by Alison Cannon
I have always loved travel and new experiences. After leaving my hometown of Brisbane in 1989 I spent four years travelling through Africa, Europe and the U.K and since all through Asia. I had many places still on my “to do” list, but I never expected I would steer myself to The Gawler Cancer Foundation.
Even after my metastatic melanoma diagnosis in 2001, I remember ringing the foundation and saying “…I’m really not sure if I’m the kind of person that comes to your programs.” After asking some questions the reply was “If you have recurrent cancer and there’s nothing else that can be done for you medically, I think you’ll find you’re exactly the sort of person who comes to The Gawler Cancer Foundation.” It was a sobering response.
So in December 2001 I found myself in the 10-day “Life and Living” program. I remember it very clearly and it has completely changed my life…not just extended it.
I was first diagnosed with a melanoma in 1993 when I was 26. After wide excision and a good talking-to from my Australian G.P about stress and lifestyle, I was given an “all clear” at the 5-year mark.
Of course I made no changes to my lifestyle and in fact took on even more stress, particularly at work. When I was 35 – and planning to try for a baby – I found a painless lump in my armpit and a biopsy showed it to be metastatic melanoma.
My surgeon was brusque saying “We got it all, now just get on with your life.” I remember thinking “and how on earth am I supposed to do that???”
So in 2001 my parents and (then) partner supported me (emotionally and financially) to attend the program and I remember arriving the same way I lived most of my life back then: late and in a rush. Trying (and failing) not to speed on the road to Warburton and ringing reception (while driving) to ask if the first session had started (it had) and if I’d missed much? 10 days later I drove back out, holding up traffic on that same narrow road because I just couldn’t make myself drive faster than 60km/h.
I wasn’t sure I’d be into remedial meditation, but I’ve loved it. I still meditate almost every day (everyone at work knows that if my door is locked, I’m meditating) and I hope to teach my son as soon as he’s old enough. We had such a great group I remember it was tough to eat mindfully while engaging in conversation.
I drove away after 10 days with a Champion juicer and several books in the boot (that juicer still makes my juice every morning) and “got on with my life” with the help of counselling. Only 3 months later I was offered a job in Singapore. I only dimly remember being depressed in the years that followed. To most people I probably looked fine – but the fear of cancer recurrence took a lot of dealing with. It was hard on my partner and ultimately led to the end of our relationship.
I took a second hit two years later when a routine surveillance scan (for melanoma mets) found a new primary tumour – thyroid cancer. My G.P called it “unlucky” which to me was blackly amusing…having three tumours before you’re 37 “unlucky”??? That’s one word for it. I really relied on the positive outcome stories I found online and still do when I am anxious.
I thought I was “all done” with the post-cancer anxiety when I resumed trying for a baby (now as a single mum) at almost 41, only to find a whole new vein of survivor-fear lurking. I was back in Melbourne for holidays and I drove out to the Yarra Valley for counseling sessions with Paul Bedson. They really helped to clarify my desire to move on with my life (by having a baby) despite being terrified of the guilt if I were to have another recurrence, leaving a small child.
I have now been cancer free for over 10 years. That’s the longest period in my adult life without cancer and I think it’s no accident. I’ve remained a member of the foundation ever since that stay in 2001. I keep the magazines and re-read them because they give me upbeat news. I’ve been to the conferences when I can. I visit and just sit in the garden. I hope to bring my son one day because the life skills I learned gave me the strength to keep working towards having him.
When I was struggling to conceive my son – it took eight years – I found a lot of similarities with the cancer experience. In both cases you can work as hard as you like but at some point you accept that you can’t control the outcome. You get high stakes medical testing and disappointing news. People use terms you’ve never heard of and your body isn’t always under your control. People in my online support group commented on how well I handled the ups and downs but I think learning to cope as a cancer survivor gives you skills you can use in many areas.
Now our life has a delicious rhythm. We haven’t travelled much but the daily contentment fits well with my ongoing efforts to just “sit” and be more mindful. I think it’s helped me weather the first year as a single (working) mum too…I can see that the tough times are merely passing clouds (a lovely analogy I found in the book “How to be Sick”). My 10 month old is a keen fan of kale smoothies and he has slightly orange-tinged feet and hands from the beta carotene he gets through breastfeeding, because I still drink carrot and carrot/beetroot/celery juices each work day. I’ve incorporated Traditional Chinese Medicine too, which has been really beneficial for me.
In the end I feel like I never stop learning and I never stop trying to make better decisions about my lifestyle and diet. I could do with more sleep but everything is a work in progress. I will always feel I need to be vigilant. Knowing that support is there reassures me that even if my worst fear comes to pass and I have a recurrence now as a mum, there are people who can help me navigate what comes. And for that I am forever grateful.