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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.


  1. An amazing speech Bron!... You're an inspirational woman, that's for sure!. SDeniz

  2. Thank you so much Bronwyn. It was a real privilege to have you share your journey with us; I'm sure your story and message hit home with many of the ladies in the audience. Alison

  3. thank you, thank you, thank you.....Brownie may I never need to walk in you shoes( no offence intended)..but I love the way you write and make me see it through your eyes...i love the onions!!!!

  4. Bronwyn,

    Great speech, wish I had been there to hear it. I'm a survivor myself, and helping my sister as she undertakes her own journey. I did a similar thing, in that I started a blog to chart my journey. I already had one blog, but wanted to separate the cancer from the rest of my life, as well as give it due respect.

    I haven't written anything on my cancer blog for quite some time, but with my diagnosis less than 2 years old, maybe it's time to update.

    If nothing else, I found it cathartic to write, and my own little group of special friends found a wonderful way of being supportive.

    Good luck to you, your family, and your Father-In-Law.

  5. Bronwyn, thanks again for your wonderful speech at our International Women's Day at the Marriott. I'm one of the lucky women that witnessed your speech first hand. And I'm one of the women that came up to you afterwards to thank you in person. It was an honour to meet you. Your speech made me laugh, it made me cry and most of all it inspired me. It also made me make the dreaded phone call to book in for my first mammogram! I am sorry to hear that your dearly beloved father-in-law passed away. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. I lost my Mum 3 months ago, a week before Christmas. The grieving process can be a long and lonely one, however, I found comfort in reading your words. Thank you. Kathy