Ali Du Fresne

How to begin to describe 16 months- a period that has been a time of standing so close to death- it has been the most frightening and devastating episode that I have experienced so far in my life.

It was summer in 2009 when I first had some post menopausal bleeding. Never having been too anxious about my health I almost ignored it as just one of those things that my body is doing in coping with growing old. I was 59 at the time.

When I mentioned it to the doctor, she said” It could be nothing or it could be something- we’ll check it out”. So began a roller coaster ride- first a pelvic ultrasound, then a hysteroscopy- endometrial exploration, then a scan. After the biopsy, when I was slowly coming out of the fog of the anesthetic, the surgeon very kindly came up to me and told me that “she had seen worse! “

It’s astounding how these sort of expressions stick in your mind!

The CT scan that followed showed that I did indeed have endometrial carcinoma. It wasn’t until the night before my operation for the full hysterectomy that the surgeon (another one thankfully) told me that I had a grade 3 C carcinoma. In other words, a very fast growing bloody great malignant lump on my uterus. In his subsequent letter to the doctor and other professionals involved, he said that Ali seemed surprised when I told her this!!!

Having never been to hospital apart from having babies, my anxiety levels sky rocketed. Thankfully the surgeon is a wonderful man with a good combination of skills and empathy. He was very good to me the whole way through, and personally rang my husband straight after the operation. He ended up removing lymph nodes where the cancer had spread. It was also all through the wash and at the top of my cervix. (my cervical smear test results had come in the mail just a few weeks before- all healthy!)

I was asked if I would like to participate in a cancer treatment trial- PORTEC 3. It seemed that I would be well looked after by the absolute crème de la crème of health professionals if I took part. It would also mean flying to Christchurch for all checks which didn’t seem to be too much of a problem.

If I got into the control group, I would have 5 weeks pelvic radiation followed by bracchy therapy (Internal radiation). Anyway, with the PORTEC trial, the experimental group involved having chemo as well as all this. In hindsight, thankfully, the computer in Holland that made the selection put me into the control group.

Having been a person who has lived by natural remedies for most of my life, I was all set with lists of supplements to take when I was having the treatment. My doctor prescribes alternative therapies as well as traditional medical practice.

One of the important lessons I have learned is that there are many “experts” on cancer treatment- some of them contradictory. I have learned to use my own research, professionals I trust, and gut feeling to guide me to what I need to become well and to keep surviving.

It was a difficult time, despite all the good moments- those times when we made the most of everything- my wonderful husband and daughter looking after us.

I am so thankful to the wonderful people who provided me with stacks of books to read over that period. There would always be a book in my bag with me. Sometimes the radiation machine would have a hissy fit, or they would be behind in their appointments, so my books were a saviour. As too, were the ukuleles that my husband and I bought down there. Roger found good music at the local library, and in my good energy times we would sing and play. We still play together. They are such wonderful forgiving instruments!

Most stories I have heard or read about people’s experience with cancer include the ones of finding out who your true friends are. Indeed, that has been such an interesting experience, but I guess that any productive and healthy garden needs a good weeding every now and then. I feel very much closer to my real friends now, who still want to know how I’m getting on.

Over a period of 6 months I had experienced a diagnosis of cancer, had a radical hysterectomy, 5 weeks of pelvic radiation, 20 hours of internal radiation, been alongside my sister in her journey through illness and death, and had been celebrant for 5 funerals of people close to me. Enough is enough! At that point I became somewhat obsessed with buying native trees to plant on our land. I had no energy to plant them, but they symbolized new life for me.

It’s amazing how many people tell you that you must keep positive in this cancer business. I’m not sure if positive means positively hurling some objectionable books about cancer across the room- or being positively furious with some people in my life and indeed, letting them know, or being positively terrified that I was going to be the star role at the next funeral . I made a conscious decision that being authentic was more important to me than trying to be positive- that felt real.

I have had my first annual checkup. I didn’t really believe them when they said I was doing fine, and that I was looking well. I struggle with the fear of death still, but I am adjusting my diet and am now learning- very slowly, how to meditate, with a great group of people – a group set up by the cancer society with a fantastic teacher.

I have decided not to work over winter, and I spend my time doing things for myself, making yummy food, gardening, doing music lessons, practicing meditation, walking, spending time with family and my dear friends. I shout myself massages sometimes, read a lot, and on better days, (which are coming more and more frequently) truly appreciate the richness in my life. I have even managed to plant all my native trees with the help of my wonderful grandchildren and my husband. I guess that can be seen as both positive and authentic!

(October 2010)