When your body is trying to tell you something, listen
The liberation that several near death experiences in quick succession gives you is, well, liberating. And on that note fellas, just how are your testicles today?
I ask this because I am quite convinced that few people realise that the ‘boys’ begin their existence as ovaries (a foetus starts out with ovaries, which early in the pregnancy descend to the groin to emerge as gonads, producing a male child, or stay in their originating location and produce a female baby) – yup – those mysterious, and little discussed bits within women that dictate an enormous amount of the female physiology, health and reproductive capabilities are just as necessary to a woman, as testes are to a man. Ovaries are a woman’s battery packs. Are you getting my drift here?
Let me have another sip from my glass of neat Vodka – slice of lemon and a chunk of ice (I will no longer pretend to drink champagne as I detest the stuff and find it such a clichéd, girly drink – there’s that liberation again) as I paint a picture for you.
I have just survived a number of pulmonary embolisms – blood clots to my lungs, a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in my pelvis, five ovarian tumours, life threatening surgery, oh, and the summer school holidays and a home renovation.
Hence, my absence for some time from pages of The Punch. It all began early last year, I began to feel absolutely knackered – no pun intended, which I initially put down to having spent weeks driving truck convoys and distributing humanitarian aid during the Victorian Bushfire emergency, my eldest daughter wed at the end of March and I was still juggling my work with Operation Angel up at Kinglake and Marysville, so my candle was not only burning at both ends, it was a puddle of wax.
My weight began to increase enormously and let me tell you, fifteen extra kilograms on my little frame (164cm) is a lot to haul around, and I was waking up exhausted, literally calculating the hours from when I opened my eyes until I could crawl back into bed and close them again.
So off I trotted to my GP with my list of symptoms – I was fobbed off seven times by pats on the head and mutterings about my age, my possible closet eating and perhaps the need for more exercise. I pointed out I was going to the gym and walking the dog for an hour each day, but that I was still gaining weight even though I was truly eating very little.
I asked if I could have a blood test to check if I was menopausal and the results came back indicating that I was ten years off the change of life. At my last consultation with my local doctor, I told him that I was finding it difficult to climb the stairs at home and that I was inexplicably breathless, exhausted and bone weary. My medico replied that I should exercise more, eat less and really just admit that I was depressed as he handed me a prescription chit for anti-depressants.
Now, I was not depressed at all – I know depression and I simply didn’t have it. I had absolutely nothing to be depressed about, if not for the tiredness and the huge ass I had developed, I was deliriously happy.
My marriage was in great shape, my eldest children were well and truly home after fourteen years of a torturous abduction that had headlined the media for years and was played out over international borders, my youngest children were now in primary school and thriving, and I had just been picked up as a columnist for The Punch in Australia and the Sunday Times Magazine in the UK.
I’d even come out of retirement to direct a short documentary and my books had hit the best seller’s list in Russia! Following the abyss of despair I had teetered on when my kids, Iddin and Shahirah had been kidnapped in 1992 – I knew what depression was, and I knew that I didn’t have it.
Two days later, I awoke with chest pains so severe, I downed a couple of soluble aspirins and called an ambulance thinking I was having a heart attack. Those aspirin saved my life – allowing what was later found to be a large blood clot to pass through to my lungs without killing me. But where had the clot originated and why, was the question on my lips.
After being put through the rigours of so much nuclear based medical imaging that I probably glowed in the dark, the verdict came back – five large tumours had taken up residence on my ovaries and fallopian tubes.
Bottom line I was told - they would almost certainly be malignant. These masses had caused so much pressure in my pelvis that a significant DVT had developed which threatened to throw off another clot that could travel to either my heart or my lungs and kill me.
“Would a stiff drink be out of order at this point?” I joked to the Haematologist.
“Not again!” was the other really coherent thought that screamed through my brain – I was a mother of four children, two fully grown, and the other two only 6 and 8 years old; ironically, almost the same ages as their older siblings were when they were abducted to Malaysia all those years ago.
Was this to be yet another case of not being able to raise my own children? The irony was not lost on me, nor was the need for haste more urgent than an Exocet missile. So I took charge of my own health, I learned that all the symptoms I’d been experiencing for over nine months were classic hallmarks of Ovarian Cancer – even my rapid weight gain. I also knew that to have a chance at raising my children, I had to put myself in the hands of Professor Michael Quinn of Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital.
I was given a few days to get my affairs in order prior to surgery – prepare a Medical Power of Attorney so my husband could switch me off if brain dead, my Will, organ donor forms, instructions to my girlfriends on how to finish off my kids bedrooms mid renovation, long and secret sobbing sessions in my ensuite at dawn when my husband lay in bed pretending to sleep, he himself, wracked with terror at our uncertain future.
I turned my mind to organising food drops for my family, injecting blood thinners into my stomach twice daily, and making sure my big kids and little kids knew I loved them to the depths of my soul, all this whilst I remained confined to bed.
The night before the surgery, Professor Quinn and Professor Orla McNally briefed me in front of the whole surgical team. “Ovarian cancer” they said, “spreads like a dusting of icing sugar – that’s how other organs become affected”.
The DVT might shift during the operation and kill me and I was to be prepared for a radical hysterectomy which would result in immediate menopause, I might have to have my bowel re-sectioned, lose part of my liver, also my gall bladder as I had a cyst on that, and I agreed on the embedment of a chemotherapy port in my abdomen so I could undergo the most aggressive and experimental type of treatment they could muster.
All this so I could grasp at a couple more years with my children – I was aware of the odds, one woman in Australia dies every eleven hours from this disease. There is no test for this illness, so most cases are detected too late, it is rare to make it to the five year mark after diagnosis and treatment – it’s the single most insidious killer of women we have.
I said goodbye the night before, holding my kids tight and cracking jokes, I rang all my closest friends with last minute instructions about how to take care of my family, and I talked long into the night with my husband about the what ifs and the things he needed to know about the kids and all those intimate matters that needed to be voiced about our love for each other.
My entire body was wracked with chills and teeth chattering as the wheeled me into the operating theatre, not with fear of dying, but fear of leaving my family and what it would do to them. No matter what anyone assured me about looking after my two youngest, I knew from bitter experience that it wasn’t alright for them to lose their Mum, they needed me and if I was going out, it would be with fingernails gouging at the floorboards as I was dragged off to meet my maker.
And then, forty eight hours later I was labelled a statistical anomaly as my morphine hazed mind attempted to grasp the amazing news – the five tumours had been removed along with a lot of semi-superflous women’s plumbing and I was left with a tiny portion of an ovary to keep my batteries going and to stave off a premature menopause.
Ten days later, pathology showed that I was cancer free. The skill of Professor Quinn and his team was remarkable – I knew then that my future was going to be about finding a cure and a reliable way of detecting this disease in its early stages.
So have you rung your Mum, your wife, your sister, your Grandma, your daughter today and how are your bits hanging today. How are your energy levels, feeling fit, batteries fully charged … how are your testicles today?
It’s not the women in your life, it’s the life in your women.
NB: Of the five women (aged in their 20’s, 30’s & 70’s) with whom I made friends during my time in the Oncology only one is still living. I am now Fundraising Chairperson of the Women’s Cancer Foundation in Australia.
We Can Walk It Out – our annual Fun Run takes place in Melbourne this Sunday, 28th February at 10am around “The Tan”
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