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Sunday, October 30, 2011

God

It's a Sunday morning and for the first time in decades, I go to Church and not because of a wedding for a funeral. Cue: Hallelujah Chorus.

It's an inevitable part of confronting a potentially life-threatening illness, I suppose, that I ponder the existence of God.

With 12 years of gruelling Catholic Convent education behind me, my religious roots run deep but like many of us, I am terribly lapsed.

When I enter the local Church,I find it a simple place with plastic chairs in lieu of the polished mahogany pews I remember, the entire proceedings projected onto a screen for ease of reading, hymnal included, and a few changes to what was once a familiar litany. I realise my Catholic lapse predates Powerpoint.

It's my mother and my sister Nicky who, upon first hearing my bad news, leapt immediately - and I mean, immediately! - to the suggestion that I should go back to church.

I wonder about the hypocrisy built into that notion: that hard times are ahead and now, God is needed.

If there is a God, will he judge me for that?

Now the notion of religion is a difficult one to discuss with anyone. Like politics, it generates strong emotions, unveils prejudices, creates friction. My husband, Al, is himself a diehard agnostic (despite years of Sunday School) and we've opted to give our children a non-denominational but Christian education. In short, we avoid the notion of "religion" and instead, opt for commitment to our own individual philosophies.

Still, I cannot deny that my blood is is part Catechist as much as it is part Darwinist. I adore science but I am not deaf to the siren song of that shapeless, nameless, unseen Greater Being - God, Universe, whatever.

My earliest experiences after all, were formed in a Catholic boarding school in Colombo where frankly, I saw more of the nuns than I did my own parents. They were my "Mothers" and "Sisters" in those old fashioned habits of the time who oversaw my studies, taught me piano, and forced me to eat my greens.

From the age of 5 to 9, much of my life therefore revolved around the church. We little kids had prayers on waking, prayers before meals, prayers before study, prayers before bed. Mass was attended EVERY morning. We were marched to church for every saint's day, for regular bi-weekly confessions, for benedictions and special masses and every nun who happened to bugger off into heaven.

Most despised were the infrequent but unforgettable gatherings at an outdoor grotto where I and my fellow little boarders were forced to pray to a statue of Mary covered in crow shit and set in a rock. We knelt on gravel and endured a litany - me, all the while, aware only of my 'jungies' - my knickers - which always rode up my bum crack when kneeling and gave me a kind of holy wedgie, thereby enhancing the discomfort of my devotions.

As a small child I remember our reverential collection of scapulas, holy medals and holy pictures - we would, literally, sprint to the back door of our Church as soon as we got them so the priest could bless them.

Communion and confirmation were huge events, in Ceylon deserving of special visits to a photographer's studio. Here I am at Age 8 on the day of my Holy Communion:


Confessions too were part of our 'daily bread'. Innocent kids forced to church once a fortnight vainly searching our brains for apparent sins.

My aunty, Ethel, who is visiting us from Sri Lanka right now tells a funny story. At Age 15 how she confessed to the sin of adultery, for want of some diversification from the usual suspects. The priest had asked her: "From the front-back or the back-back". Aunty is still, 60 years later, mortified by that story.

After boarding school, my family immigrated to Australia and my sisters and I were despatched to a smorgasbord of Catholic Schools around Brisbane - "Our Lady of Fatima", "Queen of Apostles", "St Cecilia's" and "Mt Carmel". Here, work routines meshed with religious protocols, every piece of work initialled at the corner of the page as follows: AMWDG - that's right: All My Work was Done For God. In other words, cheating was out of the question and there was always a Confession or two to equal the books.

High School at Loreto Convent was no different. The cavernous church at our sister school, Mt Carmel was the centre of a separate social life where I attended countless masses and the odd funeral or too, and my peers gathered for Youth Groups. Prayers, prayers, prayers.

Perhaps it was here that the foundations of the lapse that was to follow were embedded. As the funny Sri Lankan "brain", and despite my tiny coterie of a 'friends', I felt detached and separate from the other girls. I observed them with a scientific curiosity, and found many of them (not all!) vain, materialistic, sometimes cruel.

It seemed hypocritical to me, that on the one hand these girls could be openly mean - especially to those who were different, while they exercised their piety every Sunday in their expensive clothes.

I wondered about being a "Catholic".

When I left Loreto in Year 12, then, I think I was already disenchanted with the world of my Catholic girlhood and so, in my early adulthood it was no difficult step to flick sainthood for sin. Besides, it was so much more fun being bad than good!

Surely those were the halcyon days: remorseless Fornication; Alcohol; Cigarettes! And, oh bliss, Swearing! The joy of saying 'Shit', 'Fuck' and 'Arsehole' without fear of lightning strike was a new freedom that I relished and still do today :)

In the intervening years, of course, I've spared a moment for 'God'. I have spoken to Him only so much as He represents an unseen world of the spirits my own Sinhalese forbears acknowledged.

I am from a very superstitious culture after all. We believe in reincarnation. We believe in evil eyes and hexes. We believe in chanting for the sick.

We believe in the power of prayer. And we believe in Miracles. (My father was once hailed as a Buddhist hero for breaking a long drought, the rains perhaps coincidentally starting after a rainmaking ceremony when Dad foolishly offered to walk the coals. I still have a vivid memory of him sitting on a chair and nursing the seared soles of his feet!)

Now illness has me thinking about my connection to "God", "Spirits", "The Afterlife". Having been born in a multi-denominational country - Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics and Muslims all with their own lifelines to heaven - my views on this are fluid and open to suggestion.

I'm not sure who or what is true. Or even if it needs to be!

What I am sure of is this.

We live in such a material world where so much is made of physical fitness, with a passing nod to mental and emotional stamina.

But few will talk about that which is most necessary, I think, in making it through this life and that is 'spirituality'.

The word itself I think has been sullied by images of hairy-armpitted Buddha-loving dole bludgers who hang out at Byron Bay, burning incense, eking a living from their market stalls full of cheap but useless goods, and peddle a message of 'universal love' and hippiness.

For all I know, maybe these phoney Buddha lovers are what "spirituality" is all about. Maybe it is about meditation and wind chimes and dancing in the moonlight waving patchouli scented scarves?

Maybe it is a vegan diet and jangly bangles and mustard-coloured cheesecloth?

Certainly, there seems to be no universal idea of 'spirituality', the interpretation of which is as individual as DNA.

When in doubt, consult Wikipaedia which says: Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”

It would seem then that the pathways to a 'spiritual experience' are many.

It doesn't have to involve a hair shirt, a cat o'nine tails, and "Achy Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus played on repeat.

It doesn't have to involve torture.

If 'spirituality' is indeed an interpretation of a greater reality, then surely it doesn't have to be "God" or "Church" or any "Divinity". It is whatever puts you in that place where you are aware of a place, a person, an entity that is bigger than you, that is outside of you, that surrounds and envelopes you in the calm, certainty, centeredness and peace that strengthens you when you need it.

It may be a lit match, a candle, the torch App on your iPhone, a streetlamp or a spotlight, but whatever form it takes, spirituality is that light inside you that consoles you as you lie in bed, contemplating your own darkness.

It is in essence, an otherworldly reference point - something or someone you can turn to when you have been let down by everything/everyone else.

This is what spiritual counsellors mean in asking us to 'dig deep'. This is where we go, into the core of ourselves where we bear that nut, that seed of something that might allow for a version of "God".

This morning as I sat in the pew at the local Catholic Church, I recognised part of my own'spirituality' there.

But I also left realising that it is equally enmeshed in the belief system that has sustained me for most of my adult life: the belief that my spirit is within me, and my "God" or my "Universe" is not inside a building reciting a litany under the watchful eye of a priest.

In short, going to Church doesn't need to be a good thing or a bad thing. It should just feel like the right thing - and if it doesn't feel right to you, then you shouldn't need or have to do it.

Even if I choose to return to Church regularly, I still believe that my spirit is within me and it is there that I must look now that I think of the thing I can't stop thinking about: my mortality, that undertow, the idea of dying.

Sure I have my rosary beads and I have my Mother of Mary medal (thank you dearest stranger, Jacki!). The Catholic in me will not let these go because they give me comfort. They really do.

I visualise the Virgin Mary as I once honoured her as an innocent child, free of cynicism and open to the idea of heaven, not withstanding those damn 'jungies' and I am filled with a feeling that I am not alone.

And I know that the Spirit, God - whatever shape he or it may take - is ultimately and always with me. And he is with Kathy, Patty and Wendy who burned Candles at St John's Cathedral for me, my aunty Marie overseeing masses and novenas in Melbourne for me, with my friend, Nim, a Moslem, my friend Blossom, a Hindu, my cousin, Nedra, a Buddhist, who prays devoutly every morning, and even my dear friend Tom, a pagan with his 12 naked vestal virgins waiting in line to wrench whatever healing there can be from dancing by the light of a New Moon (obviously under Tom's tutelage).

With apologies to the many agnostics among my friends, I'm sorry, but I think we are all luckier for that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Life Lesson 2

A week since my mastectomy and the area around my missing breast is still numb but healing well. I am moving a little more freely although at night, I'm grateful for Panadol and Nurafen.

Two days ago, the temporary prosthesis arrived, courtesy of the Cancer Council, packaged in what now seems to be the compulsory pink packaging.

They look like oversized shoulder pads and I joke on my Facebook about how I might give the spare one to Al, to emphasise his own attributes for my personal enjoyment.

I tease him and ask him if I can take a picture of him with a handlebar moustache drawn on, wearing a a g-string with my prosthesis shoved down his pants. For some strange reason, he's not taken with the idea.

In a box in my bedroom there is also the latex prosthesis sent by my ever-thoughtful friend Chris. However, it weighs a tonne! In fact, it's so heavy I might use it as a door stop. Or maybe a paperweight?

These prosthesis are welcome. I have ventured out three times this week for meetings with friends. The first time, I stuffed a bedsock down my shirt. The proper prosthesis is so much better and actually, surprisingly comfortable.

Still, the use of stuffing to fill a space only emphasises my sense of loss. Just the word 'prosthetic' reminds me that I am, to all intents and purposes, an amputee.

There are still moments when I feel sad. Paris, my remaining breast, has become a tumour. She seems misplaced. Ironically, it is she who seems not to belong. (What was that about One being the loneliest number in the world?... okay I'm joking).

This morning, I research my prosthesis options. I enter a world of "Adhesive Nipples", "Swimforms" (for use in water), "Bra Extenders" and "Symmetry Shapers."

Part of me is a little appalled. I am not a great one for fakery. I do not buy into the beauty myth and am openly critical of our need to kid ourselves that we are younger, sleeker, finer than we are.

I don't lie about my age. I don't judge others by their wrinkles or the cut of their clothes or the cost of their finery.

I have always placed a high value on inner qualities and have believed that in even the most physically repulsive creature, you can find something - SOMETHING - that is unique and beautiful (back hair not withstanding).

I can't bear the idea that women, especially are measured and valued according to their numbers - the kilos on a bathroom scale, the centimetres on a girth, their age, or failing that, their financial value.

In fact, I was somewhat disgusted when my BFF Louisa told me that her daughter, Chelsea had gone down to the Gold Coast Indy. The girls all hung out in their bikinis and as they passed the boys, scores were written on placards and waved about.

Chelsea says she was given a '6'. If only I had been there, I would have asked those guys if that was a measure of their IQ - or the length of their penises.

I just can't stand it: why girls buy into this bullshit at such a young age.

But now I seem to have been transplanted into a world where, relentlessly it seems, I am fixated on my physical shape.

This is a new way of being to me.

When people come to visit, I either hide under my bed covers or put on the housecoat that is a recent gift from my pal, Janet. (Just weeks ago, I was the one who would blithely welcome guests in my pyjamas, comfortable in my own boobs).

Now for the first time in my life, I'm embarrassed by my body. More than that. I am a little repulsed.

Today an old friend, Lorelei, comes to visit. I put on my bra and prosthesis because I can tell you, one dangly DD boob is no salve for anyone's eyeballs.

Lorelei and I once used to spend all our time together. We worked together. We were flatmates together. We went to Uni together. By my reckoning it's been probably eight years since she has been able to come down and visit. Any meetings we've had in the intervening years have been the product of my attempts to create opportunities for social engagement. In more recent years, it all became too hard. There were just too many excuses about the increasing length of our separation.

But now, with illness, old friends are rallying; they are making an effort.

And I realise that illness imposes on friendship, perhaps makes demands. Illness tests relationships. It is a means by which we can tell if that bond we share with people has been snapped or simply stretched.

It's just 32 days since I received my first diagnosis and already I have been privy to a certain grand unveiling, revelations both slow and sudden of human nature.

Nearly all of it has been wonderful, glorious even.

People I haven't heard from in years - yes, years - have emailed, telephoned or texted. Cards, flowers, books, chocolates, the largesse has been endless.

The extent of the compassion and kindness of my friends has often brought tears to my eyes.

Just this week, Janet and Bob drove all the way from Bellbowrie on the other side of town, carting a barbecue fit for a king, gifts, and provisions and filled an otherwise empty Sunday with what has become a rare pleasure: fresh air and company.

Lindar has sent flowers and lots of loving messages. Today she offers to hold my hand through chemo, to come and read to me. "I'll even wear my PJs - if I can find some," she says. Aww.

Sue drops off a jigsaw puzzle because she anticipates the boredom that comes with convalescence.

Maddy and Jan (with her husband Dave in tow) have dropped off meals.

Louisa sits on my bed and watches a movie with me. She walks my dog for me.

Nim and Anne text me frequently with the little messages that lift me up.

And total strangers have been sending meals with tiny extras that they would not otherwise provide. A lady called Raelene cooked me a heart-shaped cake iced in pink to go with the dinner she made; someone else baked a slice to accompany her meal; a lady called Jackie has sent a medallion of Mary our Mother of Good Health, that has been blessed by a priest (the same one she carried every day while she fought her own breast cancer).

My appreciation is not a superficial thing. It mines feelings from the depths of a place I rarely go.

Because I've never had a need for help before.

I am not even sure if I need it now. I am the kind of person who will keep a stiff upper lip and keep going. (I'm the woman who played out a whole season of soccer, despite always being the one chosen last, spending most of the season on the bench, and then refused the opportunity to play in the grand final. I hated every minute of it but I stuck it through - from sheer bloodymindedness.)

And so from this is eked my second Life Lesson.

Asking for or accepting help when it is offered is no act of submission but a call to arms.

That's because the help that people can give me, is part of my arsenal against this cancer. Yes, I could go it alone. But I don't want to and I don't have to.

Besides, it's a win-win situation in my mind.

I'm not the first person who will say that the ability to help is the greatest personal power. There is nothing greater for one's self esteem, or self power or sense of self-worth.

I speak from experience.

Yes, all of these wonderful, kind people are doing things for me. But I hope that I am also doing something for them/

It is Nim who has said over and over: "People want to help! You just have to show them how."

Of course they do. Why would they do it if they didn't want to? Who will blame them if they say: "Fuck her. She can go it alone."

I am just the lucky one who chooses people well. (There's an upside to being wise to inner qualities, you know!).

Let me just say there is no shame or fear in revealing my weaknesses or vulnerabilities. It this means I draw your help and draw from the power of others, then I am truly fortunate.

I will happily accept a hand that is lent or a heart that is opened to ease my way because I know I am facing a dark hour.

I don't want to go this alone. If you reach out your hand, I will take it.

But more than this, I will not refuse your help or what you want to give, because I recognise it for what it is: a gift and no gift should be thrown back.

For all of this, already and so early, I feel blessed because there, in those deepest parts of me, I know that, no matter where this dismal story might end, I will have people on the side lines cheering me on and willing me to succeed as I shunt by bucket of shit up that hill.

I will close my eyes at night, holding Jackie's Our Lady in the palm of my hand, and I will dream about a day when I can repay these kindnesses.

That will be the day my own power is returned. Just you watch me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mastectomy

Twenty-five days after my initial diagnosis I find myself back at the Mater Redlands, my local private hospital, for a total mastectomy of the left breast.

The hospital has given me the wrong time and in the end, it is a bit of a rush as I throw some things together into an overnight bag and Al rushes me to hospital - we arrive at 11.30 am.

Once admitted, once again I am met by the area Breast Care Nurse, Jenny Jones, who is friendly and easy to talk to. Here is a picture of her:


At this briefing Jenny gives me an envelope from the "Chicks in Pink" which entitles me to two free post-mastectomy bras valued at $160. These can be purchased I'm told from "The Women's Wellbeing Clinic" which has a great selection of bras and prosthesis. She tells me that the Cancer Council will send me a temporary prosthesis within the week. Isn't it amazing? All the support I'm getting for free, all because there are people out there who care!

Jenny produces a small case and shows me some examples of breast prostheses. The ones made of latex are very heavy. She says the ones with the adhesive backs can be hot.

After the usual pre-op checks, once again I am off to the operating theatre. Here I am in my hospital gown, ready to go off to theatre.


Soon after my bed has come to a stop, Dr Lambley arrives in his surgical gown and cap with a Nikko pen. He draws a dotted line across my left breast to indicate the line of his incision. He has already told me that he will cut across the nerve which means I will have no feeling in that area once the wound heals. He will leave a large pocket of skin which will be come in handy down the track when it is time for my reconstruction.

I have the same team looking after me, including the jovial anethestist, Dr Warden, the Scotsman. This time, he tells me a joke about the man who wakes up to be given the bad news: that both legs have been amuputated. The good news being that the man in the cubicle next door has made an offer for his slippers.

That's not bad. I tell him the joke about the professor instructing a group of medical students who are standing over a cadaver. "To be great practitioners, the first rule is that you can't be squeamish about the human body," he says. "So watch my instruction. Insert your middle finger into the anus of this corpse, like so, and lick it." The doctor inserts a finger withdraws it and licks it. "And now follow my example". As the last student inserts his middle finger and licks it, the professor gives his students a stern look and says. "The second rule if you want to be a great practitioner is to be observant. Had you been paying attention you may have noted that while I inserted my middle finger, I licked my index one."

Dr Warden tells me that, actually, in the olden days, doctors would dip a finger into urine and lick it - a honey taste indicated diabetes. I wonder aloud if that's where the association with 'piss' and 'beer' began.

In this way, I am wheeled into theatre. As the usual drugs are being inserted into my veins, there is more jokery. I recall some interchange involving nude surgery and G-strings.

The operation goes for around two hours I think and when I emerge from the ether, I realise there is a plastic tube coming out of my side to pump away excess fluids in my wound. I feel sore and sleepy.

Al comes to visit as promised. We discuss my proposed reconstruction. We have already had a talk about it.

After 17 years of marriage, it has taken this event for me to learn a surprising fact: Al has told me he has never been a boobs man!

"Then why did you marry me?" I asked.

"Because you're Bronwyn," he said. It's the sweetest thing anyone has said to me.

I can't keep my eyes open but as I doze off I realise I have a surprise visitor. It is my friend Louise, who started work at our local Council in January. The office is about half a kilometre away. It has taken my illness for her and I to meet in the flesh again. My room is dark and as I realise it is Louise, I don't know why, but I burst into tears.

Louise and I first met when I was 10 years old at Mt Carmel in Coorparoo. As I entered my Year 6 classroom, she was the girl with long blonde hair who shifted over and said "You can sit next to me." We hung around together through those primary years and then spent our high school years at Loreto. Louise and I went to QIT together and did the same course. We even had a brief time together sharing the same first job - at a small PR consultancy in Brisbane. Louise is my oldest best friend and is now a highly successful corporate official. (She is also something like an 8th-Dan in Zen Do Kai).

Seeing Louise like this makes me keenly aware of the shifting sands, the flow of time, the hand of fate. I wonder why my oldest friends have only really bothered to contact me on hearing I am unwell. Why is that? Why do we wait until people we care about are, possibly, critically unwell before we will pick up the phone? Say "I love you"? Take that extra step to make a connection beyond the superficial?

As Louise leaves I reach for her hand. Her fingers feel cool. I don't want to let go but I know I have to. I feel sad.

Later, my mum and dad come to visit and I sense their concern, seeing me like this - barely coherent in the aftermath of cooling tears.

Nurse after nurse checks my stitches and tells me what a fine job Dr Lambley has done. (Clearly he followed my instruction and stayed off the booze the night before. Ha ha.)

It will take me a few hours before I can raise myself from my bed and have a look myself at what has become of Nicky.

I am told she weighed 700 grams!

The next day I have more visitors. In the morning Al brings Ben to see me, on his way to school.

A little later, my sister Fiona arrives and as she comes in through the door to my alarm, she bursts into tears. She is upset to see me in this way.

Once she has calmed down however, and I have shown her my scar, she proclaims that I am "a lucky bastard". You see my sisters are much more buxom than me. And they are two of only a handful of my friends (Chrissy and Nim included) who know how onerous large breasts truly are. Put mildly, big tits are overrated.

After realising that all is not so bad, Fiona settles and relates her envy that I will soon be able to wear whatever I want, to run freely, to move unencumbered.

It is great to see Fiona who has come all the way from the northside. But importantly, it is good to see her leave with her worst fears laid aside. I am reminded of how an imagination can make a problem larger than it is. Cancer has a way of transforming the smallest fears into the kind that can suffocate.

Later, Harry comes to visit and we have a chat about his studies, his tutoring and his plans. I'm very pleased that he has made the effort. Dr Lambley pops his head in and bumps into my Mum and Aunt Ethel who are on the way in. It's a fateful encounter as my Mum regales Dr Lambley with stories of mystical cures for cancer. I tell him to make a getaway while he can.

When he leaves Mum and Aunty comment on what a lovely man he is. I think it's a happy coincidence that she bumped into him. It's helped to put her a little more at rest.

Aunty even comments that he is "handsome".

As Mum and Aunty leave, my friend Lee arrives bearing a bunch of flowers and some chocolates. She broaches the subject of the effect an illness can have on friends. Lee works at the Mater South Brisbane and has been in regular discourse with my oncologist, Dr Choo. Maybe it's not such a good thing - Lee knows exactly what lies ahead for me.

It's 8.30 pm when Lee leaves and I settle down for the night, nicely sedated by the pain killers that have been consumed four-hourly.

As I prepare to leave the hospital the next day, one of the female doctors, Gill, comes in. Jenny has arranged for her to come and show me the results of the full breast reconstruction she had after a double mastectomy and has offered to let me see (and feel!) her boobs. The are impressive. Size 14 D and made from stomach fat with created nipples.

This is value adding, I had joked to Jenny. "Take 2 pills three times a day and you can have a feel of my boobs."

Gill gives me her mobile number and kindly offers to answer any questions I may have down the track.

When I return home I don't know how I feel. Perhaps a little angry?

In the car I tell Al that I wish I could fast forward to October 2012 when this will all be over. It's only writing this that I realise how I have changed already. I'm a person who lives in the present. Never before, ever, have I wished to fast forward time.

Not long after I get home, Greg comes to visit. I run and jump into bed because I don't want him to see my lopsided chest. Already, I feel a bit embarrassed. Greg is bearing flowers and chocolates, and a book from Lynne (How sweet and thoughful: "You can Expect a Miracle: A Book to Change your Life" by Dr John Hinwood) As we chat, Greg lounging on the edge of my bed, another bunch of beautiful roses is delivered for the Englands and I despatch Al into a flurry of flower arranging. Here is what they look like:


And now, I suppose some of you may be wondering how my operation went? Yesterday I did have a good look at what was left of the world without Nicky. I didn't really know what to think other than that Dr Lambley really had done a neat job of the stitching.

I don't want you to see me in the flesh like this, and it is unlikely I will venture out until my prosthesis arrives. However, I am happy to share this image.

It is the line of stitching that marks the place where once I carried my left breast.


I hope you will not find this gross or unnecessary in the context of this blog.

I hope you will realise what I am beginning to, and what this image represents: That as we get older (should I get older), we are less and less the sum of our parts, and much more, the absence of them.

Perhaps this is what getting older means? Giving away, giving up, letting go.

As my friend Tim has already said: "Vale Nicky".

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Last Days of Nicky & Paris

It's the day before my mastectomy and five days since discovering that one of my breasts must be sheaved off under the surgeon's knife.

Since Thursday, I've been rallying my thoughts and emotions around the unexpected scenario of my body being reshaped. It hasn't been easy to come to terms with and to some degree, it surprises me.

I don't know if my feeling are normal, but I feel a little sad.

You see, my breasts, named Nicky and Paris after a stint at comedy two years ago, have been a central part of my journey into adulthood. I've always been aware of them.

Spouted (in what seemed gigantic proportions compared to the rest of my then 40-kg frame) the year I turned 12, the sisters have played a greater role in my life than would most breasts perhaps because they were spawned in an era when most girls were frankly, pretty flat-chested.

Even through the uglier stages of my development from buck-toothed, knobbly-kneed youngster to young adult able to attract favourable attention, Nicky and Paris have tended to command centrestage, providing a focal point for many an encounter with a leering male eye.

In fact, my old friend, Timbo, who I first met in the dark room of what was then Q.I.T. nearly 30 years ago, sent me an email yesterday.

This is what he said: "Just thought you'd be amused to hear that Marky Symons is in Sydney this weekend for my bucks' day today, and last night we were reminiscing about how a fair portion of our early 20's were spent discreetly (or not?) admiring Nicky and Paris."

So you see, straight from the horse's mouth, my breasts have been minor celebrities in their day.

When I was at Uni, in fact, at lectures my cleavage provided hours of amusement for the males among my fellow students who would make small balls out of paper and take turns at scoring down my teeshirt or top. It was annoying.

I spent many a social occasion with guys having conversations with my breasts. "I didn't get it" as I intoned during my comedy skit. "The conversations could hardly have been scintillating. I mean breasts aren't exactly known for their intelligence. Just look at their grades. EE. FF. It doesn't get much dumber than that. No wonder they're called BOOBS." Funny, no?

But of course, Nicky and Paris have not just been minor celebrities on a drunken night out on the town. They've also played an important role in the nourishment of my two kids. If 'breast is best' my two surely scored. In fact, I couldn't bloody get Harry off it. He was like a tick who would gorge himself until he literally fell off.

The "Boobsie Twins", as I sometimes call them, have also filled out many a feminine outfit and now I can't help worrying how I will look in the many dresses in my wardrobe.

I contemplate the imminent parting of Nicky and Paris.

No more will they form the dynamic duo, wobbling in unison on my routine jogs, threatening one or the other to be unwittingly unleashed to clobber me in the eye.

No more, together, will they attract the envy of my flat-chested friends. Ha! They may be 12 inches taller than me but I had 12 inches on their chests! Just check out Lyndal's pair...


You've got your peas, your plums, your mangoes and your watermelons... you hear what I'm saying?

I've never wanted different fruit. For all my cruel mockery of their general overripe droopiness, we've bonded over the years and I've grown quite fond of them.

I don't want to say goodbye to either of them but I have no choice.

And so, in the past few days, I have taken the time to honour Nicky and Paris with a last knees-up together:

Here they are, at Mel's restaurant opening on Friday, with one of their great admirers (and drunken gropers), Garry, realising his secret fantasy. (Actually, it's not that secret).


On Friday, they got down and boogeyed briefly - one last wild dance together - at Harry's 18th birthday party.


On Sunday, I took them for a walk with my best friend Louisa. Later, we visited my dearest buddy, Nim. Here she is greeting them at the door. We drank Moet, feasted on Turkish meatballs and talked for nearly four hours!


Now today is their last day together. It is blowing a gale outside and the sky is overcast.

At noon, I take Nicky and Paris to lunch with my dearest old friends, Janet, Tracey and Lindar who have driven down especially from Brisbane to have lunch with me. I have known these three since my 20s. We are the gallant four who share a past, a story whose introduction was written in the offices of the Lord Mayor, Sallyanne Atkinson, whose middle has seen us support each other through our child-bearing years, and whose end I hope will be seen together. These are friends who have an integral role in my history and it is wonderful that they have made the effort to see me.

Here is our last picture together with Nicky and Paris:


Soon after I arrive home, the telephone rings. It's Christine ringing from New South Wales. She says she has sent me personal parcel in the mail and confides that it will contain the prosthesis for her left breast plus a few bras.

We laugh about that: mail-order breasts. This surely has to be the apogee of kindness and thoughtfulness. I love you Chrissy!

Tomorrow I shall go to the hospital in comfort, knowing that, from the thousands of chest presses and push-ups I've done to help keep them pert into their old age, to the hundreds spent on top-shelf sports bras, and the effort made to ensure their last days have been meaningful, Nicky and Paris have had the best of care.

No I could not, it seems, anticipate the scourge of breast cancer. Despite my best efforts, I could not ward off the consequences of a life-threatening illness.

But I have done my best. They have had a good life together.

That is the all anyone can expect.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Self 1

Five days until my breast comes off and I've had a pretty good day. My friend Lindar sent me some beautiful flowers (they came in a vase!).


I am still coming to grips with the absolute generosity of family, friends and strangers.

In fact, I spent the morning at my friend Maria's house. Maria is a hairdresser who trains other hairdressers: she has a Bachelor of Education actually! Maria is Italian and oozes warmth and confidence. She's like a ray of sunshine with her beaming smile and golden hair.

Today, Maria offers to cut and colour my hair for free. I am going to have a bit taken off. With baldness on the not too distant horizon, why not experiment? Besides, I've been told that long hair can really hurt when it is set loose from a chemo scalp.

I have a lovely morning as Maria and I chat about this and that. She even shares her mum's secret pasta recipe!

Here is what I look like! This look won't last for long but feel free to ooh and aah at how fabulous I look and what a great cut it is :)


Cutting my hair today has me thinking about the physical changes that lie ahead for me.

Last night was the first of my last six nights of 'normalcy', and as I closed my eyes, I felt a few tears as I confronted the reality of my pending breast removal. I felt wretched. I felt it would be easier to die. I was bone tired.

As I lay there staring into the dark and listening to the dog snoring by my bed, I fixated on the idea that in a few short days, my body would be butchered!

It's not that I care about how I will look, but I care about how I will feel.

In these days, with breast cancer so rampant, we say the word "mastectomy" as we might say "icecream". Yet even I had not really understood the enormity of it: what women who fight breast cancer must go through.

The reality that my body will be physically reshaped next week makes me feel sad. Here is a moment in time when my self, this self, the one I have been familiar with through 48 years of thick and thin, is being overwritten by degrees.

A part of it is to be erased. It is to be replaced, perhaps transcended.

And so, as I rarely do, I allow myself to ponder that thing that is the stuff of philosophers, my 'self' and I regard it much as one would an object: a unique artefact or collectible.

Call me vain, call me unusual (you can even call me Shirley), but I'm not ashamed to admit I am very happy with this 'self' and love it, warts and all. Physically, I love my spotty, uneven skin, my big aboriginal-like nose, the frown between my eyes, and my hair that mostly looks like a bird's nest when it isn't subdued by a rubber band.

I have never placed too much store by looks and attribute that in part to my father, Hals. When my two sisters and I were growing up, Dad was the first one to draw us down a peg or too when it came to vanity.

There is a famous event in the Vander Poorten household that occurred about the time I turned 12. My father, an artist, pulled out his paints and drew three caricatures on one of the walls downstairs. Fiona was portrayed as a fish with the big lips she was always sensitive about (but women these days pay a fortune in collagen to achieve), Nicky was portrayed as a frog, and I was portrayed as a rather unsightly bunny rabbit with my hideously large buck teeth prominently emphasised.

So it's no wonder that, by the time I turned 16, a year when most girls are preening themselves and spending hours in front of a mirror taking photographs of themselves, I was impatient with vanity.

While both my sisters famously endured a deportment course and became masters of the arcane arts of blue eye shadow and lowering oneself stylishly into a chair without showing one's knickers, I continued to walk like a duck and carry myself in a somewhat simian way.

What was the point anyway? While my school colleagues cavorted about in their Esprit and Country Road attire, my sisters and I were doomed to be asphyxiated in factory outlet clothing (always one size too small as my mum routinely underestimated our sizes) or clothes mum would sew up in a jiffy using the cheap materials which were all we could really afford. (It never did get as low as sack-cloth: something I am eternally grateful for).

I didn't have my hair cut by a proper hairdresser until I was 18! Up to then, my mum would cut my hair and when we were a little smaller, we all had something of Friar Tuck about our hair-dos.

My mum even had to cajole me for several months to get me to shave my legs that were as hairy as an orangutan's (although, thankfully, I did always shave my armpits and liked my deodorants!)

What I'm saying is I didn't get it: why all the fuss about looks? Even at a young age, I learned to accept who I was, physically.

Other than this, I have liked my 'self' because, quite frankly, I've never wanted to be different. Why would I? There are many things about me I actually like and I am drawn to others with the same qualities. For example, I will never break a promise and my word is my bond; I do not believe in empty praise or empty words; I am tenacious; I am extremely loyal; I am honest and I am hard working; I have a strong ethic of service; I am kind and I am compassionate; and I'm not into whinging.

Sure, I can be mean-spirited like anyone else. I am over-critical and judgemental. I have a ferocious temper. I'm not always disciplined. I talk too much. I'm competitive; I can be indiscreet. I can also be rude and even obnoxious (come on, you're surprised?).

But, unlike many people, I have always believed that we are allowed to be imperfect. I was born imperfect and lordy knows, I shall be imperfect when I finally pop off my mortal coil. Do you know anyone you consider 'perfect'? I didn't think so.

All I know is the 'self' that is me, TRIES to be the best it can be. That is all anyone can ask of themselves, don't you think?

So now, as the day ends and the rain pours down outside, I look at myself, my best friend. In a few days, she will step behind a curtain and when I see her again, there will be something different about her, and I don't mean just in a physical way.

A new person is being crafted blow by blow and next week, I will experience the first steps in what I know will be a painful transformation.

I hope I will like the person I become - my new self - as much as I have the old one. We may have to get to know each other all over again. There may be things about her that I don't like and might even make me fearful or frustrated.

She'll be a little chipped, even more imperfect, perhaps more insecure, a bit fruity; or even stupid.

I mightn't feel like showing her off on a prime place on the mantelpiece. Maybe I'll feel like throwing her in a box and hiding her in the garage, next to Al's vast collection of bikes (damn you Ebay).

But I'm not really afraid. Not really. I have a few days to kiss goodbye to the old Bronwyn and to get my head around the Bronwyn who might emerge on the other side of that sliding door.

Who knows, the old Bronwyn might truly detest her.

But that's okay. I'll just have to work a little harder to recoup that thing called 'self acceptance'. That is all any of us can do.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Diagnosis 4

Once again today I meet with my surgeon Dr Lambley to discuss the results of the MRI scan I had yesterday.

Tomorrow I am meant to start my chemotherapy but in this continually shifting vignette, the furniture has been moved around once again.

Dr Lambley tells me that the MRI has shown this cancer indeed requires a mastectomy of the left breast. The progress of the carcinoma is worrying enough for radiation also to be thrown into the mix.

That is not what I want to hear! Secretly, I had been hoping that with breast removal and chemo, I would not need radiation. It's the nuisance of it - the length of treatment, the never ending saga.

The reason for the MRI was so that Dr Lambley could work out whether a'simultaneous reconstruction' would have been possible at the time of mastectomy, meaning that radiation was not needed.

However, the placement and progress of this cancer means that this is not possible. The total area of the tumour is now around the 5cm mark, the size at which things are not so peachy.

Thanfully, Dr Lambley reports that the last lumpectomy showed a pretty unaffected chest muscle so far so at least this tumour has not spread any further than the breast.

However, chemo and radiation are recommended as part of what is called adjuvant therapy.

I guess somewhere in my brain, I am processing this latest punch in the face but I am strangely removed. I have surrendered myself to the process, at least for today.

I ask Dr Lambley whether I can have both breasts off as I believe being uneven is terribly uncomfortable.

He says he prefers to do that as the final step in my treatment because a double mastectomy takes much longer to heal, there's a greater risk of infection and it might mean my chemotherapy treatments are delayed. This is not an option.

My darling friend, Christine who has been through the whole kit and kiboodle of the cancer journey has schooled me on the benefits of a simultaneous nipple reconstruction.

Alas, this is not an option. I'm not entirely clear why not. It has something to do with blood flow and the fact that the nipple tends to wither away. Yuck.

So basically the scenario I am left with is this. One breast off - the sooner the better. Chemotherapy, radiation then reconstruction resulting in two breasts.

At once, I see my blissful plans of returning to refereeing in March next year disappearing in that long vapour trail of things I will be stopped from doing in the coming months. Looks like I'll have to be content being a linesman. :(

So what is left to do other than to laugh. I tell Dr Lambley that I hope he does a neat job as all the pictures I've seen of these operations look like they've been performed by Charles Manson.

"My grandfather used to call me 'Charlie'," Dr Lambley laughs.

"And make sure you lay off the alcohol the night before," I say. "I want a nice straight line."

There are diagrams drawn, and questions asked. Al wants to know if there is a chance that with chemo and mastectomy I might avoid the radiation.

"It's possible," says Dr Lambley. But I am already able to read his facial expressions: the subtle shift of a lip and a brow and I know he believes it is unlikely.

Cancer it seems, is an enemy not to be messed with and the strategy is not to take it out in half-hearted pot shots with a 9mm Browning. No. The strategy is to come at it with both guns barrelling. I am reminded again of Riley and her confrontation with the Aliens.

And so I am resigned. What can I say? Boo hoo? I am booked in for my mastectomy of the left breast for this coming Tuesday.

Instead, I focus on the positives.

I have another two weeks up my sleeve to kick up my heels - albeit one-breasted - before the demons of chemo are unleashed into my veins.

This means I can go to my friend, Mel's special restaurant opening on Friday.

It means I can enjoy Harry's 18th birthday party this Saturday and dance my booty off with 80 teenagers and embarrass my son with some solid party-porno moves.

I can go to lunch with my besties as planned on Monday.

It means I have another five days in which to enjoy the self that I have been.

I will use this time to reflect upon that self and to bid my good byes to the body that I have loved and nurtured.

I will enjoy the feeling of Nicky and Paris, droopy as they are, hanging from my chest. (We have been through a lot together, the three of us).

I will bask in the symmetry of the body God gave me.

And I will dream about the not too far off future where, salined but perhaps more streamlined, I'll come sprinting down the home strait, running like the wind.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

MRI

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.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Diagnosis 3

It's Sunday morning in Melbourne and I'm just about to enter a packed little cafe for breakfast with Lyndal and Garry. (We're down here in part to see Lyndal's exhibition - she's a wonderful sculptor and I'm one of her biggest fans.) After breakfast, we are due at the Tutankhamen Exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. Al's a great Egyptophile and this is the "most impressive collection of Tut artefacts ever assembled" out of Egypt.

The night before was a lame endeavour in kicking up my heels - three glasses of wine and relatively early to bed. There was no strip poker. No wild orgies with AFL Footballers. And no tattoo to regret in the morning. Al didn't even moon anyone.

Then my cellphone rings. It's a 'blocked' number and turns out to be Dr Lambley. I suppose there's a small part of my brain that is a little alarmed. After all it's a weekend. What's so urgent?

Dr Lambley explains that the results of my second lumpectomy have revealed further progress of the cancer. He says that with my type of carcinoma, unfortunately, lumps are generally not present. In other words, these suckers are hard to detect.

He tells me that he would like me to have an MRI to determine just how advanced my situation might really be. He says further surgery may be needed and immediately, I know he means a mastectomy.

I explain my chemo starts on Thursday and can I wait until after all of that if I need surgery.

He says that he's pleased I'm having chemo soon - it sounds like his preferred option - but it's important the MRI is done before treatment so that we can get a good picture.

By the time we arrive at the Tut exhibition, dark thoughts are palpating at the edges of my consciousness.

When I learn that King Tutankhamen died suddenly (and inexplicably) at 19, of course, I think about the lifespan of a man, the time we have on earth, the contribution that we might make.

King Tut's father, Akhenaten died at 17 but his grandfather made it to the ripe old age of 30. Look at what this dynasty achieved. 3200 years later, humankind marvels at their achievements.

As I stare at the vessels that once contained the mummified organs - stomach, lungs, intestines, liver - of Tutankhamen, I think about what I have achieved in my life. I think about becoming a part of ancient history. What sort of lousy legacy have I left? Some amateurish artworks, some second-rate poetry and a manuscript. I can't see Howard Carter getting too excited about that lot.

After the Tut exhibition, we walk down to the National Gallery of Victoria to see an exhibition called 'Vienna'. It's educational. I hadn't known about the "Viennna Seccession", including Gustav Klimt (who died at 56), and an artist I've never heard of, Egon Schiele (who died at 28).

While I am taking it all in, the exquisite works, that's all I'm processing: when they were born and when they died.

After we leave the exhibition, I find my conversation returning to Dr Lambley. The issue he has raised, about the need for a mastectomy, is a hound at my heels.

You see, even though they're somewhat large and flabby, I'm rather attached to my breasts. It's a lot to get my head around quickly - the idea that Nicky and Paris (as I call them) may be wrenched from my bosom and replaced by Silicon Sally and Saline Samantha.

Still, already, I'm working out the timing of things. When my chemo will finish, when my breasts will come off, how long before I can get back to my beloved soccer field? I'm trying to be practical, visualising my life over the coming months.

Al can't work out why the operation should not happen before the chemo. We argue about the logic of it.

We go to the airport where I'm mindful of having promised myself some shameless lush-like behaviour. I didn't even manage the Margarita I had wanted. As a last ditch effort, I buy myself a packet of Maltesers.

On the plane, I make the mistake of reading a book on Post Cancer Nutrition. Alas, it seems that even sugar has been demonised by those who believe diet is at the root of everything - and I feel guilty about those Maltesers. Damn it.

After we return to Brisbane it is evening and I decide to call Dr Lambley back to clarify my situation.

Al asks him why I can't have the operation first as isn't the chemo done to just do the mopping up.

But my surgeon is adamant that is no evidence to suggest that doing things in either order is more effective. However, if I have the mastectomy first, it may be 2-3 weeks before I can start chemo.

You know what the subtext is: I don't have the luxury of time.

So my thoughts return to Tutankhamen. I may not be a Pharoah or a Living God, but I nearly 30 years on him. Surely, that has got to be a plus.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Oncologist 1

Two weeks since my initial diagnosis and it's finally time for my first visit to my oncologist, Dr Choo. (And no, her first name is not "Ah"). My appointment is at 1 pm and Al and I drive in to Greenslopes Hospital, arriving right on time.

We wait for a whole hour before Dr Choo materialises. Al and I chat about this and that. We browse through magazines. We make small talk with the receptionists.

When Dr Choo finally arrives, I see a slight, attractive Asian lady who is casually dressed. Finally she calls me in.

She's open and engaging and goes to great lengths to write clear notes for me as she goes over the details of my case.

The one message I get is this and it bangs in my ears - I need chemotherapy. Even though my lymph nodes were negative, cancer cells can be transmitted through the blood stream. It's because of the size of my tumour that no chances are taken. The fact that it is estrogen positive means that the chemo is my very best option.

The chemotherapy regime that is recommended is called T.A.C., designed to minimise toxicity and which will throw my body into early menopause. Jolly good.

T.A.C stands for a combination of drugs - Taxotere, Adriamycin and Cyclophosphamide. They sound like some of Harry Potter's spells, don't you think? I am to have have these drugs administered in six cycles every three weeks.

The side effects include nausea/vomiting, hair loss, an impact on cardiac function, a suppression of my immune system and, joy of joys, neuropathy, the effects of which will include numbness of my fingertips which may never return to their former sensate glory. At least, I'll be able to blame my woeful renditions of Chopin on something other than a complete lack of talent.

I'll tell you this: Dr Choo makes it sound like a breeze. Apparently the ill effects are a case of 'mind over matter'. I suppose it's easy for her to say.

Following chemotherapy, I am to have radiotherapy then hormonal therapy but these procedures are too far in the future for me to think about.

This containment is important I think. I am writing my movie scene by scene. I do not want to think about endings. This story must write itself without my imagination creating an unnecessary drama. Only God knows what mix of pathos my story must include, what logos, what ethos.

What surprises me is the speed of things. I have 1-2 weeks to commence my treatment but the sooner the better.

There seems to be a greater urgency to all of this than I had first assumed. I feel like I am being carried forward by a wave.

There is no time for looking back. I must say goodbye quickly to the life I have known so far, my pleasant routines.

I have a referral for an electrocardiogram on Monday and a blood test on Tuesday. I am booked in for my first chemo session next Thursday. I must have a blood test before every chemo session - what a nuisance!

I am directed downstairs to the Cancer Wing to receive my "education". Al and I are led to a neon-lit meeting room where we are introduced to the breast care nurse. She is sweet and friendly and we discover that she, too, is a breast-cancer survivor. A staff member offers me a cup of tea which is delivered on a tray with a nice piece of cake. It is very civilised.

Sitting opposite me is another girl, also diagnosed with breast cancer. I discover that she is 34 years old. As far as I can gather, she has had bowel cancer, a liver transplant and now, breast cancer with seven nodes removed. She must pay $1100 for a special drug to protect her ovaries during chemo as she has not yet had children.

And so it is easy for me to think how lucky I really am. I feel sad for this young girl and what she has already endured.

There is always a worse scenario.

Afterwards we are given a tour of the facility. We walk past other patients, reclining in comfortable leather chairs as they receive their treatment. They seem almost content as if they are in a holiday spa receiving some wonderfully invigorating treatment rather than a mix of potentially lethal drugs.

And it is then that I realise that this is the only way for any of us to get through any of this, the travails of life. What is the use of tears or chest beating or curses to the unfairness of the universe.

All we can do is buckle down and get on with it.

Winston Churchill was right. "If you are going through hell, keep going."

Nearly five hours later, Al and I drive back home. We stop of at Elysium to catch up with friends. We go to my Mum and Dad's for a delicious dinner. From the outside in, you would think that nothing has changed. There is no glitch in the universe and life is as it should be.

Everything is normal from the outside, but on the inside, I can feel a rumbling in the core, the shifting of techtonic plates, the tide.

Tomorrow we are off to Melbourne for the weekend. I shall kick my heels up. I shall quaff wine and indulge in bacchanalia fit for an immoral lush.

Really is there no better time than now to live life shamelessly?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Thief of Time

It's the day after my second lumpectomy which was pefromed at the Mater South Brisbane and appears to have gone off without too much drama. The padding is still on my breast and, though a little sore, I am in reasonable spirits if a little tired. I even managed to do a bit of work.

I've never set foot in that hospital before so it was a little voyage of discovery. My girlfriend Lee is a Discharge Manager there and came down to say hello. That was really nice as Lee is like my fourth sister (albeit a little fairer of hue) :)

I also had a good laugh with Dr Lambley before going into theatre. I told him to err on the side of caution and take out a little more if needed.

"Lordy knows I have plenty to spare, hunny," I said and we chuckled.

What I didn't like was being next to a cubicle where I could hear the doctor discussing this old guy's medical condition with him in a very loud voice. I wasn't really in the right frame of mind to hear about prostrate glands, bleeding and pain.

Still I had good news.

Just before I'm put off to sleep, Dr Lambley explained that after further dyeing and testing, my lymph node was confirmed as negative. It's a an extra precaution they take with lobular carcinomas because, Google has told me they are fairly renowned for what's called 'false zeros'.

Afterwards, Al and I drive home through peak hour traffic. I seem to have more beans compared to my first operation but sleep soundly last night.

Today I'm thinking about all the time this thing has already consumed, 35 hours so far in hospital stays and doctors visits - and the journey has barely begun!

Illness it seems, is a thief of time, a light fingered one.

It galls me particularly because, those who know me will tell you that I have, since I was a teenager, viewed time as my most valuable currency. Don't ask me why. It's just something I'e always been aware of, that tricky way that seconds then minutes, hours and days can be despatched into the ether without the blink of an eye.

That's why I am a manic stocktaker when it comes to my hours. I audit my time more than I do my business inventory, and I even give every task I do a dollar value (even my household tasks).

I prize my time and when it's given freely, to helping friends, to causes and campaigns, I feel it is a greater investment than money - because, you know, I can't get it back.

Now my time is to be sucked away by meetings and activities that deliver neither pleasure nor virtue.

If I had to find one really, really big reason why illness sucks, this has to be it.

So now I wonder why so many people will NOT DO those things that might delay or avert illness with claims that they are "too busy" or "can't seem to find the time".

I wonder why the pursuit of dollars or dresses is more important than the time they might spend having an annual health check or taking 30 minutes for a walk or just 30 minutes to prepare a healthy meal rather than order takeaway?

The time you think you don't have to look after yourself, is the time that will be taken away from you should illness visit.

So now for the ladies, tonight as an exercise in using time wisely and perhaps creating more time in the future, I ask you take some minutes to examine your breasts. To help you, I've attached a picture - make time and do it today.

I know it takes a few minutes out of your day but the alternative is that, like me, you watch your precious hours sucked away in a doctor's surgery.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Life Lesson 1

It's a beautiful day and I realise how important it is to have a normal day.

So I happily go off to my meeting with a client. I have a new writing project, a rather complex website and I'm looking forward to it.

At this point I have to confess that I have contrived a bit of 'spin doctoring' on my situation.

The meeting I had today was meant to be held last week but I was in hospital. So I had it rescheduled today, saying only that "I have an illness in the family".

Do they have to know it's me who has the illness? There's no need for my personal details to muddy my professional life is there? Besides, I don't FEEL sick. Not yet.

So when I arrive at my client's premises today, she's keen to know the nature of my
family illness' but before I can answer she's filling in the details herself. She says she knows how hard it is when a family member becomes ill. Her mother in law has a lung condition.

"Oh I know," I empathise. "My father in law has emphysema". And so from there, a half-lie is born as I'm introduced to another member of staff and the story is that apparently, I was at the hospital bed of my father in law last week.

That's the way of storytelling I suppose. The audience fills in the blanks.

Please note: I didn't tell a lie.

The meeting is a success and I feel a little guilty but figure that hey, I'm a copywriter and I don't need my boobs to write do I?

Still, already I have learned that there is often secretiveness around an illness. Since I launched my blog, I have been surprised to hear of many of my friends and acquaintances who have dealt with illness, but I did not know.

Perhaps that's why people have generally been surprised that I'm blogging about this. I take it that it's unusual.

Why is it we are supposed to be ashamed of being sick? Does it mean that if we unbare our vulnerabilities we will feel exposed? Perhaps to judgement? Or exclusion? Or pity?

Personally, as I hope you'll understand, I fear none of these things. We are, all of us, mortal and frankly, we all have our barrow of shit to wheel up the mountain at some stage, don't you think?

I am pondering these thoughts when I arrive home. I have a package from the Breast Cancer Network. Here is what they have sent me so far:



This is a parcel not of things or paper. It is a parcel of compassion and I am truly grateful (that bra is damn comfortable).

And with this parcel comes one of my most important lessons so far:

Becoming ill is in part, a journey in learning about how wonderful people are.

From friends to acquaintances to complete strangers who run organisations like BCNA, to people who fundraise for those organisations, to Governments who fund research, never for one minute doubt that as a human being, you are important to someone.

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with negative messages that make you angry or sad or depressed. They are messages about terrorists and dictators and murderers, about crooked politicians and fraudsters and thieves, about the things that go wrong and the things we can't fix and the things we should be angry about.

But even so early in the piece, being ill has taught me that there are a wonder of things that can make you feel happy and even blessed.

As Jean De La Bruyere (the French moralist who died at the age of 51) once said: "Out of difficulties grow miracles."

Indeed, they do,

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Diagnosis: Part 2

I discover a new type of anxiety. It's nothing like I felt the first time I went abseiling (off a building at UQ in the dead of night, with a group of half-wit students), or diving or skydiving.

It's nothing like that fortnight I spent, unable to see, with stitches to both my eyes thanks to a car accident.

It's not even like the time I was swept off the airbed I was riding down the swollen gorges of the Obi Obi in Maleny and had only the forefinger and thumb of a fellow traveller to cling to until I was rescued. (I spent that night freezing and beating off the leeches. Apparently a rescue helicopter was despatched but we weren't found).

It's like the anxiety you feel when your child goes missing, that abyss between knowing and not-knowing.

It's Friday, September 30 and Al and I are once again sitting in front of Dr Lambley. After the usual greetings he procures 3 pieces of A4 paper which have just been faxed through.

Literally hot off the presses are the results of my pathology.

He interprets what he reads as his eyes scan the pages.

He seems surprised.

He had thought it was a ductile carcinoma he says, but it's lobular and unusual. Only 1 in 10 breast cancer cases, it seems.

The good news is that it's hormone receptive which means I shall have access to an extra layer of treatment.

The other good news is that it is what's called "node negative" - that is, it has not spread to the lymph nodes.

The bad news is that I will need to return to hospital next Wednesday to have more removed.

The bad news is that he says I will need chemotherapy.

For the first time I hear the term "Medical oncologist".

At this point I notice a subversion of the principles of time. It seems my life is heading rapidly in a new direction. But I must wait until Wednesday to know what my treatment options are. Time is fast but it is slow. I feel as if I am suspended in a different reality.

Appointments are made and we leave.

Al asks me if I want to go to the local bar, Elysium, where it is our habit to catch up with friends every Friday evening. I don't want to go home so we meet 'Burglar' and Natalie, Greg and the Dowlings.

Yet again, I find myself talking about the subject but now there's a new 'C' word eating away at my thoughts.

Afterwards, we pick Ben up from home and go to my sister Nicky's for dinner. My mum and dad are there.

We talk about my situation. Here is what I've learned.

I have what is described by the pathologist as a (classic) invasive lobular carcinoma.

It is larger than it looked either by palpation or ultrasound: in fact, it's roughly double the size. It has 3 tubules, 2 nuclei and 1 mitoses.

It is node negative and is 80% Estrogen receptive.

Invasive lobular cancers represent 1:10 breast cancer cases. They form in your milk glands and therefore, usually do not present as lumps. They present as a thickening of the breast.

When these cancers break out of the lobule, they do so in single file then invade the surrounding tissue in a web-like manner.

At this point it hits me that cancer is an animate, living thing. It is like a life form within a life form. For a moment I am fascinated. In a way, there is a certain fecundity to this phenomena - a pressing forward.

This is the beginning of my understanding of why this disease is usually paired with imagery of battle. These cells are not indiscriminate. They have shape and pattern. They advance in formation, gathering strength with each advance.

I have an enemy within: it is living and breathing.

My friend Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. She has already given me this to work with: to imagine these cells as 'Aliens'. She became a fan of Sigourney Weaver. She visualised beating these bastards. Already, I hate these fuckers.

And it's important I understand them. I begin my research and start with understanding the risk factors.

Of these, I suspect only one and only because my grandmother died of stomach cancer.

Inherited genetic cancer syndrome: this is a rare, inherited condition called hereditary diffuse gastric cancer syndrome which increases the risk of both gastric (stomach) cancers and invasive lobular carcinomas.

I have no medical background but that's my intuition. So far, it's been spot on.

In a way, this makes me feel better. It makes me realise that I cannot blame my diet or my lifestyle. I cannot blame my desire for nice-smelling armpits or my love of a rump steak.

I cannot blame underwire bras or those soccer balls I took on my (plentiful) chest.

I cannot blame Mortein or mobile phones, Mr Cadbury, Bundaberg Sugar or Johnny Walker.

I can't even blame Julia Gillard (although, of course, I'd love to).

There is no interplay of myth and mystery here, no hocus pocus nor sleight of hand. It is simply science.

It has happened and there is no way left but forward...

CLOSE ON DOOR: as it REVEALS an inhuman silhouette standing there.

It is Ripley, WEARING TWO TONS OF HARDENED STEEL. THE POWER LOADER.
She lifts the arms horizontally beside her and stomps out...the massive feet CRASH-
CLANGING on the deck. She stops midway to the Queen.

RIPLEY
Get away from her, you bitch!

TIGHT ON QUEEN: as it hisses with pure lethality. Newt looks out of the flooring at Ripley

Ripley moves the arms up for combat, both in swinging positions and takes two steps.
The Queen screeches and charges. WALLOP! A roundhouse from one great hydraulic
arm catches the creature on its hideous skull, slamming it onto the deck. The Queen gets
up and Ripley hits it again with the other arm, sending it sliding into some heavy cargo boxes.

The alien rights itself, standing in a lethal stance. It hisses violently, clearly really pissed off.

Ripley swings around, positioning herself toward the Queen.

RIPLEY
(screaming)
Come on!

Hospital

The hardest thing about learning about an illness is telling others about it.

The evening of my diagnosis, I am at a loss about what to do. I know I should call people, but who do I start with? And what do I say? I have no experience of this.

Those friends who have known about the biopsy send texts and I realise there is no textbook instruction on how to share the news.

I call my sister, Nicky, first. There are no preambles so I go from, "hello" to "I have breast cancer". She screams with disbelief - yes, she actually screams. What can you expect? This is the same girl who threw hysterics on the floor of Barclay's Bank in London so they would allow her to make a withdrawal (she succeeded).

My husband tells me to ring my Dad. Once again, it's like delivering the news of a death. Really, it's that hard.

Later I ring my sister, Fiona, my friend Louisa.

And I learn my first lesson. Illness is not a loaf that can be shared. Every chunk of bread you break off only makes the loaf bigger. There is a subversion of the laws of science.

By now, Al's golf mates have got the message. He's on the phone, explaining. There are emails and more texts.

"Everyone's asking after you," he says.

What to do? I'm not enjoying sharing this news. So I write a personal blog just for a small group of friends and post it on Facebook. Only a handful reply. Well, that's a bummer. It means I have to notify people individually. And I do - to a handful via email.

More well wishes follow.

The weekend passes. It's a blur. I can't really remember what I do. Mundane tasks are beyond me. My thoughts are scattered.

I write in Harry's birthday card. I tell him to honour his potential and to put his gifts to enhance the lives of others.

Monday arrives and Harry turns 18. I give him his presents. He loves the teeshirt and shorts. He laughs at the 'Guide to Growing a Moustache'. We've given him an Ipad and he is genuinely grateful. Who can believe my first child is now, officially, an adult?

The hospital rings to confirm my admission time. The anesthetist's office rings to confirm out-of-pocket expenses. The breast care nurse, Jenny rings. She's on annual leave, she explains, but she'll pop round to see me at the hospital. She's cheerful and convivial. We talk about recovery.

In the afternoon, I go for a 10 km walk with Lyndal. It feels good doing something normal. I breathe in the smell of the sea.

That evening, the family goes to the local Thai to toast Harry's milestone. George, Al's Dad has emphysema and it is great that he has come out for the evening. He seems well and I am thankful. We have a few laughs. We talk about this and that. The food is delicious.

Back home, I read and fall into a dead sleep. It's a sleep I am already becoming used to.

And now it's Tuesday, four days after diagnosis. I've checked into my private room at the Mater Private in Redlands. The staff are friendly and personable.

In my room, Al puts my things away and we kiss goodbye. What I notice is the absence of thinking.

A nurse comes in, introduces herself and informs me I must wear compression socks for the length of my stay - in case of thrombosis. She measures my calf and soon, I'm wearing long white socks up to my knees. She confirms all my details and leaves.

As promised, the breast care nurse, Jenny comes in. She gives me a welcome pack by a group by "ChicksinPink". In it are a bottle of water, a brochure, a pen and a pair of pink socks.

She gives me a black compendium full of brochures - thanks to the 'Chicks' - about all the services that are offered. There's a free yoga class I can attend across the road to get my head back in gear. There are art classes run by a breast-cancer survivor.

Jenny tells me that I'm also entitled to a free bra - and gives me one to try on. It's made of a soft, supple fabric with no underwire. "Wow, very comfortable," I observe as I wiggle into the 12DD she's given me.

She says I'll receive it in the mail. Along with a diary to map my personal journey.

At this point, I am momentarily overwhelmed. I think about the kindness of strangers, the meaningfulness of small acts.

I change into my hospital gown.

Jenny hooks me up to an ECG to check my cardiac function. Because I'm past the age of 45, it's compulsory. She confirms all my personal details again. She takes my blood pressure - perfect, she observes.

I lie their waiting. I read the brochure on radiation and its effects. I fill in the breakfast order menu. And then it's time.

Jenny leaves and shortly, two nurses walk in brusquely and wheel my bed down the corridor.

In the waiting area, the anaesthetist introduces himself. He has a British accent. There's some confusion about the location of my scans.

I'm wheeled into the operating theatre. I've had two operations before - both were emergencies and I did not have the luxury of this vantage point.

The whole room is gleaming white and moulded. There are large, stainless steel forms on the white ceiling. There is soft music playing. It feels like the set of a space age movie. I am dimly aware of my surgeon, a team. There is the clink of instruments.

I am asked to roll from the bed onto the operating table. As I do, a biro rolls out of the folds of my gown.

"Hey look what you brought with you," says the anesthetist.

"I told you I'm a writer," I quip.

"You should do comedy," he says.

"Actually I do," I explain.

"You should write him some new material," says my surgeon. "His stuff is getting a bit old". Then the anaesthetist starts telling me a joke. Something about a waiter with spoons.

In between the nurse is explaining that I'll feel a jab and it will hurt a bit.

The anaesthetist is about to insert the needle. "Not yet! Let her hear the punchline," says the nurse.

I can't remember the joke but the ending is quite funny. Dutifully, I chuckle.

As the nurse puts an oxygen mask over my face I ask, "Is that my heart I can hear on the machine."

She answers yes, and that's the last thing I remember about that.

When I wake up, I'm in my hospital room. There are pads on my legs automatically massaging my calves. There's a band around one arm hooked to a machine that automatically takes my bloody pressure and pulse. The machines make deep puffing noise as they inflate and deflate. Technology is amazing, it think. I drift off to sleep.

Al comes to visit. My mum and Dad comes to visit. It's the usual overnight-in-hospital so let's cut to the next day.

It's Wednesday when I get home and I spend the day in bed.

That evening I rouse myself. I know this is important - not to wallow.

Al and I have been invited next door for dinner with old friends. We talk cancer but make a pact to talk about other things. And we do. I'm aware that this illness is to become a frequent Topic of Conversation. The problem is, there's only so much levity one can insert. There aren't too many jokes about cancer but here's one: What did the 48 year old get for her birthday?

Over the next two days, there's only rest, phonecalls and texts. There are gifts - flowers, fruit, chocolates.

By Friday morning, I emerge from my torpor. Robert calls and comments that I haven't shared my news on Facebook. We talk about my blog.

He says I should be using my talents to empower people. Hmm. I think about that.

And so I write and post and wait for the inevitable murmurs of sympathy.

I have publicised my weakness and my vulnerability. I don't know if it's a good idea.

The messages keep coming. I realise that people are basically good. Whatever our petty grievances, they are insignificant. There is no one so callous that they may wish you badly. I imagine my friends and their prayers as if they are the feathers of a giant angel's wing. I imagine them enfolding me, about the protection they might provide: that wave of compassion that has come from friends and some who are, perhaps, still strangers.

Amongst them is a note from Alan's cousin, Karen from Sydney. I know they are expecting a baby in March but now there is new news.

It's not one baby. It's two! Twins.

And at once I know that this is what life is, an inevitable flux: of renewal and receding, the phases of a moon, a winter that will pass.