In Five Short Days

Autumn 2017, Living Well Magazine

by Rosslyn Lam

On the 27th September 2014, my wonderful, complicated, quirky, proud, exotic Chinese husband, who I had spent half my life with in an oft-times tumultuous, yet wonderfully vibrant and loving marriage, died of pancreatic cancer. If only I had known about The Gawler Cancer Foundation way back then.

I couldn’t make sense of it at the time; I had never thought about death. I was in shock as much as he was, and I used to say to my sister that I’m feeling his pain as if it were my own. I thought that was a little strange but my counsellor reassured me that its very natural for the partner who has invested so much in the other person to take on their pain as if it were their own.

We cried a lot he and I, as we lay in bed together at night in those final months. I would cling to him desperately, neither of us wanting to let go and each of us in utter disbelief that this was actually happening at this time in our lives. After he passed away, I still expected him to wander down the staircase grasping the handrail in the way that he had done for the past 15 months, his body wracked and weakened after two and half rounds of chemotherapy.

It was around Christmas 2015 when I first felt the pains for myself – these pains were real – they were mine, not his, and I couldn’t find an explanation for them in spite of a spate of advice from doctors and physiotherapists. Finally, I was referred to a rheumatologist who thought a bone scan might be in order. He reminded me that I had had breast cancer some 16 years earlier and perhaps it would be wise to rule out any complications that might have emerged from way back then.

On the 25th May 2016, my GP called me in for an appointment. “Can’t I just get the results over the phone,” I recall asking her. I was busy – there was much to be done at work; I was about to go on leave and I had scheduled back-to-back Performance Reviews with all my staff for the rest of that day, and the next.

“No, you better come in, I haven’t seen you for a while,“ she remarked and immediately put down the phone. Thirty minutes later, I was at the clinic. She met me in the waiting area and greeted me warmly and as we entered her room she proceeded to tell me that I had metastases in my bones that were most likely due to secondaries from my original breast cancer which had been diagnosed, treated and forgotten way back in 2001.    

My life changed that day. I never went back to work and for those first few months I sunk into misery. I worried a lot about my kids and I knew it was going to be tough on them as they were still grieving their precious dad – how was I going to tell them, how were they meant to cope with this? I couldn’t find a way forward for a time. It was painful to consider that my life span would be reduced and I committed all my efforts into trying to come to terms with my prognosis of 2 to 5 years. My greatest sorrow was for my children and I felt powerless for them as I searched for ways to resolve the pain of our imminent separation.  For them it was torturous – two years, what should they do – put their careers on hold, cancel overseas trips, come back home at the age of 30 to live with their sick, widowed mother?

I thought about dying constantly back then, all the milestones that I would miss, the partners, the babies, the Christmas gatherings and the birthdays. I had lost hope and whenever I gathered with family and friends all I could think of was how much time did I have left.

Slowly, over a period of months, I found that perhaps there was a way of getting used to this new way of living. I didn’t seem to need to talk about dying as much as I had before and very gradually I began to enjoy parts of my life again. My wonderful family and friends, my church, and my children, were all amazingly supportive and I knew they would do anything for me. I owed it to them, I thought, and slowly I suppose, I began to accept my lot. Not having to go to work was delightful and I really began to enjoy my gym classes, long walks, and my Chinese painting class. Yet for all of this time, the lump in my throat never let up and it became a constant reminder of my condition and of my prognosis.  Two to five years; somehow my kids and I needed to find the courage to face it, but it was hard.

I began to read a lot about cancer and its causes, and part of my reading led me to research that suggested that one of the contributing factors might be stress. I tried to get my mind around this and very gradually I found myself daring to believe that if stress can cause cancer then perhaps I might be able to minimise stress and turn things around.

In my explorations, I had come across Ian Gawler’s book “You Can Conquer Cancer” – I was scared to believe the message of the book, but a small crack of light was beginning to open in my mind’s eye – it was hope.  Maybe, just maybe I could be one of the rare ones and outlive my prognosis, be on the far side of that bell curve, but how? I began to meditate and I tried Yoga and Tai Chi, but it was stop-start and I felt very much on my own. I needed something solid, some guidance, but above all I needed to decide if I wanted to live, and if I did, then I knew I needed help with the “how”.

The five-day Cancer Fundamentals Retreat in January 2017 was for me a gift far superior to any that I had ever received before. I went into it, determined to maintain an open mind whilst remaining acutely fearful that I was embarking on a journey that might give me hope where perhaps there was none. How would I cope then?

The first thing I noticed was the people. They were like me – they had been through what I was going through and they knew that lump in the throat sadness that had become their constant companion, just as it had been mine. As we went around the group in that first session, introducing ourselves and talking about our cancer experiences, something profound began to happen in me.  As I listened to other people’s stories, as sad as these were, I felt emboldened for the very first time. We were in this together. All of us, completely thrown by this crazy event in our lives and yet we had brought ourselves to this place, striking out, hungry for healing, holding on to life, seeking inner peace, and daring to stand in hope, even against the odds.

And that was only the beginning. As the sessions unfolded, I experienced all over again the buried sadness and grief that I thought I had dealt with previously. Out it all came and I was awash with emotion yet never did this feel too overwhelming, I just knew I needed to let it go. Relief followed, and then the firm conviction that yes, I wanted to live and I wanted to do this for my children. In my mind I had a picture of all of us at a picnic in a park, my family, friends, partners, sunshine, much laughter and a lavish spread. I hung on to this picture and as the week went on, it was that which carried me forward as I contemplated changing the way I am living my life.

Information provided in the sessions on diet, exercise and meditation was evidence-based, comprehensive and compelling. It all made sense to me now, and I knew this was the framework that I needed to live my life in the best possible way going forward. I had tried meditation in the past, now I knew how it worked and why it matters. I believed in it for the first time, and I realised the impact it can have on the cancer cells in my bones. Practising it seemed so much easier with this foreknowledge; the meditation sessions were delightful.

Before the retreat, I hadn’t understood the biology of cancer and the way in which diet can impact directly on effected cells. As the week progressed I knew that this was one area of my life that I needed to change, now I had the tools and I knew that I could do it. I was inspired by the delicious meals that were so respectfully prepared and presented and served up throughout each day.

As I reflect now, two weeks down the track, I can barely believe that one’s life can change as much as mine did in five short days. I crossed a line in that retreat. I had never imagined that I could be the “driver of my own bus” and I now feel empowered to make my own choices as I go forward in my treatment. The lump in my throat has gone now and I have lost the backdrop of sadness, which plagued me previously as I struggled to accept a reduced life span. Now, whilst I have fully faced the reality of my disease, a little window of hope has been opened and this hope tells me that maybe, just maybe I too can dare to believe that I might hang on to this life for just a little bit longer.

I live well now; I meditate twice daily, I love my wholefood plant-based diet and I am fitter than I have been in sixty years. Above all things, where I used to battle, I now have peace, and deep in my spirit I have a place that I can go to when the going gets tough. I know life is to be lived joyously and when it’s done, it’s done, but whilst I am still sitting in this driver’s seat, I am going to give it my all.  I will forever remain thankful to The Gawler Cancer Foundation for showing me the way.