Cancer - a springboard

Thursday 8 July, 2010 by Jane

I was a single parent caring for a disabled 16-year-old, the only one of my three children still living at home, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994. This necessitated a lumpectomy, followed by a mastectomy and seven months of chemotherapy.

I survived the onslaught of treatment, but a few months after this finished I had a breakdown.

I had resigned from my job because life seemed too short to be doing something I wasn't passionate about and my energy levels were so low I had to have some time out.

While I was dealing with the disease I'd kept the lid firmly on my feelings about having to face my mortality, but not having work to go to and with no more regular hospital visits, there was now nothing else to focus on. I couldn't hide from my feelings any longer.

Ever since my daughter was born I'd believed that my role was to take care of her until she died. Now here I was facing the possibility that I could die first and I agonised over what would become of her.

It didn't matter that my Oncologist told me my prognosis was good. I was convinced that I was going to die without ever having truly lived.

My life now seemed to have been a waste. Sure, I'd raised three children, one with very special needs, but I couldn't see ‘me' anywhere in the picture. Until then, my whole reason for being was based around my family. I'd always seen myself as a daughter, a wife, a mother. I had no sense of identity as an individual.

I sent my daughter to live with her father and step-mother and moved to Sydney. Unfortunately, you can't run away from yourself and I was still crippled by anxiety and panic attacks. Luckily my new oncologist referred me to a psychiatrist who worked with cancer patients. This doctor explained to me that many cancer survivors feel exactly the same way; why wouldn't I?

My whole life had been shaken to its core and my current feelings of grief at the loss of the life I had always known had also brought up unresolved grief from the past. His prescription for me was to join a support group.

My oncologist is one of the Patrons of Life Force Cancer Foundation, so I joined a Life Force support group. My despair about possibly not surviving my daughter could well have become a self-fulfilling prophesy and attending those meetings saved my life.

I was able to work through the grief I felt at the loss of my pre-cancer life. It was immaterial that I didn't feel that life had amounted to very much. It was all I knew and I was floundering. The other group members let me be a mess for as long as I needed to and this was the best possible medicine for me at that time.

After I'd regained some of my physical strength, I enrolled at my local TAFE college in a course for women re-entering the workforce. At the beginning I didn't believe that I would ever be able to function competently again. I thought that in the unlikely event that anyone would ever want to employ me, I was incapable of learning new skills. However, by the end of the course my shattered confidence was starting to come back.

I got a job as a part-time bank teller and also began a counselling course. I graduated two years later and joined the Life Force Cancer Foundation team. These days I co-facilitate two weekly support groups in Sydney for cancer patients and survivors, as well as weekend residential Retreats for survivors, patients and their carers.

A year after I left my daughter, I brought her to Sydney. She now lives by herself, supported by an organization that assists people with disabilities to live independently and she and I have both learned that she can survive without me.

Writing was something I'd loved as a teenager, but I somehow let it go after marriage. In 2000 I enrolled in a novel writing course. I eventually resigned from the bank in the New Year of 2002 to set up my own counselling practice and to write the ‘Great Australian Novel'.

My novel is still a work in progress but a book I wrote (Journey to Me) about my experience of surviving cancer and building a new life for myself, was published in March 2007. I am a spokesperson for Life Force and am now branching out into public speaking about how it's never too late to change your life. I have also had a short novel published and have written several others.

In 2004 I trained to become a Civil Marriage Celebrant and was appointed that year. I still love my work with cancer patients and their families, because these people inspire me. However, I feel that my connection with happy couples while they are planning their future lives together balances out the occasional sadness connected with my work with cancer patients. It's important to me to feel that I make a difference to people's lives and I believe both my careers help me to do this.

Cancer may not be a death sentence, but it is a life sentence. I still live with the Sword of Damocles hanging over me, because there are no guarantees that I won't have a recurrence. I will never view cancer as a blessing in my life; more like a blunt instrument!

However, it did become the springboard for me to make a fulfilling and joyful new life where I have a sense of who I am, just as Me.

My favourite saying these days is from Danny Kaye: ‘Life is a great big canvas. Throw as much paint on it as you can.' Life is good.

Updated: 08 Jul, 2010