The Last Goodbye

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When I was going through treatment, I wrote. I wrote to process information and events. So here I am, again, putting finger to keyboard (it just doesn’t sound as good as pen to paper…). However, this time the cancer journey was not mine, it was my fathers.

Many people were unaware that my father was battling metastatic prostate cancer, even his close friends. He was not one to concern others with his problems (sometimes even his daughters). He found out it had become ‘metastatic’ (meaning it had spread) a bit over five years ago.

In those five years he continued to live life in the same way – full of adventure and taking any opportunity that came his way. He sailed the Caribbean – twice – and recently bought a Harley Davidson, and rode it from Gladstone to the Gold Coast. That was two months ago, and that is when the reality of his illness hit home. It would be his last big adventure, as it was becoming evident that his body was starting to lose the battle.

In the past two months there were many doctors appointments, but the options were running out. Being the fighter that he was, he didn’t believe the doctors and searched tirelessly for other options. He was never a man to accept the word ‘no’ and now was no different. But there was no cure and no treatment, and I think that was the hardest thing to accept.

On Friday October 29, I had planned to have lunch with him. During the past few years battling cancer, he had given up drinking to try to improve his health. But now as there were no other treatment to stop the progression of the cancer, he decided it was time to have a drink. And it would be his chance to share some stories about his life.

Lunch never eventuated. Friday morning he went to the Emergency Department. We didn’t think he would survive the night or week end. He said our goodbyes to us, and us to him. But the next morning, he was back to his cheeky self. Without knowing what was ahead of us, close friends stopped by to visit and reminisce on times together. In those moments he was happy; he was living. But in other moments he wanted to check out. He didn’t want to live in pain, nor did he want to live in this state. He was an independent, adventurous man, and he was losing touch of that man. To his credit, he kept his wicked sense of humour to the very end.


After five nights in hospital, he was moved to a Palliative Care Unit at a different hospital. Although he often felt he was a burden on us, as my sister an I spent every day with him, it was never the case. It allowed us to look through photos together, and spend as much time as possible with him. Over the next few days, fatigue and tiredness took over his body, and each day he slipped further and further away. I was fortunate enough to be staying in his room overnight when he passed. He was not alone.

Today marks a week since his friends were able to visit and say goodbye while he was still with us. And today we gather to say goodbye one final time with him watching from above, but to also celebrate a life lived well and full.

You learn a lot when you have someone in your life that has a terminal illness.

1/ The hardest conversations are sometimes the most rewarding conversations. Our father was a sailor, and he lived a lot of his life at sea. When I thought about what his wishes would be after he passed away, I thought he would want to have his ashes scattered at sea. This is what we would have done or decided if we hadn’t had that conversation. So when I asked him, when he was filling out his Will, I was shocked to find out that he wanted to be in a spot where some of his friends had been buried. He wanted to have a resting place where people could come and visit and lay flowers.
2/ It’s ok to plan ahead. I felt sick at the thought about asking Dad if he wanted to pre-plan his funeral arrangements and speak with a Funeral Director. But apparently it is a very normal thing to do, and rewarding for the person dying to have their say. We were in the process of this, but he became too unwell too soon.  I wish I had been brave enough to have the conversation earlier.

3/ Technology is the best. When I sat with him in the Emergency Department on the day we were due to have lunch, he started to tell me stories. He still wanted to share his life story, and he knew he was running out of time. I took out my phone and started taking notes, and then I remembered that I had an app to record. That app was used many times in the last week, and now my sister and I will always be able to listen to his voice and his stories.

4/ Write your story, while you are healthy. Although he didn’t get a chance to tell his whole life story, he was able to share things with us that nobody else knows, as most of it was from his younger years and growing up in Finland. I wish we had started writing his story earlier, because there were so many to be told.

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One Year On

When you start out in the sport of triathlon every new event is a first (even if it’s not technically your first race). Because regardless of the outcome – your time or how you perform based on your perceived abilities – the result inevitably becomes the benchmark for that event. Those benchmarks remain until you fast-forward 12 months-or longer-and front up again for another go.

Fronting up again for the same event brings out a new mixed bag of emotions. The standard race day nerves remain, but now there is the added pressure to, presumably, show improvement.

Last year, when I toed the start line at Mooloolaba Triathlon, I only had one thing on my mind: to enjoy every minute of being active, even while it was hurting. There was a good reason for that mindset: two days post race, I was booked in for the final piece of the cancer treatment puzzle – my final reconstruction surgery. And that final surgery would, once again, force me out of action for another six weeks, and I would have to rebuild my fitness and mobility.

Knowing a lot of the fitness I had gained during my five months of training, post-double mastectomy, for Mooloolaba was going to be undone, I wanted to push to set a good benchmark for myself. And I was happy with my result. With a goal of under three hours, I finished in 2:53.

The morning of my final surgery, I was genuinely excited while recapping the race to my surgeon. I was content to go forth with the final stage of treatment, and they were content to put the gas mask on my face to stop me talking.

But I digress…what has all this got to do with Mooloolaba Triathlon 2016?

Since my last surgery on March 15, 2015, I’ve had no required treatment. Nada, zip, zero. And it has been the first year since 2013 that I have been able to train consistently without any breaks for treatment. As exciting as that sounds, it’s also a daunting thought: all my excuses for not getting on the podium are no longer valid. And this year I’ve had eight months to train – three more than last year.

In those past eight months, I also moved to Brisbane and started training with a new coach and club, who have motivated and inspired me every week. For me, the refreshing part was that knowledge of my previous cancer-patient-status was limited; I was encouraged based on my improvements as an individual and athlete.

I have joked previously to friends that there is no ‘previous serious illness’ category in triathlon, you compete in your age group and that’s how you’re qualified. When I train and race I don’t think to myself: you’re doing well considering you had cancer. I think: you’re doing well because you’ve worked your butt off to try and get fitter and faster. Although I must add, that this is my personal outlook. Anyone who has had a serious illness has every right to be proud of their achievements, especially for being brave enough to make it to the start line. For me, I consider myself just another number in the 30-34 age-group category (soon to be 35-39…)

This year there were 72 competitors in the 30-34 age group, and I managed to place 23rd, in a time of 2:47. I’m still a long way off the podium, but each year of being treatment free allows me to continually improve.

And this year, two days post race, I will be chatting excitedly about my race to anyone who will listen at university…and they won’t be able to shut me up with a gas mask (I hope).

 

 

 

Silver Linings Part 2: Happy Australia Day

I’ve always been an avid believer that in a bad situation good things can happen. I emphasise can because not everyone will agree with this. I also refrain from using a certain phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’; I prefer to believe that good things happen because you choose to create something positive.

After walking the cancer path, I know first hand how hard it can be to create something positive with your situation. It’s easy to allow your world to be overshadowed by darkness, but it’s much more empowering if you can choose to let light in.

Cancer, or any other life-threatening illness brings about uncertainty and change in an instant. For me, not only was there an immediate change to my health status, but a forced change to my work situation and country of residence; I could no longer work through treatment and I moved back to Australia. But both of those instant changes created an opportunity for something else to transpire: I found myself with a lot of spare time on my hands, and the desire to start a local parkrun.

Within weeks of moving back to Ipswich, I had a chance encounter with a local Councillor, Cr. Andrew Antoniolli.  My mother was holding a fundraiser for the charity she works for and, as subtle as she is, mentioned to Andrew that I wanted to start a parkrun. Andrew, like most people, was unaware of the parkrun concept, but he set aside some time to speak with me about this idea. During our initial conversation he questioned how I would oversee this weekly event while flying internationally. I casually mentioned that I would be off work for the next year, because I was having treatment for breast cancer.

I think this comment sidelined him a little, and made him question my sanity about wanting to get involved in starting such an event. Shouldn’t I just be focusing on getting better? But I knew I could do both.

I remember gazing out towards the park from my oncology suite, imagining parkrunners running along the paths carved into the hill (which I still get grief for…making them run up hills…). On days I felt well enough, I dragged my family out to walk the paths with me to map out the 5 km course. Back then, I didn’t have a fancy Garmin running watch; I used the trusted Nike RunKeeper App to measure the course, and of course, track my times —cancer didn’t take away my competitiveness.

Within a few months from that first conversation, and with the help and support from Andrew, parkrun and the Ipswich Hospital Foundation, Ipswich QLD parkrun launched.

I take great pleasure in knowing my cancer treatment wasn’t endured in vain. Each Saturday, more than 100 peoples’ lives are improved, even just a little, by having the opportunity to turn up to a local parkrun event.

I am forever thankful for those who believed in me and supported me to achieve this — I didn’t do it alone. And I am genuinely honoured to have been recognised for this.

It was an emotional moment to receive the award yesterday, as I was recognised for not only my commitment to improve the community by launching parkrun, but the circumstances surrounding it.

I was very touched by their words:

“Diagnosed with a serious illness that forced her to give up work as an international flight attendant, Rochelle refused to let her illness and treatment stop her from making a positive contribution to the community. She has established and facilitated the Ipswich QLD parkrun, enlisting the support of both the Ipswich Hospital Foundation and Council. Now well and on the mend, Rochelle has returned to her job and continues to be an inspiration to us all.”

Spot on, I say…

Australia Day 2016 will always be extra special, as I have a shiny medallion to always remind me of one of the best silver linings.

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Clipped Wings

One must be careful to talk about wings on a breast cancer blog, as this usually refers to the person departing this earth. Before panic sets in, I can reassure you that nothing with my health has changed; I am healthy and continuing with my alias of NED (no evidence of disease).

The wings I am referring to are wings I gained nine years ago — my flying wings.

After returning to the skies post treatment I was met with such excitement and enthusiasm from my flying friends. They, as was I, were excited to have me back at work. Because returning back to flying signalled that life was returning to normal, right? Although I instantly realised (after one flight) that my life had formed a new ‘normal’. And flying wasn’t part of that new normal.

During the 14+ months of treatment I was introduced to a new way of living, a way of living I had given up in my early 20s. A day that consisted of meals at appropriate mealtimes and routine. And I loved it. To return flying and have my body forced into different time zones and eating patterns has been a challenge. A challenge I no longer feel I can continue with. A challenge that has become a struggle.

For me — this is such a very personal decision — I feel it affects my overall health and wellbeing, and I can’t force myself to put my body through those stresses anymore.

I have decided to make my health a priority and remove myself from this environment.

*Drumroll* So, yesterday, September 7, I handed in my official resignation from Qantas… after nearly ten years of service.

Giving up my wings is not a decision I’ve come to lightly. Even though I have struggled since returning to the skies post treatment, I have had many amazing experiencesthe experiences since joining as a young 26-year-old. And I there are many things that I am thankful for:

  • I am thankful that I was able to fulfil my dream job. From an early age I knew I wanted to be a flight attendant, and I achieved that. I have been proud each time I have worn the Qantas uniform.
  • I am thankful for the friendships formed from day one of training and at 40,000ft. It is strange but true that as crew we can meet someone at briefing for the first time, share our life story in the middle of the night whilst trying to avoid devouring the tray of cheese or bowl of chocolates, and form genuine, long-lasting friendships.
  • I am thankful for having nine years of Staff Travel. Having the means to travel at a heavily discounted rate opened my eyes (and passport) to world. I also know one very special friend that has staff travel to thank for her marriage and now children. Staff travel also taught me patience. There were times when it didn’t work — I spent 15 hours at Istanbul airport on standby — but those times were always outweighed with good (onboard upgrades to First Class).
  • I am thankful that Qantas provided the opportunity to move to London. Three years that shaped me to be the person I am today through travel experiences and friendships formed along the way. London will always have a piece of my heart.
  • I am thankful for meeting my partner on board (cliché, I know). A man who now stands beside me, understands what is important for me to live a fulfilling life, and supports me to make this life-changing decision.

As much as I am thankful for all these things, there are moments I will not miss. Like, the time I was so unbelievably tired and jet lagged that brain functionality was almost non-existent and I couldn’t work out why moisturiser wasn’t rubbing into my skin like normal, only to realise I was using conditioner…or standing around in a cold galley, so tired I could cry, waiting for my time off in the middle of the night…and the biggest thing I won’t miss is the gentle tap of the arm in crew rest when it’s time to wake up… I have three more of these taps left. And yes, I’m counting.

So….The million dollar question.

What next?

I’ve enrolled to become a full-time university student.

Through cancer I discovered writing — my happy place. It’s a place that challenges and frightens me yet rewards me in so many ways. I thrive on the moments when I’m staring at a blank screen and unsure where to start, but then a collection of words appears. And that collection of words is a part of me. A reflection from within. (Forgive the corniness).

They say you should do what you’re passionate about, so I’m being brave and following my passions and see where this passion can take me.

The Luck Of The Irish

Today is St Patrick’s Day, and a bunch of four-leaf clovers would have been a welcomed gift for my family. And not because today was my surgery.

The early morning alarm went off and I woke to my usual pre-op thought:  reminding myself not to eat or drink anything! Whilst getting ready Mother received an unfortunate call — my grandma had suffered a second stroke (the first being earlier this week).

We have (or should I say Mother has) a tradition of ensuring I’m highly entertained on the car ride to hospital — musical mash-up singalongs at 5am are her favourite. But this morning there were no singalongs; we had our heads down on our phones researching flight options for her to make her way back to NZ to be with gran. It turned out that the best options was an 11:20 flight that morning, which meant that it would be a drop and run for me at the hospital; they would have to make the hour journey back home to quickly pack before another hour journey to the airport. A bigger and more stressful day for The Olds.

I know it was a hard decision to make, to not be there with me, but it was the right one. The saving grace was that Trevor was already there waiting at the hospital and happy to assume role of carer and entertainer. And he excelled at both roles.

Now this may sound strange, but I love getting changed into hospital robes. It does not bring about feelings of fear, but rather comfort. Because I know what will follow will be a benefit to my health. And  I also love the compression stockings and wrap-around leg massage device that helps with circulation. After Mooloolaba, they were both a welcome treat and I couldn’t get them on quick enough.

Without much waiting around — the joys of the private system — I was on the stretcher and getting my cannula in ready. Dr O’Mahoney was excited to hear reports of my race on the weekend, but also concerned about my readiness to operate due to the news of my grandma. I assured her I was ready.

And then it was time. Time to be put to sleep with classical music filling the operating theatre. My anaesthetist has good taste. I was about to ask him what he was playing but  1…2…3… and I was out.

The worst part of an operation for me is waking up in a groggy state. The nurse caring for me in the recovery ward aptly made a comment that it may have something to do with my ‘need to be in control’ nature. When treating my pain, which was sitting at an 8 out of 10,  I asked if I could have some pain medication that wouldn’t make me sleepy. I had the choice of sleepy meds or nauseating meds. I chose nauseating meds.

As usual, whenever waking up from an anaesthetic I seem to assume the role of a comedian. So when a nurse asked another nurse if she would like a cup of tea, I thought it was my place to butt in and say: “Yes, she’s been working hard.” Oh to be a fly on the wall in the recovery room.

With sheer determination and stubbornness I managed to snap out of my groggy state and was wheeled back to the ward by 12:30, much to the delight of John and Trevor who had been waiting patiently. In my room awaiting me were some beautiful flowers and an abundance of beautiful messages of well wishes – I felt very loved. Although my determination and stubbornness was short-lived and before long I was back dozing off.

The afternoon passed by hourly check-ups and half-finished conversations. Word spread that there was a triathlete in the ward, but only because my blood pressure was consistently low (which is common with fit people) not because I still had my race number on. I’ll take that.

After a few continuous mid-story naps John made his way home, after what had been a long and exhausting day for him. Trevor remained and assumed the role of bed controller/pillow adjuster/un-packer/water-glass filler/chicken cutter/toothpaste squeezer….And much more.

I thought the luck of the Irish had finally arrived when my night nurse came to introduce herself, who, in a strange twist of luck, is Irish. But even after a cocktail of sleep-inducing drugs I’m wide awake at 1am. Not so lucky.

To avoid going stir crazy staring at the ceiling, I decided to pull out my iPad and watch some previously downloaded Ted Talks.

And this is what I stumbled across: Debra Jarvis – Yes, I survived cancer. But that doesn’t define me.

A 16-minute brilliant speech. A speech that anyone that has experience any type of trauma in life — not just cancer — should listen to.

And here are two brilliant lines from her 16-minute speech…

“Only a small part of the cancer experience is about medicine. Most of it is about feelings and faith, and losing and finding your identity, and discovering strength and flexibility you didn’t even know you had. It’s about realising the most important things in life are not things at all, but relationships. And it’s about laughing in the face of uncertainty …”

Thank you Ted Talk.

Goodnight (hopefully).

A little bit about Triathlon. A little bit about Cancer.

Yesterday was Mooloolaba Triathlon, my first Olympic Distance triathlon (1500 swim/40km bike/10km run). I had always planned for it to be my last race of the season before I went under the knife for my final surgery. And as the timing turns out, that final surgery is tomorrow  — the last surgery in my cancer journey *jumps with joy*.

First things first: Mooloolaba.

Now you would think that someone who trains most days, every week, sometimes twice a day, would feel prepared. But for some reason, the past few weeks I have been filled with doubt. Had I done enough? Of course I’d done enough to finish the race…but I’m competitive (with myself), so ‘just’ finishing was never going to be enough. I want to finish with a good time. Had I dreamt all those 5am alarms for training… was I just delirious and sleep deprived, or was I fit and ready?

My main concern was my preparation for my bike leg. I hadn’t had much training on my new fancy-pants TT bike, would I even be able to ride it? Last week, leading up to Mooloolaba, my concerns were only amplified as news of a cyclone forming off the coast surfaced. I was already nervous about my biking abilities on the exposed highway as it was, so how would I manage with the additional extreme weather conditions. News didn’t improve and reports of rain and strong winds Friday night only fuelled my fears. All I could do was eat my bowl of pasta and try not to worry – surely it would pass by Sunday.

Saturday was compulsory bike check-in day. Trevor (MOH) and I made the one-hour drive from Brisbane, and as we approached the coast the trees told me what I already knew: it was windy. And the sea looked angry with waves crashing in all directions. My nerves were not being calmed. It was to be my first race using my fancy-pants TT bike, but with added gusts of wind, all I could picture was me being blown off the bike. Trevor assured me this would not happen…

After a good nights sleep and many carb-loaded meals, I woke up excited. Tri suit on, race number tattoos on…it was time to trek back to Mooloolaba. It wasn’t long until excitement turned to nerves and the conversation in the car started to drop off.

After a few detours due to road closures, we were parked and on our way to transition to get organised for the race.

Trevor, doing such a great job as support crew, found out some vital information for the race: the swim course had been changed due to the conditions! Although the water looked calm and flat (phew), there were strong currents further along the beach. So, to make it safe for the competitors, the 1500-meter swim was now a loop finishing near the start line, with an 800-meter beach run back to transition (instead of a 1500-meter swim along the beach).

I still struggle swimming; I’ve lost a lot of power due to my pectoral muscle being cut to house the expander. And unfortunately things may always be this way, as my implant will also take residence underneath my pectoral muscle. I’m confident, and hopeful that in time, I’ll regain the power required to be a front-of-the-pack swimmer, instead of a mid-pack-please-don’t-be-last swimmer…

 

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I made it out of the water in a surprising time of 28 minutes and jolted along the beach. Just as I approached the stairs to reach transition and to face the music of the bike leg, I heard the commentator over the loud-speaker say, “The winds are starting to pick up for those heading out on the bike.” Are you serious! Did he really have to say that!

Once on the bike all my concerns diminished. I felt like a pro powering along on my aero bars (although I’m nowhere near as fast as pro!). Forty kilometres of straight, flat, fast, smooth highway… and not much wind! Hallelujah. The course was a good test for my fancy-pants bike and the person atop of said bike. Although I may look at investing in a seat that is a bit more forgiving…

 

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Back of the bike and only a 10km run to finish off the day…only… Running, no worries…I got this. I soon found out that too much confidence is never a good thing. One kilometre into the run I was struck with stomach cramps — maybe I took carbo loading too far? Or maybe it was the hot, melted gel that was sitting in the sun during my bike leg that I consumed as I ran out of transition? Who knows. But it was not enjoyable. And the “why am I doing this” thought quickly entered my head.

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I had given myself a “comfortable” goal finish time of 3 hours, and with three kilometres left in the run I knew it was definitely within reach. So I reassessed my goal time. By how much could I get under 3 hours? I crossed the line after 2:53 of racing.

As I crossed the finish line, and finally made my way out of the recovery zone, I was greeted by Trevor, my number #1 support for the day, with additional recovery supplies of water, Gatorade and engery bars. He did well too.

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With my last race for the season over, and the number tattoo scrubbed off my arms and legs (they don’t come off easily!) I am now faced with the task of packing a bag for hospital tomorrow. I am by no means nervous or worried; I know I’m in good hands. Also, why do I need to worry when so many others are taking on that emotion for me.

I’ll be in hospital for up to a week, a little longer than I first thought. So it’s turned into a mini holiday at St Andrew’s. The best thing (for me) is one of my favourite Japanese restaurants is conveniently located around the corner from the hospital. I have already warned The Old’s and Trevor that there may be a few detours required prior to visiting. Seems reasonable?

Time to pack.

Milestones

In life, there are a set of predetermined milestones we encounter (some of us more than others). Milestones that are recognised — and celebrated — by society. From your first birthday, through to reaching your teenage and adult years; graduating primary school, high school and university; becoming engaged, married and giving birth to your first child.

Then there are the milestones that you never expect to have paved into your life’s path: the hurdles thrown in life. Cancer treatment creates many milestones to reach, surpass, then celebrate.

I recently celebrated one more milestone in my recovery: I returned to the skies. After 15 months away from the world at 40,000 ft, I put on my wings and revisited my past life. To say I was nervous was an understatement; I felt like it was my first day in the sky, ever. But then I boarded the aircraft and it was as if I had never left (although the olive oil is in a different stowage now…)

The best part about returning to work was running into friends whom have been supportive from afar through my recovery. It was a reminder as to why I love the job — the friends you make flying make up for the jet lagged nights scrolling through 50 channels of infomercials in the US (party animal). As well as the friends who have known about my treatment, there were many familiar faces that were non-the-wiser to my past year, and just thought I was sporting a new hairstyle.

When anticipating my first flight back, I hoped I would have a friend onboard to ‘hold my hand’. And that I did. I was fortunate that the manager was an old friend. I was even luckier that he happened to be checking his bag in at the same time so I basically followed him to where I needed to go. Extreme holding of hand was required.

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With the last milestone for treatment — returning to work — I can put 2014 behind me. I look forward to swapping cancer milestones to life goals next year.

While setting my goals for next year I am affirming my two mantra’s to live by: To stay humble, and hopeful.

I am making these two things my focus for everything I do in 2015.

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Bring on 2015!