The Greatest Gift
by Joan O’Shea
Recently we caught up with Joan O’Shea, the face of our 2018 Tax Appeal, to learn more about her experience with Breast Cancer, and how receiving a bursary to attend our Cancer Fundamentals Retreat impacted her journey.
Joan has lived a full and fascinating life. She spent her youth travelling around Australia in a Kombi, studying massage, shiatsu and aromatherapy. She helped to bring people into the world as a birth attendant and trained staff in Nursing homes, and Aboriginal Health Care Workers on how to incorporate Aromatherapy techniques into their various modalities of practice. As a single mother, she built her dream cottage and completed a double degree in education, going on to act as Principal at an Aboriginal College. Life was an adventure, but her world came crashing down on the eve of her 60th birthday.
I had breast screenings every two years since turning fifty, and the night before my 60th birthday I had a call from the breast screening people, telling me that I must come in for a biopsy. I was so nervous – were they talking to the right person? I don’t have much recollection of my birthday because I was sort of out of the body… I don’t even remember who came and who didn’t.
On Monday I had the biopsy, and on Wednesday I was told, “You have breast cancer.” I couldn’t believe it, but I could…
You know how sometimes the penny drops in extreme situations. I was reflecting on my lifestyle. Having no family history of breast cancer, having been vegetarian since the age of 25, cycling regularly and staying physically active, at first I couldn’t understand why this would happen to me… but then the light bulb went off, and I believe it was unresolved emotional matters over a long period of time. There had been so much stress in my life.
At first, I met with a public surgeon, who seemed tired at the end of a long day, who said, “Okay we’re going to look at chemo, we’re going to look at surgery, then radiation, and then you have to have hormone blockers … We’re going to take out the tumour along with four or five lymph nodes.”
It had only been one week since I had been told I had breast cancer, and already a very dark, gloomy picture was being painted for me.
We paid to go to a private surgeon instead, and when we met with him, he said, “You’ll have surgery, and I’m only going to take out one lymph node, the sentinel lymph node, and we’ll see how we go with that. I’ve been doing this sort of surgery for 25 years, and I think this is what we’ll do.” I trusted him implicitly.
I had the surgery, and it was Grade 3, which means it’s an aggressive well-formed cancer, but Stage 1 because it was only 1.5cm in size. The sentinel lymph node that was removed, however, turned out to be fine.
Following the surgery, I was referred to a medical oncologist, who was sitting on the fence regarding chemotherapy; as well as a radiation oncologist, who prescribed six weeks of radiotherapy. I went home to think about the radiotherapy, which I eventually declined.
In addition to being troubled by the high volume of daily travel the treatments would require, I wanted off the big medical wheel. Don’t get me wrong, I have every respect for what medical professionals do, but I knew stress was at the root of my problems, and the whole process was adding to the stress and anxiety. I needed to stop and reflect on what the right course of action was for me.
It was then that I decided to contact The Gawler Cancer Foundation and apply for a bursary to attend their Cancer Fundamentals Retreat, and I was so incredibly grateful to receive it. Two months after my surgery, along with unforseen circumstances, my husband had an angina heart attack and was unable to work for a while. With all of our savings going to medical bills, asking for a bursary to attend the program was my only option, and what a wonderful gift it was to receive it.
Those five days at the centre under the guidance of Paul and Maia Bedson were so enriching for me. I learned how to prioritise my own health and wellbeing, and it gave me the focus and the momentum to keep going.
Meditation was a big learning for me. When I first took up yoga four years ago, I found myself resisting it, preferring instead to be physically active – learning to meditate was like that. To sit in stillness at first was incredibly hard, but now I cherish my meditation practice.
Maia’s knowledge of anti-cancer nutrition was also tremendously helpful. Even though I have a fabulous GP who’s very open to an integrative approach, and encourages me to eat well, exercise, sleep well and ‘chill out’, she doesn’t have the nutrition expertise to offer any practical guidance.
Also, the group environment and connecting with other people who were going through a similar experience with cancer was very therapeutic. Even though family members mean well, sometimes their fears and ways of dealing with things can add another level of stress. The retreat centre offers a safe, compassionate and peaceful environment, where you feel completely supported as you explore your current physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs.
“Due to work and life circumstances beyond my control we’d actually used up what little savings we’d had when I got diagnosed, because we decided I’d go to a private surgeon,” she says. “Two months later, my husband had angina, and required hospitalisation along with surgery, so he wasn’t able to work for a while. “I must say, I was actually really embarrassed to apply for the bursary because I’ve always provided for myself throughout my whole life. But what a gift — it’s the best gift I’ve ever been given.”
On the first day, everyone in the group took turns introducing themselves and explaining what type of cancers they had. As you can imagine, it was a very emotional time for a lot of people, but by dinnertime on that first day, there was laughter from every table within the group. Yes, we were all there because of illness, but there was such a sense of camaraderie and hopefulness in the group, and there was no façade at all – that really struck a chord with me.
I stayed in a dorm with a group of lovely women and made some deep connections throughout those five days. One of the women was also navigating a breast cancer diagnosis, and as we exchanged details about our lives, we found so many other similarities between us. It was a bit uncanny actually. We had both been great belly dancers in our day, and even looked alike. We bonded instantly and felt like soul sisters. I’m travelling to NSW to see her soon.
It would be fabulous if every cancer hospital embraced the same seven essential elements that The Gawler Cancer Foundation promote. Being informed about all the things I could be doing for myself to improve my chances of cancer recovery was the greatest gift I had ever been given.
You never know what life will throw at you. I would never think that the last ten years of my life would be the way that it turned out. With all the difficult things that I experienced and yet receiving the bursary funding and being able to attend the Cancer Fundamental Retreat was like a silver lining in the cloud, it was exactly what I needed.
If The Gawler Cancer Foundation wasn’t here, I don’t know what I would’ve done, to be honest.
Thank you so much to everyone who donates to the Foundation – this wouldn’t have been possible for me if it weren’t for your generosity. I know there are many other people out there who could certainly benefit as I, and hundreds before me, have benefited from your support.