Ok – so it wasn’t actually a shark …(but if you are here to see sharks, please watch some of my other sharkey encounters with Great Whites and Tiger Sharks through to draughtboard sharks and everything in between on under the ‘Video’ tab on this blog! Crazy cool!)
I was almost too busy in the fullness of life to remember that today is the first anniversary of my second major surgery to remove a large tumour from my abdomen. Two years earlier, although I was officially ‘too young’ to be diagnosed with endometrial cancer, I’d been given a radical hysterectomy in the hopes that this might help me to reclaim my health. Yet here I was again, my world utterly disrupted, waiting in a flimsy white gown and cap on a cold hospital gurney, ready for more life changing surgery. With recurrent Stage 3C cancer, the prognosis is even more dire and for this surgery, the stakes were higher.
365 days can turn the deepest trauma into a merciful blur. So today I trawled through all I had written to help myself process everything before, during, and in the aftermath of that nightmarish three weeks in hospital, seeking to connect the ethereal dots between where I had been and how far I had come. Through the time-worn echoes of my own words, I relived my conflicted decision to reject chemotherapy and radiation, the intense physical post-surgery pain, and the indignity of being showered by nurses because I could do absolutely nothing for myself. I braced myself through the memory of emergency surgery six days later after my bowel ruptured violently in the night. I woke from anaesthetic to find a loathsome ileostomy, too close to forty-eight staples along my mid-line abdominal wound for any healing to occur. Nothing in my life has ever traumatised me more. A large incisional hernia remains to this day.
Intensive Care and High Dependency Units. Twenty-two days in a private hospital that my insurance wouldn’t cover – $20,000 out of pocket. Catheters and drain tubes. Blood transfusions. Six weeks unable to eat; being fed through a pick-line in an artery in my shoulder. Attached around the clock to negative pressure machines that never helped my wounds to heal. Multiple blood clots in both lungs; weeks of Clexane injections; months of the nightmare drug Warfarin. Surgical menopause. Hypotension. Over 160 days across four hospitals, either admitted, in Emergency for chronic adhesion pain or attending for intensive wound management almost every day for five months. Five general anaesthetics and three major surgeries in less than eight months. In one 25 hour period, I was admitted five times across three hospitals.
Still swirling in the blur: clinics and pathology centres. X-Rays, CTs, PET scans, GFRs, MRIs, INRs, colonoscopies, gastroscopies, diagnostic enemas, cardiograms, chemo education sessions, radiotherapy tattooing and planning meetings, endless meetings with GPs, surgeons, haematologists, oncologists, wound specialists, physiotherapists, stomal nurses, chaplains, psychologists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, hospital administrators … (have I left anyone or anything out???)
And yet here I sit one year on – reflecting, writing, living. And though I am eternally grateful that my wounds have finally healed and that the dreaded ileostomy was reversed five months ago, I am not yet cancer-free. At last diagnosis, I still had one inoperable lymph node tumour, and according to my oncologist, my prognosis without the treatment I ultimately refused is bleak. But today I am celebrating a significantly greater quality of life than I could possibly have imagined a year ago today. I take full responsibility for my health and I work hard at getting myself well. I am able to work part-time and I dive as often as I can, believing with all my heart that a steady course of nutrition, ocean therapy and laughter can help me to regain and sustain my health.
Yet despite what any kind strangers may tell me, I am neither strong nor inspirational. Every ounce of strength I have, I have drawn from my faith in God and from those in my life who cared enough to step up and be there for me. My beautiful family and friends were an incredible support network for me, and without them I would surely now be dust, scattered and swept away beneath some local pier. Instead, they got me back on my feet and back into my beloved ocean which they knew would help me to heal. Even though I was still in significant pain, they even got me snow skiing for the first (and last!) time in my life not long after leaving hospital, still attached to a negative pressure machine under that big jacket:
The battle is truly won or lost in the mind, and these are the Earth Angels who helped to keep me sane. My darling Abe, my father Kirby, my buddy LP and my chaplain Peter – these were my four pillars of wisdom, encouragement and strength as I navigated the most difficult times of my life. My precious family and friends: Stacey, Linda, Nancy, Nathan, Mary, Joe, Stephen, Kevin, Mini, Bonnie, Bec, J-Lo, Julie, Kay-Ta, Pat, Leigh, Nicole, Bonnie, Susie, Jill, Sharon, Annie and David! The way these precious souls gathered around me on my long, slow journey to recovery can never be fully explained or repaid. And while I have been through much and still face a long journey ahead, there are others who face even greater challenges than mine and my heart goes out fully on their journeys. I hope that I can find some way to be a source of strength and encouragement to them.
One year on and soon to celebrate my 250th dive, I give thanks for every breath and every moment, every ray of sun that kisses my cheek and every salty drop of ocean that baptises me into my new life of hard-earned wisdom and gratitude. And while time may help the trauma to fade, those scars are there to remind me of all that I have endured and survived. May I never forget those who have given me the kindness, mercy and strength to face the many challenges along the continuing journey. To them, I credit the year that has passed and dedicate the years to come. Put simply, joy abounds.
Today, my heart nearly bursts with all the love and bubbles,
ps Just to be totally clear … I have dived with many types of shark, including great whites, bull sharks, tiger sharks, lemon sharks, nurse sharks, grey nurse sharks, leopard sharks, wobbegongs, swell sharks, reef sharks and more, but I have NEVER been attacked by one. To me, sharks are beautiful, and I would dive with them every day of my life if I had the chance … but hey, I still think it would be hilarious if I went out and bought a pair of those crazy new ‘shark bite’ bathers 😛