Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


Finding a good cup of tea is always a priority for me. Tea - its preparation and its drinking - has always been an important part of my life. There've been times, however, when getting a cup of tea has been the least of my worries. In March 2012, tea leaves and tea bags became irrelevant. I was diagnosed with life threatening lung cancer, which had metastasised to tumours in my brain, and, on the way, had made itself at home in my lymph glands, liver and adrenal glands. I was given a grim prognosis.

The ceremony of tea is part of my earliest childhood memories. My parents lived for decades in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where my father, whose family had long lived between that lush, green island and the United Kingdom, was part of the tea industry. My father was always meticulous about the type of leaf tea used, the tea pot in which it was brewed, how that pot was warmed; even how the water should be boiled. So I was brought up on the romance and the ritual of 'real tea', avoiding tea bags, which, my father would often say, comprised, 'sweepings from the factory floor.' Today, one of the many joys of returning home from a trip is making a pot of tea with my favourite blend, which I create from several packs of loose leaf tea, usually two of Ceylon to one of China.

A few years ago my elder daughter and I were staying in a wonderful hotel in France. A very beautiful hotel, it belonged to one of those luxury groups that purport to understand, and to offer, the very best in everything. One of those hotels where the curtains alone, with their swags, braids, and fringing, promise perfection. We were in the Champagne district of France, and the hotel was on a hill overlooking Hautevillers, one of the most highly rated vineyard villages of that cold northern wine region. In the afternoon, around 4 o'clock, I asked the head waiter for a cup of tea. "Do you have leaf tea?" I asked hopefully. "Loose leaf tea?"

He looked at me superciliously. "Oh no Madame," he said. "The EU will not allow it. For health reasons." He shrugged when confronted with my cynical look. I suppose we somehow made do with tea bags. Of course, it would be ludicrous to suggest that there are not worse problems to encounter, but this was disappointing.

The the next morning, in the exquisitely appointed breakfast room, a guest was sitting at a table in the bay window that overlooked those famous vineyards, enjoying her breakfast. And, sitting in her lap, were two little dogs. In an opposite corner, hovering solicitously around another table of guests, was that same head waiter from the previous day's conversation. I beckoned him, my eyebrows raised in anticipation of being noticed and forefinger raised in a polite gesture of summons. "Oh Mum, don't make a fuss," said my daughter, rolling her eyes.

I pointed to the dogs and inquired about the EU and its health regulations. "Ah, Madame," he said, straightening to reach his full height of five feet four, as he shrugged, "This is France."

In March 2012, however, I was presented with a much greater challenge. While I referred to my cancer as just an irritating bump in the road map that I had laid out for the next 20 years, the truth is that 2012 was an awful year. My hair fell out, the intravenous chemotherapy made me ill, each and every day; I couldn't sleep, and, having been an organised and energetic person, I now had no energy. Worst of all, I was staring into a black abyss of not knowing: of not knowing if I would survive. Now forced to acknowledge that there are no certainties in life. That I could not control everything. My choices in life had been taken from me. I felt completely disempowered.

It was all so sudden. I went from assuming I was bullet-proof to acknowledging that I may die. Free-fall in just a few hours.

I'd had a mild headache for a month, but had dismissed it as the beginning of a cold. I'd driven back from the New South Wales' country town of Jugiong on the Tuesday night, 27th March, after photographing and recording a large pastoral garden, and the food at Long Track Pantry, a popular café and favourite stop for travellers on the Hume. On the Wednesday, at home in Sydney, I finished these last chapters of my latest book, 'Country Gardens: Country Hospitality', and emailed them off to my editor at Melbourne University Press (MUP). My diary of that day notes a 'searing headache' and I had been complaining of a headache ten days earlier in Adelaide at the Writers Festival. But on the Wednesday I had visited my GP who said that I was simply drinking too much coffee and tea! (In fairness to him, he can't refer each patient who presents with a headache for a CT or MRI scan.)

The next day, Thursday March 28th, however, my legs gave way beneath me; I was ill, and still suffering an intense headache. I rang my former brother-in-law, the neurosurgeon Professor Leigh Atkinson, (who lives in Brisbane) and who interrupted my husband in a meeting in the city, advising him to get me to hospital. An emergency ambulance rushed me to Prince of Wales hospital (POW), where a CT scan revealed a 12mm tumour on the surface of my brain. This was causing severe brain swelling and the headaches I'd been experiencing.

Late the next day, Friday, the neurosurgeon, Dr Ralph (pronounced 'Raiph') Mobbs, who still looked as fresh as if he had just jumped out of a wet edge pool over the Mediterranean, said he had a theatre and a favourite anaesthetist standing by. So they started the operation to remove the tumour from the dermis of my brain at 5.30 pm, and finished at around 10pm. A nurse stayed with me all night. Not for the last time, I felt so lucky to live in this country.

The next day, Saturday, I was awake at 5am and working on my laptop, sending edits of the new book back to the editor. The neurosurgeon visited at 11am and could not believe how well I felt. Because the tumour was gone now, the pressure on my brain, which was causing the headaches, was relieved. But, he said, "this is not a hip operation: this is a huge operation. You need to rest." The incision was so small and neat; you could not even see it, nor the stitches. Nor did I lose a single blond hair!

On Sunday 1st April I was discharged from hospital and was back home by lunch time, feeling terrific. Dr Mobbs said that a biopsy of brain tumour would indicate whether or not the tumour was malignant, or there were further tumours. As I felt so well after the neurosurgery, I assumed the biopsy would provide good news.

The sixth of April was Good Friday; four days of holiday stretched ahead. I was feeling positive, however: feeling lucky and was sure the brain tumour would have been simply a harmless lesion. Waiting over the Easter break for the results of the biopsy was a nightmare, however: not knowing whether I was looking back, into a dark valley, or forward, into the sunshine. Wondering how many years I had left. In the evenings over that Easter - with all the children around the dinner table in the candle-lit garden - I could not help wondering how many more of those happy times I had left. Bugger. Bugger Bugger.

It was two days after the Easter break that the neurosurgeon rang my husband, Ross, on his mobile phone, which I thought was odd, and somewhat irritating. I still had a brain, after all. I was not a child. They talked for a long time, so I knew the news was bad. Then he asked to speak with me. The biopsy had shown that the brain tumour was a secondary. It was a metastasis; malignant, and they needed to find the primary. Dr Mobbs thought the primary was either in the lung, colon or breast.

Another full body CT scan the following morning showed I had lung cancer: surely impossible in a gluten and dairy-free, non-smoking tee-totaller! The neurosurgeon was ashen as he told me the news. I had thought he must be worrying about another patient but now, as I reflect on the past two years, I realise that he knew what a tough battle I had ahead. Or, perhaps he thought there was little hope for me.

I could not understand how I could contract lung cancer: I am so careful with my health, and so responsible when it comes to lifestyle. I simply could not believe it. How could I possibly have lung cancer? How did I get it? Was it because my Dad was a chain smoker? But that was a long time ago. Did I get it from people smoking in the street? From using the micro-wave; from plastic wrap; from surface cleaning sprays? From the pollution in China? Bugger, again.

We might think that the most terrible thing that could happen to anyone would be to lose a child. So I would have thought the death of my baby son, William, in 1986, from sudden infant death syndrome, would be my one shocking piece of 'bad luck'. But, and I am amazed to be saying this, there are, perhaps, even worse tragedies. A mother not surviving to look after her four living children. Not to experience the joy of holding my childrens' children; not to help them with purchasing their first house; not to be here to babysit. Not here to protect them from so much that might happen in their lives. Not here to advise; to comfort them.

The nurses and technicians administering my tests and treatments were all very kind. I became upset that, after all the care I have always taken with my health, this disaster should befall me. They assured me that the fact that I had taken that care, and that I was so fit, would stand me in good stead as I fought this Thing - as I took to calling the cancer. It doesn't seem to matter what sort of a person you are: how good, how kind, how careful, how privileged, how well-educated; how rich or how poor. This darn Thing does not discriminate.

There have been times in my life, and in my career, when I have been in danger, but, as I have always been in control, I've never been scared. Until then. My 20-year life plan suddenly was in doubt. I think the only other time I was anywhere near being scared was when Mike Gatting bowled to me – presumably underarm – in a charity cricket match. But that was just for a few seconds. I feared this would be a life sentence.