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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hair 3

Hairraaayyyyyy!!! (At last, I am Punning with Scissors!)

First up, let me announce, that my head hair is growing back. And I can tell you it's a little uncomfortable: by turns itchy and painful.

In fact hair is sprouting again and, although here in Australia we are moving into autumn, in Bronwyn Land it's spring!

The resprouting of the head, however, is a real cause for celebration.

This week we took this picture of the start of the regrowth: a very sad smattering of grey and black but I don't care.

I can't wait to have even a tiny bit of lawn cover - I'm not fussy - because frankly I'm over it.

Being bald has been extremely practical - less time in the shower; less water wastage; no nasty sulphate-containing shampoos ; less time preening altogether; money saved on expensive visits to the hair dresser.

But it's also meant that I am by turns freezing or sweating with the loss of, apparently, an important part of my body's thermal regulatory functions.

It's meant I take less pleasure from dressing. Despite the countless times I seem to have been congratulated on the lovely shape of my head, and the sweet efforts of friends suggesting I'm beautiful, I'm sorry guys but, to coin a phrase, it just doesn't cut it.

It's meant I feel self-conscious at times: like the rogue Crash Test Dummy at a fancy Mannequins' Convention; like a frame from 'Metropolis' accidentally spliced into a Pantene commercial.

I admit it, okay! Lately I find even the most ordinary heads of hair positively mesmerising. I've been pining over them like a star-struck lover chasing the unattainable - until now!

There’s simply no denying it.

Where cancer patients are concerned, one of the side effects of treatment that we, possibly, most despair over is the loss of hair.

Somewhere after the first round of chemotherapy, in follicles then clumps, many are divested of every inch of bodily hair, until what’s revealed is the truly naked self.

This defoliation may be compared to a return to a pre-pupal state. Cancer patients are gradually stripped of their vanities until, what appears is a kind of larvae, a human returned to a pre-adult stage almost: smooth and bald as a baby.

But it’s the bald head that most galls.

Bald may be beautiful but my observations suggests that by and large, most cancer patients seem to want to cover up as much as possible.

At a recent radiation session in fact, my nurse Trish, commented on my bald pate. She too, has noticed that there are few who choose to be brazenly bald and bare.

What is it with hair - or its lack thereof?

I'm a lover of trivia as you may have realised by now, so of course I want to tell you that that a developing fetus has all of its hair follicles formed by week 22 by which time there are 5 MILLION follicles on the body, one million of which are on the head and around 100,000 on the scalp. (Yes, I like you, wonder at the poor sod whose job it was to count them).

Personally, I have long been fascinated by the symbolism of hair and several years ago, had my first ever magazine story published in ‘Girlfriend’ magazine on that very subject (it was even promoted on the front cover: Gee, they were desperate!).

Most of us will, for instance, know the story of Sampson and Nisos, where the length of the hero’s hair was linked to strength and mortality; or Rapunzel where it was associated with imprisonment and freedom.

Certainly, being proudly bald has been a kind of freedom for me.

You might even know the story of Queen Berenice II of Egypt who swore to the goddess Aphrodite, to sacrifice her long, blonde hair of which she was extremely proud, if her husband returned safely. (He did and today, there’s a cluster of stars called 'Berenice’s Hair’ that is sometimes visible).

Maybe for cancer patients, giving up their hair is like a contract with your God (whoever that may be for you): I will lose my hair if you will save me.

Scientists say that long hair plays a large part in natural selection among many species. That’s because long, thick and healthy hair (or fur) is a sign of fertility and youth.

Maybe it's fitting that, as menopause seems to have aged my body overnight, that I'm bald?

In East Asian cultures, long, unkempt hair is a sign of sexual intent or of a recent sexual encounter (either that, or they lost their hairbrush). That’s why ponytails, plaits and buns are the norm.

In the case of my utter baldness, this could explain... hmm, have I mentioned VAGINAL DRYNESS?

I have combed through Google for some other hair facts.

I've found that the association of hair with sexuality is, historically, a common theme through most cultures with long, loose hair associated with youthful maidens (subtext: I’m available, honey) while married women wore their hair in a bun.

It seems, chemotherapy gives you neither option and suggests that perhaps sexual availability is irrelevant. My husband would agree, alas.

The cutting of a woman’s hair, save those taking the veil of a religious order, it seems, was considered "deviant, punitive and a self-inflicted denial of sexuality".

I also found an argument where one scholar suggests ‘cross culturally, the head represents the penis, and head hair, semen.' From here, he provides a discoursive rationale as to why long hair represents unrestrained sexuality, and removing it expresses sexual restraint, as in celibacy or castration. I like it!

There seems to be a kind of absolute castration with female baldness. Maybe this absolutely hairless state is how Greer might have imagined the Female Eunuch?

Google also reveals that, in the Old Testament, long hair in men was a sign of devotion to God. This is also reflected in the beliefs of the Sikhs, where allowing your hair to grow naturally is a sign of devotion to God and lack of worldliness.

This could explain where on several occasions of late, I have caught sight of my bald head and cried "Oh God!".

For Sikhs and others, the long ponytail (or queue in the case of some Chinese tribes) was seen as the way in which God would reach from the sky and pull you up to heaven (and life in the hair-after I suppose).

So I guess my bald head means that, for now, I must put up with whatever my hell is here on earth.

In Ancient Greece, long female hair signified freedom, health, wealth and good behaviour.

In fact this carries through several culture, for example, traditional Chinese culture where long hair represented wealth and power. In many countries, such as Indonesia, the enforcement of shorter hairstyles on men especially, was a sign of servitude.

In West African cultures, women with long hair were highly valued with long, thick hair seen as a sign of health, strength and the capability to bear many children.

All of this explains why chemo patients could be described as 'poor bastards' in one context or another.

In some Jewish customes, hair was shortened to signify mourning and sadness. Tearing out or shaving the hair was believed to be an offering to strengthen the ghost of the departed into the nether world.

I suppose, I'm mourning a few things: the loss of my health, beauty and, to an extent, freedom.

But the relationship with hair and life (or cutting hair and death) recurs in other cultures.

In Victorian times, for instance, there existed a bizarre practice of creating ‘mourning art’ where the hair of the disease was preserved in pieces of jewellery, or ground into sepia paint and used on canvases, or woven and glued to urns and other high relief or three dimensional works, or even embroidered into silk pieces. Yuk. Truly creepy.

During this era, the hair of the diseased was often cut off and crafted into a wreathe to be displayed in the home. In fact, the hair was a prized possession, and the wreathe proudly displayed.

Reading all of this then, I have a deeper understanding of just why so many chemotherapeutically balded women seem to be ashamed of their naked heads.

Could it be that we feel not just uglified, but stripped of our social context?

Perhaps we are unsure as to what being brazenly bald says about us?

Perhaps we are ashamed of the fact that we are 'marked' as 'the unlucky ones', attracting pity because we bear the scars of breast cancer?

I don't know what the reasoning really is and the literature offers no answers.

What exactly does it SAY about a woman who is PROUDLY bald?

Once, when I had extremely short hair, I had to literally beat off a few lesbians. But aside from that, what else might being proudly bald tell you?

I will tell you what I think.

Being proudly bald simply means that you are person who isn't ashamed of whatever life has dealt you.

It might also mean, that in my case, you're simply being practical. Listen, mate, the wig's just uncomfortable, okay?

What is wrong with us if we are not permitted to be hair-free, regardless of our own discomfort?

So you know what?

My bald head may say different things to different people. It may say I'm ugly or unsexy, unhealthy or unwell, infertile, un-whatever.

But who cares?

The only thing that should be important is what it says to ME!

And here is what it says:

Live in the Hair and Now as best you can.

Because nothing is forever. Bald now? Pfft. Tomorrow. Hair.

It really IS as simple as that.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Radiation 2

It's a lovely day, a brisk wind blowing with a nudge of autumn in the air.

Today I start the second week of radiation and can report that so far so good. Apart from feeling a little tired by the Friday, I have no skin irritation yet and no real discomfort to speak of.

I have found out that I am to have 24 shots in total so I'm counting down them off one by one: 6 down, 18 to go.

As my days are now organised around the time of my appointments, I have started a reasonable routine.

This morning Ethel and Al go to collect George's ashes while I go to the gym.

This is the fourth week of my mission to somehow regain something of the fit body I used to have.

The first three weeks, I was too embarrassed about my bald head so I wore a hat. But the last few days, I haven't been bothered. It's just too hot.

Today when I arrive I think to myself that, after literally decades of regular gym exercise, I don't think I've ever seen anyone who looked like they'd been through chemotherapy. (You could call it a Double-X Chromosome Chrome-Dome Free Zone, all in all.)

I wonder what the other gym goers think of me but really, I don't care.

Now that the swelling from the drugs has receded a bit, I am able to fit into some of my old sports bras. I just stuff Fake Nicky into the gap and off I go.

Last week, the prosthesis got really hot and sweaty while I was on the running machine, so I just took it out in disgust and popped it into the drinks holder.

Still, it's useful missing a breast because it creates a handy space in which to stick my iPhone. Sometimes I take my iPod but I have to watch out because it falls through the crevice and can end up in my crutch.

I am winging this business of getting back into exercise as my research into the subject of mastectomies, breast cancer and exercise has proved largely fruitless.

Women wanting to get a little bit of their strength and conditioning back generally rely on the information shared by other breast cancer sufferers, as there's not a huge amount of information out there about the 'dos' and 'don'ts'.

As it is, I try not to spend any more than one-hour in there as it's important not to over do it. Even I know that!

All that time, I assiduously avoid my reflection, other than to check whether the tits are even. (A loose prosthesis tends to misbehave, somewhat. Especially at golf - I've only played once so far - where it ended up under my chin!).

Six months ago I had a fairly flat stomach and now, I have a Buddha-esque paunch. It is a little sad but what can I do other than breathe in - 2-3-4 and breathe out 2-3-4 while attempting to maintain good form?

After the gym, I have been trying to do some writing but today things are a little different.

Today, Ethel and I go to my mum's for lunch with a good friend of my parents, John. He and his wife Dell have just returned from a big trip around Australia and, on their journey, I kid you not, he has telephoned every single week to check on my progress.

John actually gave the toast to my parents at my wedding. As a dear old pal of my dad's, I think he realises how close I am to my father. Dad has had many sleepless nights since I was diagnosed, and I know John really understands his distress.

I am really glad Ethel comes out with me. As you can imagine, she has had to make a huge adjustment in her life lately. She and I share one thing at the moment: we are both trying to create a new 'normal' in our lives.

When Ethel and I arrive, John and Dell and another couple, Richard and Ruth are there. I think it's good that I made the effort to go because John looks relieved. Ruth comments on my 'good colour'.

It's only now, I guess, I realise that there seems to be a stereotype of 'cancer sufferers'. I think people expect us to be kind of pale and wasted and sickly looking! Maybe a bit like Dr Evil after a couple of months on the water diet?

Indeed, many people seem to be surprised at the activity I am managing. Two weeks ago I even returned to being a soccer referree.

Physically, refereeing can be as hard or as mild as you want to make it. Some of the fatter ones will call a ball in or out from the other side of the field because they are too lazy to run. (I'm sure some would call the game from the change room if they could get away with it. We soccer girls call these ones "special". You know the ones?)

But importantly, it's a good brain exercise because it involves spatial awareness, observation and memory.

And it's good for my confidence, which, I have to admit has taken a bit of a knock in recent months.

The real test of that came last Friday when I had to attend a Youth Referees Seminar. There were 400 or so of us, mainly, well YOUTHS in an auditorium at Griffith University. And there I was with my bald head.

I wasn't as self-conscious as I thought I would be. However, at one point, I realised I kept trying to shift my prosthesis into a more comfortable spot. I fear, it was only later I realised it must have looked as if I was channelling my inner porn star.

So today at lunch, I am careful to keep my hands away from Fake Nicky and, instead, I enjoy the company and conversation.

Afterwards, I leave Mum and Dad's place with an Esky full of left overs for the family dinner. Score!

Ethel and I drive into South Brisbane but I'm in a bit of a lather. My appointment is at 2.55 pm and I don't allow enough time. I end up speeding a little as I think I'm running late. (I get every red light and there are ALWAYS roadworks on the M3).

At the Mater, I ask Ethel to park the car and sprint to the Radiation building. Virtually as soon as I sit down I am called in and as usual, everything happens quickly.

I know the routine like clockwork already: Strip, pause, chat, bed, chat, zap, chat, front counter, carpark, home!

We end up with a cruisy journey home with not much traffic. We pick up Harry from Capalaba and get home.

With no dinner to be prepared, I manage a short stroll with Spunky then settle down with a weak Scotch and soda.

Outside it is a cool, clear night with a crescent moon. In the bedroom I can hear Ben chuckling in his famous Scooby-Doo-esque way at something funny on Youtube. With Spunky at my feet, the world is otherwise quiet and still.

All in all, this is a great moment for breathing.

I for one, am not taking a minute of this thing called living for granted.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Radiation 1

Today Al and I go into South Brisbane for the start of my radiation treatment.

My appointment is at 12:40 pm so I opt to pass the morning as fruitfully as possible. I tell Al as it's a good 80-90 minute round trip into South Brisbane, if this business of driving back and forth is to be my/our lifestyle for the next five weeks, I need to work out a routine.

I'm not exactly nervous. I've been told the chief side effects of radiation are fatigue (the effects of which are mitigated for those who have already been through chemo) and very bad sunburn. I'm not particularly perturbed by the likelihood of either. I am managing my fatigue through regular exercise, and I have skin that doesn't easily burn. However, time will tell.

I do some ironing, I pay some bills. Before I know it it's time to drive in. I guess this is the thing about early afternoon appointments: they interrupt the flow of a day.

In the car, Al says he is happy to sit with me but I've been told it's relatively quick and easy, these treatments. The plan is that he'll go and distribute some flyers today after dropping me off.

It's a smooth ride in and, once I've hopped out of the car, I know I have to go downstairs and present to the desk there. While I'm there, I help myself to a free scarf, made by the Mater's volunteers. Who knew a mere triangle of material could be so useful!

Next, a lady called Ruth comes round the desk and gives me a quick run down of what to expect as she leads me to the waiting room. I have a dedicated nurse whose name is Trish I think, but she's away today. All of my treatments are to happen in Room 3. I am to moisturise the radiated area regularly, but not two hours before my treatment. Side effects will set in around two and a half weeks after I begin, so there's no need to panic that I seem to have come completely unprepared.

In the waiting room I make myself a cup of tea. I am distracted by an elderly gentleman who is putting the finishing pieces into a jigsaw puzzle that's laid out on a small table.

"You didn't do that all yourself did you?" I ask him.

"No," he says, "Some of these pieces have been placed in the wrong place."

"That's a relief," I say. "It would mean you've had to wait kind of a long time if you've managed to finish a jigsaw."

I am quietly amused when another older gentleman joins the fellow and, over the next 10 minutes or so, the two begin an earnest discussion about the tricks and traps of jigsaws and those pesky pieces you put in the wrong place. Actually, it's kind of cute. They really take this jigsaw business seriously!

I open my Kindle but before I can read a single word, I am called in. Jeez, that really was quick!

A nice looking boy called Adam leads me into a room where the light is muted. He tells me he's a radiologist and there are about eight of them so I shouldn't bother trying to remember his name.

Inside the room are three other young people and all of them are involved in the process that is my first radiation.

There's also the same kind of machine I was originally measured up in. Here's a picture of it:

As I am dressed in shorts and a top, I am allowed to forego the whole business of changing into a gown, and instead am given a towel. I basically whip my top off in front of these strangers while trying to protect Paris from peering eyes. Dear me. She would make a very sorry sight indeed if she were to flap loose.

I edge up to the machine and lie down while I'm covered with a white sheet. I am face up staring up at the machine with my arms behind me.

At every stage of the process, Adam carefully explains what's going on as I can't see a thing from this rather vulnerable position.

A mark is made on the tattoos on my scar, the scar is covered up, the team circles me like a bunch of crazed mathematicians, announcing a series of numbers: 18.2 from the right side, 19.2 from the left and so on.

My scar is covered with the gel strip, the making of which I described in an earlier blog.

I am told that they will leave the room and they'll be watching me so if I need them, I'm to wave an arm.

I will hear a buzzing noise. I can close my eyes if I like but I won't be able to see any light so it doesn't really matter.

"How long will this take?" I ask and am told it will take 5-10 minutes.

The team leave the room and so there I am, lying still on this machine. I hear a sort of loud clicking noise followed by a low hum, and watch as this large round formation of metal and glass first focusses on my right side.

It seems to take ages while all the time, I'm aware that it's bloody freezing because of the air conditioning.

The room is still - just me with this machine clicking and humming - but in the background somewhere, very softly, a radio is playing a tune I can't recognise.

Then the machine moves across me to the left hand side. It moves quietly but I can't help thinking that there's something deadly about it. The radiation it exudes is powerful enough to kill cancer cells, powerful enough to damage vital organs if incorrectly used. I try to project positive thoughts about being cancer free.

I close my eyes and breathe.

And then, suddenly, the team is back in the room. It's done in a snap it seems. All over red rover and barely five minutes I reckon.

Wow! That really was quick and I didn't feel a thing!

After signing my Medicare form, I go outside and telephone Al. I arrange to see him in half an hour while I go across the road to the Coffee Club to enjoy a bit of my book and a Flat White Extra Hot.

All the way home, I read my book.

After we get home, I go for a 6 km run. This will be a good way to see how well I travel through the next phase of this treatment.

I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Tally ho!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Death in the Family

On Sunday, March 11 at 12.15 am, after battling emphysema for several years, my beloved father-in-law, George passes away.

He is a man I truly loved and now, there seems to be a deep gap in my family: a gash.

Here is a picture of him with Ethel:

Al and Ethel are by George's bedside the morning he dies at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane, a place they have been travelling to and from for the past three weeks. It has been exhausting for both of them.

Afterwards they will report how it all transpired. How George was taken off the machines that helped him breathe, how they watched, distressed, as his heart then his blood pressure, all his vital signs, dropped suddenly then flatlined, and how quickly it seemed his body went cold.

Al is able to tell me how George was intermittently conscious, how he was able to say his goodbyes.

Neither can relive the experience without crying. It's awful.

I'm still trying to shake a cough. Still a little susceptible to bugs, I couldn't visit George in hospital. I had to rely on a kind of semaphore to let him know I was thinking of him.

It is some compensation that Ethel managed to read him my last blog, "Blessings", while he was partly conscious. I could console myself that through these words, I was by his bedside in a way, but it would be a small consolation.

As our hopes have been raised then shattered through his battle, Al and I have cried then recovered. It's been an emotional roller coaster that has culminated in this terrible sense of loss.

George's illness and death hits me harder than I anticipate.

On the day George goes, I go for a 6 km walk and I cry from beginning to end. It's like a cartoon cry, like Olive Oil cries when Brutus is a brute: big chunky tears that spew from my eyes.

All day I think about loss and losing, the cruelty of life, the way things we love or need are taken from us by a thousand, slow cuts.

That evening Al and I hold each other and sob.

This is all new to me: this thing that is grieving. It is a deep and debilitating feeling, a shredding from the inside.

Still, life goes on so the week passes. All week, we work on the funeral service. Al and Ethel sift through hundreds of old photographs. Ethel navigates the sea of formalities that come on the heels of such an event. I rally myself somehow to source some music and craft some readings for the service.

On Monday Al and Ethel go to see the funeral director. We will cremate George at the nearby crematorium at Mount Cotton and the plan is to spread his ashes most likely in the Bay where, for many years, he loved fishing and boating. There will be no hanging around there afterwards we're told as it seems that the Grim Reaper has been really working his scythe lately. (Bastard!)

Nicky rings and explains how even Peter, her usually stoic and quiet husband has been crying. She asks about the funeral arrangements and makes me laugh when she says she's so bad at funerals, she's thinking of hiring herself out as a professional mourner.

On Tuesday, Al speaks to the celebrant.

Friends are invited to the funeral and those who offer to bring something for the wake are not rebuffed. We are expecting at least 60 people to come to our home afterwards for refreshments: I don't have the energy to prepare everything myself.

That evening we go to the see the Nigerian-English comedian, Stephen K Amos, at the Brisbane Powerhouse. (I booked the tickets ages ago). I'm really glad because we both have a good laugh. It's much needed. Afterwards, we have a drink on the deck and again are somewhat melancholy.

On Wednesday, Al prepares his presentation - a production worthy of Spielberg and extremely time consuming.

Nicky rings again and we chat about George, a man who lived with such absolute integrity. I find myself saying how for such a quiet and unassuming figure, he made such an impression on people. I ponder the fact that George was a man who really lived by a strong belief in doing right, in everything and for everyone. He is a man who never cheated, never lied, was incorruptible. He worked hard without complaining and paid his own way every day of his life. He genuinely had few if any regrets.

In the afternoon we have an inspection, and Ethel comes early to help clean up. It's such a lot of work this business of selling a house but keeping busy helps us all.

I go for a 5 kilometre run with Spunky lagging behind for a change and in the evening, we go to Trivia and win.

On Thursday, Al finishes the artwork for the Order of Service and we send it off to a local printery. (It helps that he's a graphic designer.) A little later, we go to view the body which is held at the funeral director's head office at Mount Gravatt.

We are met by the funeral director who looks like a stereotype of an undertaker although I notice his bright yellow tie is crooked. (He is tall and thin, dressed in a dark suit. Why don't undertakers dress like Al Grasby? Come on! Would it hurt to wear some lairy stripes from time to time?).

We are directed into a tiny chapel where Pachelbel's Canon in D is playing softly. George is laid out in a coffin at the end of the aisle. He's dressed in his blazer and a navy tie. As soon as I see him, I burst into tears. Al cries. Ethel cries but, at the same time, she says he looks really good, so much better than he did in hospital. I notice he has red lips. His skin looks smooth. He looks like he is fast asleep.

Ethel places George's cricket cap (he was once selected to play County Cricket - he was a great bowler), a box of chocolates (George had a notorious love for dark chocolate especially) and a picture of Peanut, the dog that seemed to have been superglued to his side as long as they've had her. If the Egyptians could prepare for the after life in this way, why shouldn't we?

I am still crying out in the car park, and sniff all the way home with Ethel. Ethel says she is glad she went to see George at rest. It makes her feel better.

After I get home, I have to go to the shops to pick up some ingredients for the goodies I am baking for the wake. At the shops, I digress from my mission and browse through a dress shop.

While I am there, I exchange pleasantries with a lovely lady with quite a youthful face. She boldly (baldly?) asks me if I have 'Shaved for a Cure' (an annual fundraising initiative of the Leukaemia Foundation) or if I have gone through chemotherapy.

From there a conversation develops when she tells me she is curious because her four year old has also been through chemo for something called 'neuroblastoma'. I ask her if that's leukaemia and, almost sunnily, she basically says the prognosis is usually much worse. Her son's name is Oscar and I can't help saying: "Poor little mite, I'll pray for him". I mean, what else can I say?

Then I discover she is buying a new dress for a funeral tomorrow too - except it's the funeral for a two year old little girl.

Now, there you go. That puts things in perspective doesn't it?

In the evening, I bake some muffins and a cake and later, I go to my meeting with Karen's campaign team.

That night, Al stays up until 3.30 am finishing his presentation.

We wake on Friday, both feeling unrefreshed. After a week of rain and gloom I am surprised to find it is a lovely day with a blue sky and a nice breeze. George has done well.

After tidying the house, we all get ready. Ethel comes over and runs Ben through the poem I have written for him. All four of us are to speak at the funeral but I'm not sure how the boys will go. Al has cheated as his presentation includes his spoken tribute. (He has to do it this way as he is really shy of presentations. If you add his emotional state to the equation, it is unlikely he would have spoken at all. Besids, he can share the presentation with his relatives in the UK so it's a bonus.)

At 12.15 pm we set off for the Great Southern Garden of Rememberance at Mount Cotton for the service.

Pretty much as soon as we get there, guests start to arrive. They include Rob, Al's cousin, who is based in Sydney and several friends from Brisbane who have taken the morning or day off work to come and show their respects.

There are friends I haven't seen in ages, months, years! It's terrible that it takes a death in the family to bring people together.

All my closest friends are here or represented. My sister Fiona brings her whole family (which is awesome!).

My sister Nicky is crying even before the service begins. So is my mum.

In memory of George's love for chocolates, a plate of Cadburys are offered on as silver platter and I have to stop my youngest nephew, Raphy, from gorging himself before everyone has had one.

Al consults with the celebrant, Robyn and another representative from Metropolitan Funerals.

There are kisses, hugs.

At 1.00 pm, right on the schedule, Amazing Grace as sung by Judy Collins begins. The A Capella strains fill the small chapel at the end of which George's coffin rests. It's decorated with an arrangement by Ness which includes the fragrant frangipani grown by George.

Al's presentation is great - photos, film. It was worth the effort. There is a moment of reflection as we listen to 'Blue Moon' which was George's favourite tune that, I daresay, took him back to the days when he loved dancing.

Then it's Harry's turn to speak. He is crying and has to gather himself. I'm so proud of him. I can tell you from experience, there is nothing harder to do: to rally yourself in the face of grief. Harry reads a poem and then a personal tribute he has written. It's very healthy I think: for a boy to be able to grieve like this.

It's Ben's turn to read the poem I wrote for him but the child is sobbing. He can't do it. So Robyn reads the poem instead. (Al was right: Ben really IS like him.)

Finally it's my turn. I am surprisingly collected and can only assume that I have wept myself pretty much dry over the past few days. I cry a little through the service but all in all, I am doing well.

The service is completed in half an hour. As Lionel Richie sings "Goodbye", the curtain finally shuts on George Hope. It is at this point that I bawl.

We shuffle out of the church, wiping our eyes.

In the carpark, the next group of mourners has arrived so there is little time for farewells to those who aren't staying for the wake afterwards.

A long row of cars heads back to our place. It's hard to know how many ended up coming back. All I know is every last bottle of alcohol was drunk and every morsel that was prepared was eaten, barring some cake.

My friends are a great support, serving food, filling up glasses, helping with washing up. Aren't they wonderful?

There is conversation, laughter as we gather on the back deck. Guests come and go.

As the light leaves the sky, the breeze gathers. It's pleasant and I think of George, up in the sky.

The last of my guests do not leave until 8.30 pm. By this time, Al has conked out, fully clothed on top of our bed.

Rob and I clean up.

I am asleep by 9.00 pm I think. George has had a great send-off.

It was exactly three weeks yesterday, since I got out of hospital. With everything that has happened, some friends have commented that I must have 'run over a Chinaman' but I am quick to dispel that idea.

Really, I don't see myself as any luckier or unluckier than anyone else. We all have our bad patches and this just happens to be Al's and mine.

Sure, there have been some moments recently when I have felt a tiny bit overwhelmed, even a little negative. But overall, I can't say I think I'm that badly off.

What is life without a few knocks, eh? It's what gives us context.

This week 22 children were killed in a bus accident in the Swiss Alps.

This week, a two year old toddler ran onto a busy motorway and was skittled by two cars.

I think about the suffering these incidents have left behind.

I think about Oscar battling neuroblastoma at just four years of age.

Here is one thing this week has emphasised. Dying is easy. It's living that isn't for sissies.

You have to dig deep if you want to hang on.

George hung on to his life as long as he could. That's all any of us can do.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Speaking to Women

It's International Women's Day today and this afternoon, I've been invited to address a group of 70 women at a corporate function for Accenture. (It used to be Arthur Andersen's back in the day).

I wake with trepidation - it's going to be an interesting day for one reason or another.

You see, Al's dad George is critically ill in hospital. In fact, he's on life support and today he has to be taken off the machine. It will be touch and go as to how things might pan out.

After doing some work, Al leaves for the hospital. (I feel so sorry for him!).

I love George dearly and it's been an emotional time for the family: the idea that this might be it for Alan's wonderful dad. George has been going in and out of consciousness and this is week three since he was admitted to the Wesley Hospital.

I feel a little lost. I read some of the book I need to have finished for my book club tomorrow. Janet rings.

Afterwards, I force myself to go the gym. Even though exercising is the last thing I feel like doing, I know it will help to balance the way I'm feeling which is, if the truth be told, a little down.

While I am there I text Al to see how George is faring. They have successfully taken him off the machine and Al says he seems to be breathing on his own. Perhaps there is the teensiest tiny bit of hope?

I want to visit George. I haven't had a chance yet and I don't know if it will be the last time I see him alive. So when I get home, I ask Harry if he wants to come with me to the Hospital and the boy is keen. I figure I can fit in a quick visit and then head off to the Marriott where I'l be speaking.

After I shower, I admit to a bit of a dilemma as to whether to wear the wig, a scarf or go the bald. In the end, I choose a scarf (best not to scare the women off entirely!).

On the way, in the car, Harry asks me why I'm making my presentation today. I reply: "What else would I be doing? Sitting on my bum. Besides, it'll be a good experience."

We arrive at the hospital in good time, thanks to the T2 lane on the freeway: 2 passengers so let us through! Yee ha!

I park on Chaseley Street and nearly have a heart attack trying to climb up the hill to the entrance.

As it turns out, Harry and I bump into Ethel and Al in the foyer. It seems visiting hours are over. (They are very strict in the Intensive Care Unit).

We go upstairs to the ICU in the hope that we might cajole the nurse into allowing a very short visit but it fails to transpire. George is still unconscious so what to do?

I head off early to my talk which is at the Marriott Hotel in the City.

They have arranged valet parking for me which makes it all really easy.

When I get upstairs, I am met by Alison, the organiser and taken into a room full of women of all ages it seems.

There are four speakers today: me, a tall and very beautiful girl, Melinda (who is also a friend of Nim's I know), a lady call Sue who is an Exedcutive Manager at Brisbane City Council, and Catherine who is a senior executive at Accenture.

We are rigged up with some of those groovy microphones - the kind they attach to TV Personalities - and sit in a row on an open stage, like objects on display. I feel a bit conspicuous: me in my scarf. Does it scream 'cancer victim'?

As the line-up is pretty casual, we are asked "who would like to go first" and Melinda, bless her, gets up as she's closest to the lectern.

Melinda has prepared some material on her iPad which she refers to. I find her a warm, funny and engaging speaker who speaks candidly about the difficulty of juggling work and family. She's obviously a hard worker and very successful.

When Melinda concludes to good applause, I am asked if I would like to go next but I say, "No! I'll go last as I'm a bit depressing." Laughter.

So Sue goes next. She's working off dot points on a scrap of paper. Yes, that kind of speaker. Confident, fluid. She's obviously a high achiever and quite interesting if you are interested in career management and upward mobility.

Then there's Catherine who seems to think she's "bland", but I like her conversational style. She doesn't even move to the lectern. She seems down to earth and talks about 'work life balance'.

It's at this point that I admit I feel a little out of place. Career betterment? Work life balance? Juggling home and work? These are alien concepts to me these days. I'm just a humble freelance writer, often unemployed and/or working for no financial return.

But I'm here and now it's my turn, me with my speech written out in full. As I ad lib in my opening remark: "Well, I am a speechwriter so I've written my speech."

And because some of you have shown an interest in hearing what I have to say, here is my speech for your enjoyment. Just imagine my slightly shrill Sri Lankan accent (please, not New Delhi but Colombo) and keep in mind, the theme of the day was "The Path Forward":

Good afternoon ladies.

Once upon a time, I thought of myself as somewhat unique. Being of mixed Sri Lankan, Belgian and Scottish heritage, who could blame me?

I thought I was unique, that is until September last year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

This put me among 1.5 million women worldwide who will receive a diagnosis of breast cancer each and every year. 1.5 million. That's about three times the population of the Gold Coast.

But how I am unique or at least vaguely different is in how I chose to move forward on the new path I found myself on.

Today I want to share with you the biggest lesson I've learned as a result.

Firstly, let me thank Accenture for the opportunity to speak with you today... it's not often I get to take Fake Nicky out to an event of this stature.

You see, like many women, my breasts used to have a personality of their own and, given their showy and somewhat unruly nature, I had nicknamed them Nicky and Paris.

Nicky, my left breast was removed in November last year, and was recently replaced by Fake Nicky.


Now it's not often one gets to peddle the word 'breasts' - or tits or boobs for that matter - in a public forum such as this one.

And that's a shame, ladies, because as I've recently discovered, breasts can play a much greater role than you imagined in your life, your career path, your future...

Too many women take their breasts for granted.

I was one of them.

Look, I don't' wish to boast, but as you can see, I was not short changed where boobs are concerned - MORE UNSAVOURY GESTURES - and in fact, I have to admit I've been quite shy of them.

Most of the time I've ignored them as being, well, a bit of a nuisance - hard to tame, always poking out at the wrong time, Paul Keating might have called them "recalcitrant" - especially when jogging.

So you'll understand why it took me 44 years before I even bothered with a mammogram ... I had one yes... but it was inconvenient, it hurt like hell, it found nothing, and so I just thought "what a waste of time".

And then the week I turned 48, everything changed when I discovered I had breast cancer.

Two lumpectomies, one mastectomy and six chemotherapy sessions later, the thing I wanted to share with you today is one lesson I've learned early in the piece.

Women should check their breasts regularly. Religiously in fact, and I don't care if that means putting on a nun's habit while you do it. Check your breasts the same time after every period. And if you have daughters, tell them, love your breasts. Don't be afraid of shouting "TITS!!!" in a public place if you must. Check your breasts.

But that's not the biggest lesson...

Now the thing with a diagnosis of cancer, or any illness, or any slap that the universe might deliver is that there's really only one way you can go... and that's forward.

And I guess this is why the whole process of dealing with breast cancer is so often described as a "journey" it's become a kind of cliche.

But, unlike any other journey you might plan, say a trip to Disneyland, or if that's out of your league maybe Bribie Island, you really can't rely on a meticulously planned itinerary.

Because getting a cancer diagnosis is like going to bed in Brisbane and waking up in Kathmandu.

The only thing that you know about this country you've landed in is that there are some mountains here, and some people who climb them, well, it's a bummer, but they die.

And from this position of being in a strange place you've never been to before and generally clueless, you step out and somehow find yourself cast upon a journey.

One lesson you learn along the way is you shouldn't be afraid... Most people hear the C-word and go immediately to the D-word.

But here in Kathmandu, not everyone climbs Mount Everest, so don't turn a AA Cup into a DDD cup needlessly.

The survival rate from breast cancer is close to 87%... Don't be afraid!

But that's not the biggest lesson...

The biggest lesson is this.

When any of us is faced with a challenge, the best path forward is to turn a negative into a positive by using it to try and help others.

In my case, it has simply been the creation of a blog, started as I lay unhappy and languishing in bed afar my second lumpectomy.

News had travelled about my breast cancer diagnosis and, as it turns out, two friends rang me and asked me why I had not put anything up on my Facebook.'

Facebook? Good God! What a place to advertise this of all things! I may as well flash my tits to the world!

"But you can empower so many people if you write about it," is how one friend put it t me.

And so, in my bleary state, barely able to concentrate, I sat in front of my computer.

I came up with the most cliched title you could imagine, "My breast cancer journey"... yes, hardly titillating...

And an URL that remains an embarrassment:

And I started typing... and typing... and I kept typing.

This blog has now generated close to 13000 page views and, along the way, based on feedback I've received, I've been making a difference to someone out there I believe.

Many women have been motivated to have that mammogram they've put off for to long; breast cancer survivors have told me it's cathartic; others now have a new empathy for their friends and relatives who they may have supported through this dreaded disease.

The depressing thing is that one in eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.

It could be one of you already. It could have been one of you in the past.

It's part of my path forward that I've managed to put my writing skills to use to help someone else.

For others, it can be as simple as paying it forward to just one other woman going through the same thing... and most fellow breast cancer survivors do.

So my biggest lesson so far is that every negative can become a positive, with the right attitude. Even something as diabolical as cancer can be seen as something life affirming in a way, if you have the right perspective.

Remember, as Max Planck, the famous physicist once said: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."

He was right!

And now, so as I leave you in a perkier state than I found you in - I don't want to leave you sagging after all - I thought I'd share a joke about breasts:

A family is at at the dinner table when the son asks his father: 'Dad, how many kinds of boobs are there?' The father, surprised, answers: 'Well son, there are three kinds of breasts. In her 20s, a woman's breasts are like melons, round and firm. In her 30s to 40s, they are like pears, still nice but hanging a bit. After 50, they are like onions.' Onions? 'Yes, you see them and they make you cry.'

Cue uproarious applause. Okay, it isn't uproarious but it seems quite loud.

Afterwards, I go upstairs with the ladies for drinks. Several come up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed my talk. I find myself talking candidly about various subjects such as sex education, penises, and my pet subject of vaginal dryness.

Hey! It's International Woman's Day. I'm allowed to.

To all my sisters out there: stay well. And here's to healthy tits.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


It is inevitable in this cancer journey, that at some stage I will take stock and seek to count my blessings.

In fact, in my world, it's essential to the daily experience of living.

I've mentioned it before: how my mother has been a staunch advocate of 'gratitude', something that was drummed into my sisters and me from around the time we arrived in Australia.

I think that my Mum, in her efforts to acclimatise to the alien lifestyle we discovered here, always focussed on the fact that, despite our trials and tribulations, we should be grateful that they gave up the known for the unknown for the better life we had.

From this then, it has not been hard for me to become a person that continually checks herself. I routinely count my blessings, I really do. But cancer has truly brought it home.

In fact, it's made me somewhat sensitive to the fact that, for too many people I know, life is not about blessings but a string of apparently unending curses.

Sometimes I think that we are a species of whingers who never run out of reasons to complain or whine about something that is unsatisfactory, that doesn't meet a standard.

For many of us it seems, things are never good enough and we exist in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction: not young enough; not pretty enough; not fit enough; not rich enough; not successful enough; not free enough; not happy enough; not loved enough; not validated enough ... and so the list goes on.

I don't know how, when or why self acceptance became difficult. Was it the day man first saw his reflection in a pond of water? (Admittedly,the Neanderthals were no works of art but really, who cares if your forehead juts out a bit?) Did it begin the day the mother-in-law was invented?

I don't know what pleasure there is from an unrelenting focus on what is JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

It's amazing what a small shift in perspective will do, a shift that cancer has brought.

Thanks to cancer, here is one thing I now know for certain. The greatest blessing of all is life, and we can begin the chain of gratitude from this one simple fact: that we are all lucky simply to be alive.

I have lost count of the moments in which I have gazed of late, at simple things like a changing sky, a bird resting on a telephone line or the mesmerising sight of a full moon and been grateful to be alive.

Yesterday, during my routine late afternoon walk it started to rain so I took off my hat, just so I could feel the rain on my (bald) head. It just felt good, to hear the way it splashed on my skin, to feel the wetness of it, to be part of the living earth.

The smell of the heat off the tarmac, the sound of laughter, or even just a breeze on a hot summer's day makes me glad to still be here, walking this planet and breathing.

From this starting point, I can rattle off my blessings without a second guess: The country I now call home where we should have little to whinge about when you look at the crap that the rest of the world seems to be enduring; the access I have had to such wonderful medical care; my family, my friends, my home and all the support I have received; my interests that have so far stopped me going completely mad with boredom; my mental stamina that has helped me stay positive; the flexibility afforded by my profession that has allowed me to be sick in bed without fretting about obligations; even the love of my dog that has motivated me to get up and walk (I covered over 300 km throughout my chemo). There are so many worse lives I could be living with or without cancer. And I'm deeply grateful for that.

On top of this, as I will detail later, cancer in itself has been a blessing in disguise, providing a lens through which I have been able to gain a new clarity about people and things around me.

The one thing I have learned up front is that there's a universality about the way we humans think and feel. So instead of judging each other, we should be embracing each other as sisters and brothers, all co-travellers on the same, long, hard road.

In fact, I feel teary when I think about it: how human beings are generally good and we are all of us, just a little too hard on ourselves.

Although I am nowhere near the end of my journey, already I know that if anything, cancer has expanded my blessings.

So the problem isn't counting them.

It's keeping track of them.