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Cathy's story

Cathy's story


March 9, 2022

“I decided to call my cancer the ‘little c’ rather than the ‘Big C’. I wasn’t giving it that much power over my life!”

The year 2012 was memorable for all the right and wrong reasons. It started in an ordinary way. My 3-year work contract with two local shires had been successfully completed. This was followed by a house move from the countryside to join my partner Fred Wallace in Melbourne. Fred had a small flat at Xavier College where he was a Boarding House Supervisor.

I had been feeling unwell for some time with low energy, bruising for no reason, and little appetite. Eventually, my worst fears were confirmed. The blood test showed way too many white blood cells. My GP told me to attend the emergency ward immediately as I probably had leukemia. Two chromosomes, numbers 8 and 20, had gone rogue and made copies of themselves. I had a deep-seated aversion to medical procedures due to childhood hospitalizations but without immediate treatment, I would not survive this aggressive cancer called acute myeloid leukemia—this was not a great combination. Maybe this was not going to end well.

Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital was my life-saving mothership. My approach in the early days of treatment was often to freeze up and find solace in the rests between procedures, along with making my room a cosy visitor-free zone. Fred sent out group emails to keep everyone in the loop which proved vitally important.

I had two rounds of gruelling chemotherapy. The treatment was overseen by Professor David Curtis, a noted hematologist who is still my specialist. I went into remission; however, right after the second round, I developed sepsis and came close to death as many of my organs began to fail. Fortunately, this happened at the Alfred Hospital. I went straight downstairs to ICU and was placed in an induced coma for a week. As I came into consciousness, I had the weirdest hallucinations which I can still recall in detail. I turned 60 in hospital and felt debilitated. I had to learn how to walk again in a rehabilitation hospital. The flat at Xavier College became the unlikely, but comforting, haven where I would spend my early days slowly recovering.

That first year was truly challenging. My elderly mother died, I gratefully underwent a stem cell transplant (SCT) from an unrelated Australia donor (I had two matches, one locally and another in Germany), and married Fred after 37 years together. The next year we travelled to Europe and Fred underwent a successful quadruple heart bypass.

I don’t believe cancer is a battle and if you lose this battle, you have failed yourself. Defective cells are very hard to counteract, especially if they are everywhere as a component of your blood. I don’t see myself as brave. I see the experience as an expedition, a dog fight, a mental and physical endurance test, in many ways a medical numbers game. Resilience was forced on me by circumstance.

I made a somewhat surreal list of all the various illnesses and issues I have contended with in my lifetime—tonsils removal, measles, and pneumonia in childhood. That was followed by good health for most of my adult life. Then, acute myeloid leukemia and its aftermath hit hard: sepsis leading to ICU, shingles, accidentally burning my arm, and then dealing with potentially life-threatening graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) for 8 years. I was hospitalized with steroid-induced type 2 diabetes and anxiety, and finally, had a small crack up and saw a therapist. I regularly experienced mouth ulcers, ongoing lung and kidney issues, mouth issues, chronic tiredness, and later dealt with heart palpitations, colon polyps, osteoporosis, and minor diverticulitis. I underwent five bone marrow biopsies, and four Hickman and PICC lines were inserted at different times. I have had at least 200 blood tests along with multiple blood and plasma transfusions, X-ray scans, and other tests, all the while learning to manage severe needle phobia.

I like to reinvent myself and have had a varied work life. During my recovery, I took up writing thanks to a special suitcase of theatrical treasures belonging to Fred’s great aunt, Sydney soprano Dorothy Rudder, which had sat there for years ready to be explored. Her biography, titled Dainty Diva, was the result. It can be read for free, along with some short stories and articles on my website.

I then completed the book Life Blood: Lessons from one woman who survived serious illness against the odds,and am currently researching and writing my next book about a notorious American con man whom Dorothy Rudder briefly crossed paths with in Borneo, just after WW1. As you can see, writing is now an essential part of my life.

Almost everyone knows someone with cancer, or possibly has gone through it themselves. In Life Blood, I chronicled my journey for readers seeking a better understanding of what it’s like to be a patient confronted with a serious illness. I wanted to take the reader along with me by offering humor, drama, a bit of education and philosophical meandering, and maybe a few tears.

I acknowledge the marvellous work of the staff at our public hospitals and Medicare, and recognize the invaluable support of my family and friends who came on the expedition with me. They had their challenges too, particularly Fred as my caregiver. It takes a village, or in my case, a metropolis. Acute myeloid leukemia is now cured.

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