AUSTRALIAN BREAST CANCER DAY 2015 – a time for reflection

It’s 18 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and today, on ABC Day (26th October 2015), it’s time for reflecting on how fortunate I am. My life was turned upside down by my diagnosis and forever changed. Changed in so many positive ways. SO if you’re newly diagnosed and reading this, it might sound weird, but believe me with time, you’ll probably come to think in a similar way.

ABC DAY 2015Over the last 18 years I have had amazing experiences and opportunities. There have been lots of highs and many sad times when good women that I have known have lost their battle. Today, I fondly recall Sandy Smith (Canada), Orlanda Capelli (Rome), Deb Read, Christine Barker and Jenny Petterson all from Sydney together with Gayle Creed (Brisbane), and from Darwin there is  Tere Jaensch (my fiesty Mexican friend), Jill Parker, Jenny Scott, Gaelene Henderson and Joan Whitworth. There are many others too, but these particular ladies popped into my head today.

Awareness, treatments and research have changed so much since my diagnosis. It comes down to the voices of consumers making themselves heard.

Back in my day (gosh, I sound ancient!), there was no NBCF. No breast nurses except in Victoria. No McGrath Foundation. No BCNA and no Dragons Abreast. There was, however a group of passionate women who were all determined to make their voices heard. Women like Lyn Swinburn AM (Vic) who started BCNA, Susan Tulley (NT), Penny LaSette (NT) and Tere Jaensch (NT – dec), Sally Crossin AM (NSW) and Anna Wellings Booth OAM (ACT – dec) who became the very first group of consumer advocates trained by the NHMRC. There are also other women like Jan Skorich (ACT), Janelle Gamble & Leonie Young (QLD), Veronica Macauley-Cross (QLD –dec), who all made wonderful contributions to breast cancer advocacy. They were the vanguard and should never be forgotten for their amazing contributions. There were others too, like Pat Matthews (TAS – dec), Carol Bishop (WA), Gerda Evans (Vic) and a host more have followed in these footsteps.

Together we all advocated for change and it’s pleasing to see so many wonderful improvements in treatment for those diagnosed. It’s also great to see all the support breast cancer receives globally, BUT advocates are still needed. Not just people telling their stories, but trained advocates who know how to present their arguments, when and how to push to best present the breast cancer cause, not for those who are already diagnosed but for those who will inevitably follow. There are still too many people being diagnosed.

Ellie, Alexa and Sasha
Ellie, Alexa (age 14) and Sasha (age 21)

My daughter Sasha (now 21) was 3 years old when I was diagnosed and my son was 12. It had a huge impact on both their lives. More than we initially realised.

My two young nieces are both 14 years old. I sincerely hope a cure for this insidious disease can be found sooner rather than later. It is for my daughter and my nieces that I have always been an advocate – for them and others that follow us on the breast cancer journey. I am fortunate to have had wonderful training by the NHMRC, mentors and support on my journey as an advocate.  As the Founder of Dragons Abreast in Australia, I am forever grateful to Sandy Smith (dec) and Professor Don McKenzie from Abreast In A Boat,  Jon Taylor (dec) then President AusDBF, Alan Culbertson my first coach, and Melanie Cantwell (ex DBNSW) who so readily supported my vision for breast cancer survivors in Australia to have the positivity of the sport of dragon boat racing.

I was lucky. My treatment (a mastectomy and chemotherapy) has allowed me to survive for 18 years. I never say I am cured, because I also know far too many who have experienced a recurrence many, many years later. I go for my annual check ups, I look after my health as best I can and am always grateful for each day I am blessed with.

Michelle

“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.” ― Erma Bombeck

Vale Anna Wellings Booth OAM

Anna. My courageous, compassionate, humorous and all round simply amazing friend is with us no more.

I received this news on Friday afternoon here in Ecija. The message pinged onto my phone as I was waiting for my class of students to arrive so I really didn’t have the opportunity to properly absorb the news. I was shocked and the next 4 hours of my classes passed in a kind of blur.

Anna had been on my mind a lot lately and it was only last week that I emailed saying I hoped she was well and not laid up in the hospital with some ailment or other.

You see Anna has had all kinds of issues with her health but she never let them stop her doing what she wanted – at least not until more recently.

Anna used to tell me her ailments were a result of a ‘life well lived’ – she had a great sense of adventure and was game for almost anything. Anna was resilient and always bounced back from whatever ailed her.

Anna was a do-er and could get almost anything done.

She had the great knack of being able to charm people and gently persuade them to do things they perhaps had not exactly planned to do. A case in point being that very first Field of Women that was planted in Canberra back in 1998 and then the establishment of Dragons Abreast ACT a year later.

Anna and I shared many memorable moments and experiences together over the years. We laughed and we cried together many times over the last 16 years – mostly we laughed.

Some of my standout memories are:

  • the trip to Niagra on the Lake where we stayed in a little B &B, sat out in the garden with a picnic and squirrels scampering around us as we dreamt of bringing the story of Dragons Abreast into print,
  • Anna tearing her hair out in Caloundra as she (wo)manned the phones and coordinated buses for 2000 pink paddlers.

My most recent memory was a visit to Canberra when I was there for the Lifeline Conference earlier this year.

I had very limited time so asked Anna if she would like to perhaps meet for breakfast at my hotel. In response, I received an email saying she’d love breakfast but was in the hospital so could I go there instead.

So at 7 am on a cold, wet Canberra morning, when it was really a bit too early for visitors, Anna and I sat in the hospital corridor and exchanged news for an hour and a half before I had to dash away for the start of the conference. That was the last time I would see my dear friend.

Anna was one of a kind

She always had a twinkle in her eye, was big of heart, wonderful with words, a diplomat and an inspiration to all who knew her.

Anna never complained instead she just rolled up her sleeves, stuck her tongue out to one side if she was concentrating, grabbed her walking stick and off she went!

I am so privileged to have been able to call her my friend. I am a better person for having known Anna – she was one of very special lady and there are no words that can adequately describe this amazing woman who was a wife, a mother, an advocate for causes she believed in, a gentle guiding hand, a wise counsellor, and an inspiration to many and an all-round incredible, irreplaceable, fantastic person who enjoyed a glass of red wine.

Anna, rest in peace now.

Thank you for friendship, inspiration and support – you’ll live in my heart forever.

Love

Michelle

 

Networks – funny how things work out

I was woken this morning (Sunday) by the ringing of my mobile phone. I have a special ring tone for family so knew it had to be either my son or daughter, so I sit bold upright and grab the phone. “Where have the Aurora’s gone?” says my daughter with a tone of distress in her voice “I’m down at Tallebudgera and no one is here”.

Sasha – Journalism Student

Sasha, my daughter, is a journalism student at Bond University, she’s doing a unit called Broadcast Journalism and decided to film the Aurora’s at their dragon boat boot camp. She’d already been down on Friday to do interviews and today was to her final filming. Time was of the essence with an added priority that filming needed to be completed early in the day as there was a friends birthday that needed to be celebrated.

Janelle Gamble, who came into the sport of dragon boat racing through Dragons Abreast, had arranged all the access for Sasha but was not answering her phone. I reassured Sasha that Janelle was more than likely on the water sweeping a boat so unable to get to her phone.  Being the magic Mummy, that my daughter clearly thinks I am,  I made calls to my dragon boat contacts to try and seek out the location of the vanishing Aurora’s  whilst  advising Sasha to start walking up the creek for a look around.

I hung up the phone after speaking to several dragonboaters in Queensland and before I had a chance to call Sasha she rang me saying excitedly “Ï’ve found my paddlers”. Her choice of the word ‘my’ reinforces that dragon boat is a special kind of family. Sasha told me on Friday she had met Joanne Petterson again, it had taken each of them a few moments to place each other,  they had first met when she was 8 years old and we went to the Breast Cancer Regatta in Auckland as part of a Dragons Abreast team.

Sasha has been around dragon boat racing since she was 3 years old due to my involvement and has just recently turned 18. Who would ever have imagined that all these years later, she would be filming dragon boats for a University assignment? Her logic in choosing to cover the Aurora’s stems from the fact that she knows the sport is highly visual so ideal for television. She recognises the Aurora’s are something special for Australia as they represent the pinnacle of our sport and are the team who have the honour of wearing the Green and Gold complete with Coat of Arms on their uniforms. Sasha knows this because last year, as she was going through Year 12 preparations, I had the honour of presenting the race uniforms to the Aurora’s down at the Tallebudgera camp just before they flew to Tampa, Florida. I thought that this year I was well out of the picture – but no, thanks to my daughter I was back in the thick of it this morning – abeit through telephone conversations.

When I first started paddling in Cullen Bay back in 1997 who would ever have thought that my own daughter would be filming dragon boat as part of her journalism studies. The value of our networks should never be underestimated and Sasha knows from first hand experience the value of creating and maximising opportunities as taught by her mother and associates at Dragon Sisters.

Thanks to all my dragon boater network for being so wonderful!

Aurora’s – Grand Masters Women in Action 2011