*** PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR PT IMAGE GALLERY ***
Dear Critters – this article was originally published in Dive Log Australasia magazine (June 2016 edition)
Recently I celebrated my Dive 500, which qualifies me as something of a newcomer to the world of scuba. In view of the fact that all but my very first Discover Scuba 15 years ago were done as a cancer patient (and that the last 145 dives were done with a terminal prognosis hanging over my head), every minor milestone becomes a major cause for celebration in my bubble-blowing life. Like most divers who discovered this glorious past-time later in their lives, I lament the fact that I did not start diving much earlier in my life.
Shortly after I completed my Open Water course at Hideaway Island in Vanuatu in 2010, I was diagnosed for the first time with advanced endometrial cancer (aka uterine cancer, or cancer of the uterus). Following major surgery and serious post-surgical complications, I spent the next ten months daydreaming about my return to the water. My passion to continue the underwater adventures I had just begun was my greatest incentive for recovery.
I was elated to celebrate my 100th dive during an impromptu expedition to join a 10 day underwater photography workshop in Anilao in the Philippines during 2012. In lieu of the fabled Dive 100 Nudie Dive, I opted for a Nudi Hunting night dive at a site called Sunview, dedicating the dive to honour the late Neville Colman who had passed away several days before I commenced my trip. Upon returning to the Crystal Blue Resort after the dive, I was delighted to be presented with a scuba-themed congratulations cake to mark the occasion. I was thrilled to share the sweet treat with my new buddies, along with the significance of this milestone in the light of the recent challenges I had been facing with my health.
But not long after this trip, I learned that the cancer had returned with a vengeance, and I spent more than 160 days of 2013 in or at hospital, including three major surgeries. I was devastated to think I might never be well enough to dive again. While I was unable to dive for most of the year, I returned to the water as quickly as humanly possible. I surprised myself and my surgical team by completing my Dive 200 at Boarfish Reef with a loathsome temporary ileostomy bag (through which part of my bowel protruded outside my body for seven months) hidden snugly beneath my wetsuit.
By September of 2014 and with only 265 dives under my weight belt, I was advised that despite the best efforts of my surgical team, the cancer had returned and spread and my condition was now considered incurable and terminal. Without palliative radiation, I would most likely have only 6-12 months to live. I promptly retired from my hard-earned career in education, completing a four month course of high dosage radiotherapy in December of 2014.
This treatment shrunk the largest tumour of several tumours from grapefruit to golfball size, potentially buying me another few years of life. My oncology team advised that now was the perfect time to give up my hard-earned career and to cross as much as I could manage from my Bucket List. So during breaks in my treatment, I managed to dive with manta rays at North Stradbroke Island and great white sharks out of Port Lincoln with Rodney Fox Expeditions. And I celebrated the end of my treatment with Dive 300 at the Uepi Island Resort in the Solomon Islands in January of 2015.
Being diagnosed with terminal cancer felt less like a death sentence and more like a wake-up call to begin living my life more fully. For me, that equated to spending as much time underwater as possible and indulging my passion for underwater photography and videography. In September 2015 I embarked upon my second trip to Fiji, literally coming a whisker away from a curious and heavily pregnant 14ft tiger shark for an exhilarating Dive 400. But each time I crossed something big from my Bucket List, I replaced it with something even bigger. (Apparently, there’s no way you can ‘kick the bucket’ while there’s still good stuff hiding in there! Diving with whale sharks is definitely next on my list!)
Fastforward to April 2016. Although I had already booked my first trip to Tulamben in Bali, Indonesia in anticipation of my monumental Dive 500 in May, by this stage I had become truly addicted to long shore dives several times a week (anything up to 4.5 hrs per 12 ltr tank). Slowing my dive frequency down to save another milestone for another tropical island was simply not an option.
Thankfully, my friend Luke English (owner of Melbourne’s outstanding new dive operator RedBoats) offered to host my Dive 500. This enabled me to share this special occasion with a private group of some of my favourite local dive buddies. This was a truly epic milestone in my life and confirmed my capacity to outlive and outdive my prognosis.
I’ve heard it said that ‘The time we spend underwater is not counted against the time we have left on land’, and I am guided by the wisdom to ‘Live Every Day as Though You Might Dive’. The first 500 dives have been such a wild ride, and each one of them was a milestone in its own right. Diving has taken me to places beyond my wildest dreams, and I am beyond excited to see where the next 500 dives might take me (and to continue to share those adventures with you!)
Love and bubbles,
PT Hirschfield xxx
ps Full tanks to all of the amazing photographers who have allowed me to share their images of me in the gallery below xxx