What surviving a drought taught me about living with brain cancer

More and more, I have come to admire resilience. Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side, it turns to another. A blind intelligence, true. But of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth. (Hirshfield)[1]

[1] Hirshfield, J (2002) Optimism. In Given Sugar, Given Salt. Harper Collins, New York, USA.

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I was one year old when my parents purchased a large sheep and cattle station in southwest Queensland, Australia. The farm was ten hours’ drive from family and friends, two hours’ drive to the closest town, forty minutes to the neighbour’s house. We spent 12 years on the property before the drought, and recession of the 1990s forced my parents to declare bankruptcy, and later divorce.

My immediate memories of living on the farm are difficult to recall without sorrow. I remember being constantly at the mercy of the weather, sometimes flooded in and unable to leave the property or living through years of the ever-present threat of bushfire. But the persistent memories of the farm are of drought. Ongoing, unforgiving, unending drought. My young mind was forever burnt by scenes of pulling dying sheep out of dried up dams, cattle sheltering from the heat under dead mulga bushes, or watching koalas come down from their trees to find water we left for them in troughs. One particular memory is of cutting a live calf from her dead mothers’ belly after the cow was injured and needed to be ‘put down’ in the paddock.

When we left the farm and moved back to Canberra, I struggled to see how we would ever recover emotionally or financially. But crucially, we did. Throughout the following decade, my sister and I started at new schools, learned to play new sports, met new friends, and eventually, I moved to the USA on a rowing scholarship at an American university. My parents found new partners and my father morphed from a cab driver to truck owner, to cattle station manager. I never considered if I was resilient or how the experience shaped my life, but there is no doubt this influenced my approach to living life now.

I have rarely spoken with my family about the experience on the farm, but when I was diagnosed with Brain Cancer in July 2018, I frequently found myself drawing on these memories. I was looking for an untapped resource, some reservoir of resilience to help navigate this new challenge. After my diagnosis, I had insisted on continuing with my corporate role despite surgery and chemotherapy. I was determined to ‘beat’ the diagnosis. To strike it back. I refused to give cancer any ground, and I gave it no purchase on my life. But cancer comes with its own agenda. The brute force of the intrusion in my brain was causing malfunctions I did not even realise were occurring.

A significant indicator of the extent of the problem was the deterioration of my memory caused by the tumour and ongoing ‘silent seizures’. I would forget basic instructions, names of colleagues, and processes I had previously been an expert on. One weekend I sat up late working on a large finance model, I finished the model and sent it out for review and comment. When I returned to work Monday, my team sat down with me to point out some glaring errors in the work, which was embarrassing enough, but worse still was that I could not remember even doing the work or sending it out. I could not even remember what we had set out to achieve in the first place. Soon it became clear that I was not able to function in my role, and so, begrudgingly, nine months after diagnosis, I resigned and settled into a new role of ‘patient’.

When I finished working, I was not sure how I could define myself or my role in the world. Was I still an accountant and if I was not working, what was my contribution to the family now? In my search for direction, I found CSIRO researcher, Brian Walker, who wrote about resilience in the natural world. Walker’s research was based on the premise that resilience is the capacity for an organism to absorb a disturbance by reorganising to keep functioning in the same kind of way despite changes in the system, without being changed into a different kind of system. “In essence, it’s about learning how to change in order not to be changed.”[3]

But the best direction came from my fathers’ example. When he went from landowner to taxi driver, Dad was 42, just two years older than I am now. He had to find a way to rebuild after losing everything he had worked for while healing from a traumatic ten years. When I asked Dad how he coped, some twenty years later, he just said, “I don’t know, Mate, but you have to. You just find a way”. And so, I decided to find a new way to carry on, to just find a way.

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Now my recollections of the farm are punctuated by previously forgotten memories of happiness; hours spent horse riding with my sister or bounding between wool bales in the shearing shed. In reminiscing, I realised that the diagnosis changed everything and nothing. I always had a finite time on this earth. What mattered was what I did with that time. My career had ended; there was still time to become a better, more focused mother and member of my community.

And so, I carry on. My early mornings have always been the most productive part of my day. These quiet moments provided peace and calm before the day started for the rest of the world. When I was a child, I help my sister feed poddy calves, lambs and any other various animals under our care, my years as an athlete were punctuated by the early mornings on the Charles River, rowing under Weeks Bridge past the Riverside boathouse. Today as a parent and a patient, I wake before the rest of the household to run or walk — whichever my chemotherapy ravaged body can manage.

I draw from the words of Samuel Becket and Paul Kalanithi and repeat them over and over as I pull on my running shoes at 6 am every morning, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” And so, I have found the sun, I have learned how to change, not be changed. I pull my hair into a ponytail, take note of the time — and head out for the morning. I’ll go on.

[1] Hirshfield, J (2002) Optimism. In Given Sugar, Given Salt. Harper Collins, New York, USA.

[2] Walker, Brian (2019) Finding Resilience CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South, Vic, Australia, 17.

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Farm girl living in the big city... taking on Brain Cancer

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