2014 and raised almost $1.5 million.

In the following five years the Johnson siblings raised millions, including more than $2 million during the "Big Heart Project" in May, which saw a Canberra netball court become a sea of silver 5 cent coins.

At the time of Connie's death the charity had raised almost $6 million.

TV presenter Carrie Bickmore, whose husband died from brain cancer, told the service she first met the siblings early in their fundraising campaign.

Bickmore said she drew strength from the opportunity to talk to Sam, someone who knew what it was like to watch the person they loved in a huge amount of pain.

In recent weeks, she has remembered how Connie urged her to take joy in her children, and spent more time playing with them.

"Most of all she's taught us how to be a bloody good human being," Bickmore told the tearful crowd.

In a video, Sam said the office of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had emailed the campaign to ask how he and Lucy Turnbull could buy the charity's fundraising socks, called Connie Cottonsocks, after her pet name.

"I'll send him a pair ... rainbow ones", Sam said.

This story Love for Connie: 'Villagers' bid cancer crusader farewell at public memorial first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.