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Tuesday, October 11, 2011


It is an absolutely splendid spring morning and today, joy of joys, I am off for my first ever M.R.I. I have to get there early because I suffer from claustrophobia and I must be sedated in case I panic.

I don't know why that is. I have always hated closed-in spaces. For instance, a few years ago I tried doing the Cuchi tunnels in Vietnam and barely lasted 3 minutes!

The last 24 hours have been quite emotional for me on one level. My good friend, Nim, who I believe is an angel is in disguise, has mobilised a team of women through her Facebook network to cook me enough dinners to see the family through the worst of the chemo stages.

I spy on the exchanges between Nim's friends as they discuss arrangements for cooking and delivery of meals and allow myself a little tear or two. (I must ration these as I imagine I will release a few over the coming months).

The thing I ponder is a comment by one of Nim's friends about how helpful the meals were "when I went through chemo".

At once I am struck by the way something that is so immense can be so easily summarised, much as one might say "I went through Auschwitz."

Nim's friend is so off-hand about it, about how she 'went through chemo' but these simple words do not begin to compote the enormity of what that means, what Nim's friend has endured and survived. Is this what they mean by 'courage'?

"Going through chemo" is not a short story quickly told, but an opus, an epic to be read on the Trans Siberian

This is no passing interlude, it is not a hiccup. It is a major event that will require patience, preparation and planning if it is to be seen to the end.

It means surviving the darkest hours of one's life, facing one's mortality, confronting one's deepest fears, weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

It means releasing your hold on physical strength and power and placing your life in the hands of others.

It means letting go of certainty, familiarity and peace of mind, it means saying goodbye to the person you have been.

Chemotherapy is a tearing away, a sliding door that catapults you from a sun dappled meadow into the claws of a vicious storm

How can they call it courage? For me, it is surely the ultimate surrender.

Before my MRI I meet my friend, Anne, for a coffee. Originally from Glasgow and born on a Council estate, Anne's life is the stuff of comedic dramas, the kind of light and shade that is manna for writers.

Amongst her stories is a grand love affair with Brian, her soul mate, who died of cancer at 46.

It is only when you hear stories like Anne's that you realise that cancer scars not only its victims, but also their family, friends, lovers and care givers.

Anne will laugh and tell you stories about her life but underneath it, there is the vein of steel you only find in those who have truly overcome the hardest of life's challenges.

This is a woman who inspires me, who makes me laugh, who exudes vitality and energy and will most likely release her mortal coil shouting 'Geronimo' with her middle finger in the air.

Anne hands me an envelope and inside I find five vouchers she has painstakingly created, each one for a for home cooked meal. Here is a picture:

A few more tears are produced. There is nothing more overwhelming than kindness.

When I arrive at my Queensland XRays I am already anxious. I am introduced to a technician called Andrew and I'm led to a neon-lit room at the back. I manage to take the photo below. I am not permitted to enter with my camera as the entire room is magnetised!

Shortly after, Andrew inserts a cannula into my arm that will receive the dye. I don't like needles and I look away as he inserts it into my vein. Shit! It hurts!

I am led into the room containing the scanner which is dimly lit. I can feel myself swooning. I feel like throwing up. Andrew leads me to a chair.

I think I fall asleep - I've dozed off surely - but when I wake up, Andrew is standing over me.

"Do you have a history of seizures?" he ask. "Or epilepsy"?

"Why?" I blink.

"Because you were unresponsive there for a while."

I realise that I have slumped forward in my chair. I panic. "Did you give me somehting?" I was expecting to be sedated remember?

"No," he says.

"But I'm alright now, right?"

Here is what happens in an MRI for a breast scan. You lie face down and place your breasts in two holes. Earplugs are placed in your ears then ear muffs. Soft music is piped. Jack Johnson! Alright!

When the machine activates it does so in stages with different rhythms. There are rock beats reminiscent of the bangles; there's a lunchtime siren; there are tribal drums. Your chest vibrates. You find yourself drifting off.

In the final five minutes of what will be 30 minutes of magnetic resonance imaging, it sounds like the machine is whirring the words: "Powerrrr-UP" in a three-four syncopated beat.

Then I'm done.

As I'm leaving I tell Andrew that I believe I fainted earlier. "Good thing you sat me down," I say. "Or it could have been messy, breasts flying everywhere."

We laugh. "Did you get a good image?" I ask.

"Fantastic," he says. "Everything went well today."

"Well, I do have fabulous material to work with even if I say so myself," I joke.

But it's not really funny is it? By bringing up epilepsy Andrew has raised another fear. He has taken a mere episode of fainting to another level. Maybe I have a brain tumour? Brain cancer? My imagination runs rampant.

$500 later (with no recovery from Medicare), Al has picked me up and I am on the way home. I drop him off and get straight back in the car as I have to return to the school for Ben's parent teacher interview.

On the way, I burst into tears.

This is the first time EVER that I've fainted. I did not like it. Where was I? I fell asleep but my brain went somewhere else. Is that what dying feels like?

Afterwards, I go to a campaign launch for Louise, a friend who is running for a seat in the Council elections next year. Craig drives me and on the way, we discuss Karen's campaign strategies.

It is nice to end the day feeling more or less 'normal'.

I make the most of that feeling because in my bones, I know that my version of "normal" will be altered irrevocably in the coming days.


  1. Bronwyn, speaking as the one "who went through chemo", you will find a new normal. Embrace the little moments of joy, the little triumphs. Remember to be kind to yourself. I used to look for little (& I mean little) ways to find joy. My cousin gave me the most beautiful smelling bath gel that I kept just for my first shower after each chemo session....something to look forward to. It helped me to focus on the next day, then the next & the one after that. Before you know it you too will be commenting on how "you went through chemo". Thank you for sharing your journey with us. Amanda

  2. As another "who went through chemo" I want to thank you for writing your blog. I didn't take the time to absorb what was happening..I did it by simply putting one foot in front of the other with a view to reaching the end. Now that I am out the other side, it's cathartic to read your observations from a different angle.You too will get through this. It is surreal at times yet all too real. It is a lesson in how to live and how,who and what to love. It changes everything but more for good than not. I love your term "vein of steel"'s something we all think we have until we are put in this position and come to realise what it truly means. Sounds like you have yours already.Thanks for sharing.

    We gain strength, courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot.
    Eleanor Roosevelt

  3. as one who has had a mri, i can tell you, i fully agree the needle hurts and the claustophobia is horrid because you cannnot move in the slightest while they are doing the imaging. glad you had a good session. damm the medical profession for not making such a mri rebateable to medicare.