Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


I'd survived the challenges of PNG, and safely returned to Sydney, but greater dramas were ahead. The early months of 2012 were a bitter sweet time. After my brain surgery my four children visited often, some daily, bringing delicious things for me to enjoy while I still had an appetite, before my radiotherapy started. I was fattening myself up for battle. It was a new experience to sit and chat with the children, with no time pressures. Perhaps it takes a serious illness to make one re-evaluate. This is a cliché, of course, but, like most clichés, so true.

The entire experience was such a journey: and is one that continues. It's the fear of the unknown that is the worst. How many more lovely dinners will I have with the family, laughing around the table, sitting in the candle-lit garden? Will I see my daughter's wedding? Will I hold my first grandchild? It takes time – and this dreadful shock – to come to the conclusion that no-one can tell you what is going to happen in life. The brilliant doctors cannot provide an exact length of life. All we can do is accept the very best treatment, find out as much information as possible, conclude that one also needs luck, and a positive attitude.

The early mornings, before dawn, were the worst. Waking in the dark is a lonely and frightening experience. The only solution is to get up and watch a DVD or a television show taped previously. The two available series of Downton Abbey were a great comfort. Such a good script; such pretty settings; wonderful costumes, and such great actors. Maggi Smith had some of the best lines, including admonishing one of her grand-daughters with, "Don't be defeatist, my dear. It is so middle class." Ah, one must be positive!

Some friends who were at the other end of this journey – if there ever is an 'end', once one has been diagnosed with cancer; apart from death – spoke of the experience being a good thing in many ways. Several have said it made their marriages stronger. One said that she had been worried about her marriage for a long time, with her husband hardly speaking to her over many months. Then, she was suddenly diagnosed with a serious and aggressive cancer. He was terribly upset and stood by her, helped her; was an absolute rock. Now, their marriage has never been stronger.

My husband, Ross, was certainly incredibly kind and caring: he came to all the doctors' meetings, and took copious notes, filling three thick, A4 spiral-bound notebooks. This was a great help: I was still in so much shock that I forgot much of what the medical team said. But it was also stressful worrying about it being too much for Ross, and about him not getting on with his own work.

My main sentiment was fury at this wretched Thing, as I had decided to call it: the unfairness of it. How can a health fanatic – a non-smoker and a teetotaller - get lung cancer? I felt anger toward people I saw smoking on the street, and have even greater anger toward businessmen who sit on the boards of tobacco companies. American statistics show that 1200 people die each day from smoking-related illness: 41 a day in Australia. And in the US 'second hand smoking' kills 38,000 people a year.

I also needed answers: surely there was a cause for every effect? The doctors advised me to forget about finding a reason, or someone to blame, and to just concentrate on taking a positive attitude toward recovery.

While I felt confident that I would beat the Thing, I had written the details of my funeral: the hymns, readings, flowers, the 'after party,' as I called it. Upsetting as this was for my three sisters we also had some good laughs over it. My response to their horror at such maudlin behaviour was, "If a girl doesn't want tea bags at her after party, she has to be clear about it: has to put it in writing." I also stipulated that I don't want the hymn "How Great Thou Art" sung at my funeral. I said, "I'm seriously peeved at God, so I don't think he's so great." Funny to be laughing and crying at a time like that. Strange situation all round. The hymn I do want, I said, was "I Vow to Thee My Country." While that beautiful hymn, written in 1921, is a British patriotic song, I feel the same way about Australia; lucky to be living here.

The second week of April 2012 was one of many emotions: of many lows and not too many highs. On April 10th there was the regular weekly conference of the cardiothoracic team of doctors at Prince of Wales hospital (POW). The doctors, headed, of course, by a very senior and experienced surgeon, declared they would not operate on me; said they believed the lung tumour would return. I was aghast: this was a big city teaching hospital, not a clinic in a small country town. Just take the lung out, I said. But the tumour had metastasised to my brain, through the lymph nodes, so it was not so simple. I felt like I had been given a second death sentence, all the more so as I had thought that I had dodged a bullet by my quick recovery from the surgery on the brain tumour.

Dr Colin Chen, a very brave Radiation Oncologist at POW, advised that my best hope of complete recovery would be to consult Professor Brian McCaughan at Royal Prince Alfred hospital. Professor McCaughan was, he said, the only doctor brave enough to do the radical surgery I needed: remove the lung. An appointment to consult the professor was made for a Friday a fortnight away. I begged Dr Chen to make it sooner; for the Monday; but Brian McCaughan only consults on a Friday. He operates on the other four days. How strange to be praying that a doctor would remove a lung! In preparation for what I imagined would be immediate surgery, and an extended recovery period, I wrote five of my weekly columns and also 'got my affairs in order.'

In the meantime I had a speaking appointment the following week in the lovely western New South Wales town of Mudgee, for the Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society (ADFAS). The doctors said it was safe to go.

That evening Ross and I strolled through the Domain – part of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens - to the area known as the Fleet Steps. This wide flight of steps, hewn by early convict labour from the sandstone that also contributes so significantly to the city, leads down from the road that snakes along a finger of land that protrudes into beautiful Sydney Harbour. This part of the harbour is called Farm Cove, where the first farm had been created by Captain Arthur Phillip when he arrived with his First Fleet, on 26th January 1788. This was another of the bays responsible in such a vibrant way for much of the character of the harbour. Named after the wife of one of the early governors of the colony of New South Wales, Mrs Macquarie's Road is shaded by the massive, ancient fig trees that are native to the area.

The Fleet Steps end in a wide platform of grass that rolls down to the harbour, reinforced there by a low stone wall. Also part of the city's Botanic Gardens, which had been established in 1816 by Governor Macquarie, the site is perhaps the most sought after in the city for events, from fundraising balls, to weddings. The world's leaders, from Queen Elizabeth to President Clinton, have given speeches on the site. It is also, incidentally, where I held the first charity event on the site, in November 1986: a ball we called 'A Summer Cotillion in the Gardens', in aid of research into cot death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

On this evening, in April 2012, Ross and I had tickets to the opera, La Traviata, being performed on a large stage set over the harbour at the Fleet Steps. It was a bitter sweet evening: both magical and very sad. I felt almost as tragic as poor, sick Violetta. It was deeply poignant, rugged up in winter clothes - a ski jacket and wrapped in several shawls - watching Violetta dying against the backdrop of the Sydney Opera House and with illuminated cruise ships and ferries gliding past.

Before we left for Mudgee, however, I needed a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan, so that the doctors could see more of the 'progress' of my tumours. While our hospitals are wonderful, at Royal Prince Alfred it was depressing to have to run the gauntlet of very sick patients, sitting outside the hospital in their wheel chairs, hooked up to their chemo drugs, smoking! I felt they were throwing their health care, with its enormous cost, back in the face of the government, and the tax payers. While I was waiting for the radioactive material to course through my veins, a young trainee doctor came to interview me, asking for my family history and how my cancer had presented. Apart from asking me obvious questions such as my smoking history – or lack of it - she asked if I could have been exposed to asbestos. I found this amusing, as in our house we almost need an electrician to change the light bulbs; we would have been unlikely to attempt any DIY home renovations.

The worst part of having a PET scan is that a canula needs to be inserted into a vein to allow sugars to run throughout the body. Any cancer cells in the body gobble up the sugars and become fat, revealing themselves. Clever, but I needed a valium to alleviate my stress at the thought of any steel, no matter how thin, being inserted into my vein. The young nurse did not insert the canula properly and it had to be re-inserted by a senior nurse. She advised me to learn to meditate, to journey to a 'happy place' to cope with all the needles I was about to endure. The results of that PET scan were good and bad: no additional tumours had appeared, but two lymph nodes 'were involved.' That was Oncologist-speak for the fact that the cancer had made itself at home in my lymph glands. When we finally met with Professor McCaughan, after our return from Mudgee, he advised that he could not operate unless the cancer had cleared. This was a huge blow as I had assumed that I would go into hospital immediately. And much later, at the end of 2012, after he had successfully operated, the Professor admitted that when I had first consulted him in April he had not expected to see me again: he had thought privately that I would not make it.

I was so pleased that I had honoured my commitment to the Mudgee ADFAS. It was, again, a bitter sweet time. As Ross and I drove the four hours west to Mudgee, over the Blue Mountains and through countryside washed with autumn colours lit by golden light, I wondered, yet again, what challenges the next few months would present. I desperately wanted another chance at this life that I had, until this diagnosis, taken for granted.

We loved Mudgee, with its large pastoral estates and its comfortable town, the buildings wrapped in the wrought iron that had travelled from England as ballast in early ships to the colony.

My lecture that evening was attended by over 100 people, some of whom had not booked, and had come from outlying areas. I had been worried I might faint in the middle of it all, due to the brain operation and the stress of my situation, but it went well, with plenty of questions from the audience afterward.

Our hostess in Mudgee, to whom I had not confessed my health drama, had organised a lovely dinner party after the lecture. It was great fun, almost surreal, and again, I felt I was in a film script; a script that I was writing for someone else. It was hard to believe I was in this strange situation. A sort of 'out of body' experience.