Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses

CHAPTER SEVEN. TREATMENT BEGINS

As I wrote previously, it was a relief to start the radiation treatment on my brain, in early May 2012: I was becoming very stressed at the waiting about, imagining that each little ache was the cancer helping itself to a new part of my body. And I’d received a couple of distressing comments from acquaintances who didn’t seem to know what to say, and seemed determined to imagine the worst. I tried to cut them off, but, unfortunately, if someone is determined to pass a silly, or tactless, comment, she will do so. The worst was perhaps that of an aging matron whom I encountered at a lovely party. “Oh,” she said, in the imperious voice she liked to imagine might mark her as gentry, “I see you are still with us.”

But most phone calls and emails from friends were an enormous help. One friend wrote, “Time is an ally which will enable you to overcome your fear and your anger; your family and close friends will also be helpful in ways no doubt already discernable.”

I had to realise that I was confronting both a physical and an emotional challenge.  The emotional I could control to a certain extent: the physical less so. Negativity did descend at regular intervals, particularly in the very early morning. I had to summon strength from somewhere to get through this darned Thing.

On 8th May 2012 Ross and I had our first meeting with Melvin Chin; as I’ve said, my medical oncologist. At the time of that first meeting I did not realise just how important a medical oncologist is. Waiting in the oncology unit for Dr Chin was rather depressing: so many very ill people, all on drips - which I assumed were their chemo drugs - all shuffling around pushing poles to which their bags of chemicals were attached.

Dr Chin explained again, in great detail, what my treatment would be, and what my options for treatment were. He talked about ‘the short view’ or ‘the long view’. All the doctors were so caring, taking plenty of time to answer our endless questions and to explain the treatments. As I was keen to live longer than just a few years, and had always maintained a vigorous health and fitness regime, I had opted for the more aggressive treatment – ‘the long view.’ That seemed to have been overtaken, however, by the option to take the new wonder drug, Tarceva. The good news was that I could take the Tarceva at the same time as I was receiving the radiotherapy to my brain. Tarceva is taken in tablet form, so the side effects are less severe than with the more usual intravenous chemotherapy.

Apart from daily meetings with my bed, ‘Bondi,’ in ‘Radiation Oncology,’ – as I described in Chapter Five - mid May 2012 also introduced me to Tarceva, the drug I thought would save my life. Even the pharmacist at POW, Tan, who dispensed the tablets, was kind, explaining patiently how to take the drug, and its possible side effects. (In fact, the only side effect was a rather unattractive skin rash, which was soothed by the application of paw paw ointment. ‘Moo goo’ was recommended to another cancer sufferer: look it up on line!)

During the entire year of treatment – the month of radiation and then the months of I.V. chemotherapy – I would wake early and start the day. What little energy I had seemed to be present at this hour. Also, the early morning hours were the worst: waking well before dawn, lying in the dark, filled with fear for what lay ahead. The monsters were coming in, through the windows.

So, it was best to get up, watch what I had recorded on the television the previous night and then answer some emails, do any required banking, and work on my columns for The Australian, the national broadsheet for which I had written a Saturday garden column since 1997: that’s over 800, I realised! The discipline of continuing to write the column, and the pleasure of receiving feedback from readers, kept me sane during 2012. Although I certainly did not tell readers of my health drama, daily engagement with so many, through their emailed questions, and my answers, was so helpful; so important.

The effects of the radiation, apart from the immediate nausea, which was helped by ginger tea, include extreme tiredness. (Ginger tea is easily made with a knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped, and boiled in a saucepan of water. Strain and add a little honey and lemon, to taste.)

I was also working hard on my new book, my 11th, ‘Country Gardens; Country Hospitality’ with the editor. Unlike some editors, Susan had a light touch: she didn’t think it was she who was writing the book. She was a joy to work with and the only person from the publishing house in whom I confided about my health. Nor did I tell ‘the powers that be’ at The Australian, until well into my treatment. It was not a case of being deceitful, rather that I didn’t want anyone to think I was not strong enough to do the job. I didn’t want the career that I had worked hard to establish over the past two decades to slip away from me. I didn’t want to become irrelevant. Everyone needs to feel wanted; to feel one has a place in the world. When I did tell Chris Mitchell, the Editor in Chief at The Australian, he said, “We can’t have anything happening to our garden writer.” I was thrilled and relieved at such a supportive comment: it gave me further strength.

And in the early mornings there would usually be an email from a friend in the United States waiting for me. He would assure me that I was not a victim; that I had simply been dealt a tough hand. I needed such reassurance, constantly.

My great friend Mark McGinness, who works in the United Arab Emirates, also writes the obits for many newspapers around the world: they are charming, funny and illuminating – about all sorts of characters. I asked him if he might start writing my obituary. He replied that he would, for whenever he prepared an obit in advance his subjects lived and lived. That sounded good.

We were just one week into my treatment when we had another piece of bad luck. One of our daughters fell off her stilettos at work one morning, and broke her foot. Much to her chagrin, she was forced to wear a huge ‘moon-boot’ on it, was hobbling around on crutches, and would be for the next five weeks! As I said to her when she complained, “Oi, it’s all about me. And now it’s about you! Your crazy shoes should be banned.” What a nuisance: one driver down.

A greater nuisance was our house being robbed that evening, and my laptop being stolen. I’d been keeping an emotion-filled diary on it, among other things. It was also frightening, as we were in the house, watching the 7pm news, when the robbers struck through a second floor rear door. They say bad things happen in threes, so I hoped that completed the trifecta for me for quite a while.

 

We had been spending gorgeous days with the children: Sundays had again become special with them all bringing partners around for big lunches or dinners. What could be better than to be with one’s family? Although I did feel jealous of what seemed like all my friends flying off for holidays in Europe.

Week two of treatment started well enough, with friends collecting me, bringing food and keeping me company. There were too many hugs and kisses, however, and soon I had a cold coming on: a sore throat and stinging ears. I was miserable, worried and felt like I was in a black tunnel with not much sun on the horizon. I wrote a note to myself: “Must keep my chin up. It’s a process, an unpleasant one, which will challenge me as it unfolds, but in time will be completed and I will be much better for it.” I needed to just go with the process, put one foot in front of the other, telling myself that each step would bring me closer to a return to full health.

For the fourth time in my life I tried to learn bridge. Friends assured me it would be a great way to keep in touch with everyone: I also rationalised that I needed to rouse myself from the sofa and get out of the house, now that I had no energy for my favourite weekly diversion – golf. I took bridge lessons with two very nice teachers, but before too many months, gave up again; this time, I insisted, for good. My playing partner said to me on one occasion, “No don’t play that card. You should play such and such.” I wondered how she knew what cards I held. “Because I’ve been counting your cards,” she replied. I couldn’t even remember my own cards! The final challenge was the two-club bid. To my mind that bid should mean you can play in clubs, but it means something completely different. I must be a black and white girl; that is definitely shades in between.

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