Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


I didn't think it was possible to find parts of France that had not been 'discovered' by an Englishman, or an American, who then writes a book about the charming village in which he or she has bought a cottage. Soon, the unique way of life of the village – the espresso at the bar each morning that costs just a euro and a half , the men playing chess or petanque in the village square – becomes anything but simple as prices rise and foreigners complain about the locals. I did find it, however, in 2011, and I am keeping it a secret.

The colours of this part of France – an area in the south that produces a great percentage of the food for the country – are made up of the local ochre-rich stone in which all the houses are built, and shutters in blue, or soft green, or string. The cottage I had rented overlooked fields of lavender, with more villages glowing pink in the distance.

I found a café, a 'bistrot', up in one of those villages that are perched on a rocky cliffside, and that I quickly made my own. Its terrace - with its iron tables and chairs set out under plane trees that had been pollarded, plucked and pruned in that European way so that they burst into life in spring to form a huge shade-giving umbrella – overlooked a quilt of vineyards, bright yellow-green in the early summer light.

Hedges had been planted around 'my' cottage to protect it from that fearsome wind, the mistral – that is said to send some people crazy - not one hedge, but several, and not planted in a long block, but staggered so that the wind is filtered while those wonderful views are not disrupted.

I spent a fortnight in my little cottage, settling into a pattern that almost convinced me that I was a local, speaking my slow French and drinking my coffee where the local market stall-holders sat, rather than with the tourists. I was visiting the many excellent gardens in the area, endeavouring to capture their essence, provided by their restricted plant list of lavenders, herbs and roses. I had rented a tiny manual car.

A small manual was much more sensible than the huge Peugeot I had been given a few years before, against my wishes, but because I had booked a satellite navigator (which, in any case, was only in Italian!) That car was a nightmare and ruined that trip. Its computer system was faulty and the car kept 'dying' – with the same sensation as if I had been running out of petrol. After several calls back to my travel agent in Australia, each with increasing panic, I finally found a number for a 'Sylvie' in the Paris office of the car hire company. Despite my insistence to Sylvie that this car was faulty and dangerous, she refused to send a mechanic to check it, nor to supply a replacement car. Her comment was, "Call me if it breaks down again." As we were about to travel the rather confronting 'Grande Corniche' a winding road high up above the coast of France's Cote d'Azur, I replied that I might be dead. To this she replied, "Oh no Madame, you will not die. Many, many people call me and they are not dead." This would have been funny if the situation had not been so serious – and it got worse!

A tiny, manual, car on my 2011 stay in my village in France, provided an experience much less traumatic. However, on the last morning, as I was tidying the cottage, I found a very large, very black and menacing, scorpion in the bathroom. I think if I had found it on my first morning I would have packed up and left.


Car worries on mountain roads in France were merely a memory of an irritating, if nerve wracking experience, compared to the long journey ahead of me in 2012.My village in France

But there had been great news at the end of the April, even before the schedule of my radiation treatment had begun. During a two-hour meeting with the medical oncologist, Dr Melvin Chin, and Beth Ivimey, the essential lung cancer nurse coordinator, I was told my tumour had a mutation, known as the EGFR mutation: the Epidermal Gravity Factor Receptor, which is a mutation common in lung cancer. This had been revealed in additional testing of my brain tumour tissue, over three days in a Melbourne laboratory1. A new drug, Tarceva, developed by Roche, was indicated for lung tumours with this mutation. The doctors thought Tarceva would block and shrink the tumour because of the mutation. We felt as if we had won the lottery; my spirits soared. The drug was new in 2012, but, we were told, there had already been excellent results, with shrinkage of tumours, for several patients like me, those whose tumours had the mutation 1 to 20. Yet again, we were amazed at, and grateful to, these researchers and doctors who are devoting their lives to such work. However, noted the medical report, because I had a rare form of this mutation: number 21, "there are no data to support sensitivity or resistance" to the drug. Because it was taken in tablet form Tarceva's side effects were much milder than those suffered from the more usual intravenous chemotherapy.

So, with the agreement and approval of Professor McCaughan, the lung surgeon, I was to take a few rounds of Tarceva, then test its efficacy by undergoing another dreaded PET scan. If, after two rounds of the drug, the tumour had not shrunk enough for Professor McCaughan to operate, we would start the rugged intravenous chemotherapy, and continue that for several months. We felt elated, overjoyed. Here was another chance at life2.

PollardingWe were feeling so positive that we started planning for a major trip to New York, Washington and Hawaii, with our entire family, to take place in November 2013, for my 60th birthday. I was even excited about collecting my wig as my brain irradiation was to start the following Thursday and the doctors had told me I would lose my hair. Hardly the greatest of my worries. It's odd the things one can be positive about.

There was a quick trip to Melbourne for me to attend the opening of the exhibition of my friend, Criss Canning's wonderful flower paintings and to enjoy what seemed like a last supper before I began the five weeks of radiotherapy to the brain, on May 7th. I joked that I hoped the technicians would leave me some grey cells. Humour can be black. 'Then,' notes my diary optimistically, 'surgery.' We knew there was a challenge ahead, but it was one we had every intention of winning. "I am quite sure," I wrote in my diary, "that in a few months I will be back, fighting fit, and annoying everyone yet again!"

[1] As I write, funding for these wonderful lung cancer care nurses, whose position should be embedded into a patient's treatment plan - who do so much to salve the pain and suffering of lung cancer patients - is under threat.[2] I was delighted to hear that from December 2013 Tarceva is to be included in the Commonwealth Government pharmaceutical benefits scheme, which means the drug will be available at a highly subsidised price.