I was born in Armidale. Both my parents were on the faculty of the university there, but at different times. My father was killed in New Guinea in 1944 – he was a zoologist and was doing scientific research with the troops. I hadn’t even started school when he died. So my mother had a bachelor’s degree in Science, and eventually joined the faculty as a botanist.
When I look back, I have done a lot in my life. I was the only one of three children who went into science. I did a science degree at The University of Sydney and, after a scholarship to study in Germany, I wound up doing medical research at UCLA in the United States.
Then in 1970, I became a single mother raising my daughter, and decided that I really needed to pursue that ambition to go to medical school. It was hard, but I had a lot of help from babysitters and I managed to do it. I moved to a small city to practice as a paediatrician, for my daughter, because I grew up in a small town, and we did a lot of outdoor activities.
Then I moved back to Australia in 1990 and moved into community paediatrics before retiring in 2002. I then switched from looking after children to looking after native animals, volunteering at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, and working with FAWNA (in Port Macquarie) and later with Wires in Bellingen. I cared for injured or orphaned possums, gliders, and bandicoots, birds, and antechinuses, which I did enjoy. Antechinuses are like tiny mice, and they love building nests in linen closets, but sometimes the mother doesn’t return after leaving them to hunt food at night, so the person living in the house finds all these squeaky, tiny, wriggling little things in their closet that have to be looked after. You have to feed them every two hours, so you don’t get much sleep!
When I look back, I was probably having small signs of the tumour in my brain for the last week or 2 of 2015. In January 2016 I had a seizure. I was standing in the supermarket checkout line and two fingers started opening and closing by themselves for ten seconds. From my medical background, I knew those two fingers were activated by a different nerve than the others, so the cause was likely to be somewhere up here, in my head.
I went to Emergency but they didn’t know what was going on. During the week I noticed those two fingers becoming very weak. I got the GP to refer me for an MRI, even though she didn’t think I needed it, and it showed one lesion sitting on the part of the brain relating to those fingers.
It hadn’t occurred to me it could be cancer. The thought of a stroke had passed through my mind, but the symptoms varied, so I wondered about other brain conditions.
My GP referred me to an oncologist at Coffs Harbour for further evaluation. A CT scan showed multiple tumours in the lungs from which the brain cancer had originated, even though I had never had any lung cancer symptoms.
As I had not had any lung symptoms, in a way it was lucky that the brain produced symptoms early, so both could be treated with little delay. I tell people if I hadn’t been diagnosed with a brain tumour I wouldn’t be here, because they would never have picked up the lung cancer in time.
I had to have both of my brain tumour surgeries at other hospitals, as the unit at Lifehouse was not up and running for neurosurgery until mid-August, and then I moved to Lifehouse for radiation therapy for the brain, and medical oncology to manage the lung tumours. It would have been good to have all my treatment in one place. Now that neurosurgery is available at Lifehouse, let’s hope I don’t need to use it!!
I had regular follow-up visits at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. One of the things I’ve taken on board through this year is not to try to become my own doctor. I have had some serious medication side effects and I had to stop taking my anticancer medicine twice. I had been getting quite anxious being off the medication temporarily, but trusted my specialist’s judgement.
In late April, when things appeared to be going well, I decided to sell my house in Bellingen and move back to Sydney, to be closer to my source of care. As it turned out, it was just as well, because in late June I had reoccurrence of the tumour in the brain, and further neurosurgery was needed by the end of July. Everyone kept telling me I looked well, but by this time I was quite unwell and was having difficulty with weakness and fine motor activities, especially in my right hand. This affected everyday activities such as dressing, eating, and doing all the things involved with moving house. Somehow, with the help of a few good friends, I made it back to Sydney in time for the surgery.
Being in Sydney makes life simpler from the standpoint of getting to appointments. I have a very supportive sister, and have been able to catch up with some of her children and their families as they pass through town. My daughter, who is a jazz musician, hopes to visit in March.
Long-term, I do not know what the prognosis is for my condition. I am reluctant to ask my doctors, as I understand there are many variables and unknowns. I feel my duty is to attend to maintaining my health as best I can and having a positive outlook. I hope to join an exercise class at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in the next week, and am working on several of the Bach two-part Inventions on my digital keyboard to help strengthen my fingers.