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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Chapter. Closed.

When I was a young child my mother, sister and I were travelling to New Zealand to visit family. One of the flight attendants asked if I would like to offer sweets to the passengers. From that moment I knew that when I was older I wanted to be a flight attendant.

After many years of trying (Virgin didn’t think I was good enough. Silly Virgin…) I finally landed my dream job. That was nearly ten years ago.

My final days with Qantas didn’t end as I had imagined. Due to illness I didn’t have an official last flight. I missed out on a final silent review, a chance to sit in the Flight Deck on last time, to get a standard photo with the captain’s hat on and the obligatory A380 “stair shot”.

But my memories of flying weren’t reliant on that final flight; my memories were built during the last nine-and-a-bit years.

I couldn’t possibly name every person that has touch my life in a special way since I started with Qantas. But there are a few people that played a major role in many of my experiences.

On day one of training I met the most amazing lady – Lucy Goulding. We car pooled to training, studied together and she still remains an amazing friend to this day.

Graduation Class

And then there were my Bellevue Hill/Double Bay posse: Bec #1, Bec #2 and Sarah. See there is one problem with flying, if you don’t have flying friends and all your other friends work 9-5, it’s a very lonely world.

These girls were always there for midday, midweek coffee dates. Bec #1 was my soft sand run buddy and we would always plan to have tea and toast after, but we never actually drank tea…I still never worked out why we called it tea and toast.

Bec #1 and I cruising Dallas

And finally a shout out to Hatice, Eli, Caroline, Baxy, and Bobby.

I am forever grateful to Baxy, who put a roof over my head when I moved back to Sydney to fly long haul, with a weeks notice. Thank you to Caroline and Bobby for being my fellow London wanderers. And Eli, it all started when I text you your name while trying to save your number. There have been so many funny moments flying together – the swizzle sticks incident will never be forgotten. And Hatice, so many great days solving world problems on the rocks of Clovelly.

I couldn’t tell you how many flights I’ve flown, or how many hotels I’ve stayed in. But there were some special trips that I’ll always remember.

From Safari in South Africa…

Safari in Johannesburg Horse Riding Safari

…to cruising the Rhein in Germany…

Cruising the River with Dizey

… even getting sunburnt cycling along Venice Beach and Santa Monica.

Bike rides along Santa Monica and Venice Beach

I saw big bridges…

Big Bridges...

…and Great Walls

...and Great Walls

But there was also serious training involved. Like learning to evacuate from crew rest.

But nothing compares to the time spent with friends at 40,000ft.

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So although I may have to Photoshop my face into some “final flights” I am not upset that the universe dealt me those cards.

Goodbye, Fuchsia… it’s been a blast.

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.

“OMG. They’re HOW big?”

When I first started having conversations with friends about my decision to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction with implants, the usual reaction was: Are you going to go Dolly Parton on us? Granted, most of these comments came from my male friends.

My answer was always simple: No! Large breasts are not conducive to an active lifestyle. Especially with triathlon. Of course, they may be slightly beneficial in the swim — added buoyancy — but they would definitely become problematic on the bike — surely they would interfere with my aerodynamic abilities? And the run… well implants are just unnecessary additional weight.

A week after surgery, once the drains had been removed, I was finally able to get a feel for the size (not by physically touching them, but by how my clothes fit over them). And I was worried. And there may have even been a few tears… Why? Because I was worried I was too big.

Large Breast..noooo

Am I the first person in the world to cry because my breasts were going to be too big after getting implants?

The sinking feeling of worry in the pit of my stomach was only amplified when I had to return to the specialty bra store for another post-operative bra, and I was measured for a D size. A D!

A little sparkle of hope shone through when the lady fitting the bra mentioned it would take 2-3 weeks for the swelling to completely subside. So fingers crossed this D is really a swollen C.

It’s amazing what can spark different emotions through this journey. For me, it’s usually in reverse of what would be expected. When I had the double mastectomy I was actually calm, happy and relieved; and now that I have had my final reconstruction I have been worried. I think most people would be excited about having their final implants.

With each day, and a little more reduction of swelling, I’m finally joining the “Excited About My Implants” club.

Standby for the next post where I’m worried and panicked that they’re too small…

And according to this assessment, I’m should definitely be a C; you know I don’t like to complain.

Bra Size Chart

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.

The Exchange

You know the feeling when you plan something months (or years) in advance, and as it starts approaching, and becoming a reality, you become impatient and restless and just want it NOW. The lead up to a holiday or the last week of work (especially if you’ve resigned) always feels drawn-out and painful?

I’m currently overwhelmed by impatience and restlessness, as my exchange surgery is booked and is less than four weeks away. After a few date changes — due to clashes with my surgeon’s schedule and my racing schedule — March 17 was confirmed.

Before I am wheeled into the operating theatre I have one last race to compete in: Mooloolaba Triathlon. I’m very fortunate to have a surgeon who understand what is important to me and has supported my wish to train and race over the past few months.

So what does the last step in this long-winded journey entail? The hard-as-rocks-ain’t-moving-for-nothing temporary tissue expanders are removed and my (hopefully) softer, permanent implants are inserted. I wouldn’t call the surgery ‘major’ but an overnight stay in hospital and six weeks off work (and training) will follow.

And I ask myself (or to be more precise, my other half asks me…) How does someone who trains most days manage with no training for six weeks? Simple: Accept and enjoy it. Will I miss watching the sun rise on my long runs (the most magical time of day) — yes; will I miss my early morning rides with the girls — most definitely; will I miss jumping in the water and staring at a black line in the pool — not so much… This is not because I dislike swim squad, I’m secretly happy to be taking time out now as we bridge between the summer ‘cold-water’ pool training to winter ‘heated pool’ training.  By the time I return to training I’ll be in the steamy-bath water.

There is always a silver lining to be found.

3 weeks + 5 days: I’m ready.