I was an Occupational Therapist at a special school for close to 6 years. During this time, my job was my identity. I was intrinsically linked to my performance as a worker, and my self worth was fuelled by accolades and acknowledgement. I experienced being responsible for my clients’ wellbeing, which then extended to my colleagues’ wellbeing and my family and my friends’ wellbeing. If things were not right in the world, I was burdened to fix it. I became a vessel for the world’s pain.
I reached the point where I could no longer carry it anymore and I took leave and moved to Cambodia to volunteer my time, finances and expertise with a new community. Here I was free from the western bubble, the pressures and expectations and infinite choices which had the illusion of freedom, but were actually constraining. I returned from this experience newly committed to following my heart and open myself up to a life that unfolds without expectation, a blank calendar, and I vowed never to complain again. The week of a new job interview I was diagnosed with cancer and my metamorphic journey was intensified.
I was 30 years old. I found out about my cancer by presenting to emergency on Friday the 3rd of February with intense stabbing abdominal pain. I had not picked up on any other symptoms. I had just returned from a long volunteering stint in Cambodia 6 weeks prior, and the doctors almost sent me home with antibiotics thinking I had picked up a parasitic infection. After a relentless 6 hours, I was finally scanned. This was when I was told I had a large malignant tumor near my ovary that may have spread to my lungs. In that moment, I was alone and the world became awash with water colours and my ears started buzzing. I transcended my body and found myself watching the situation from afar. It was like it was happening to another version of myself. Despite this, I was serenely calm and at peace, almost as though I knew this was always going to happen. I got the formal diagnosis the next day, which I realised later was World Cancer Awareness Day and February being Ovarian Cancer Awareness month.
There was no clarity around the severity of the disease, the doctor predicted Stage 4, and I gave consent for my surgeon to remove my whole reproductive system if necessary. It was that Saturday night that I sat down at my computer and started outpouring into a blog. I made peace with my mortality. The past no longer haunted me and I became content with a shortened future. I forgave myself for my mistakes. I accepted that life was not going to play out the way I predicted, and I wondered if my whole life had been leading up to this moment. I took stock of what was most important and all the superfluous periphery melted away. There was a sense of freedom in not being bound by the usual complications of living. I was okay with dying. It was all very simple.
I entered my surgery 4 days later amidst the backdrop of my parent’s grief and confusion. However, I was able to put this aside and completely surrendered to the surgery, I was calm, peaceful and collected. Entering the surgery was like a spiritual transition, a quest chosen just for me. I woke up from that surgery a transformed person, and experienced being bathed in love and amazing sense of connectedness with the pulse of life, despite those many hours alone in my hospital bed. The tumour had burst, which had caused the initial pain, and it was classified as 1C as it had not spread.
Throughout the 4.5 months of weekly chemotherapy, I entered hibernation. My home became a sanctuary-cave surrounded by the love and concern of hundreds of people who came out of the woodwork to cheer me on. It was a time of deep protection, reflection and expression. I was more deeply connected within myself than ever before. My hair loss became very much symbolic of shedding my old self. I’d grown up smothered with complements about my thick blonde hair, so much so that it had become a significant part of my identity. After weeks of hair fall, I ceremoniously shaved it off completely on Easter Sunday when my house mate was out of the house, and wrote a poem about the experience.
Twelve months post chemo, fresh out of a 7 month personal development course, a confusing relationship, a new job as a university tutor, and a completed master’s degree I sank into a deep depression. I became anxious about the right way to live my life, how best to honour my journey and keep my sacred promises to myself. I heard news of the death of a girl with ovarian cancer whose blog I had been following, people in my extended circles were diagnosed and the political climate in Australia became clouded. The intense cocoon of support the previous year had fallen away and friendships had changed. I was expected now to be self sufficient. I started grieving my losses and my body was no longer able to contain the myriad of emotions I hadn’t even realised were there. I became angry about losing my career, my fertility, my hopes for marriage, my physical fitness, my hair and my trust in myself. My body had failed me. I battled daily with fatigue and migraines and muscle pain and the inner struggle to listen to myself when the world was screaming for things to go back to how they were before cancer.
People didn’t understand that I was deep within a period of liminality, the threshold between my previous way of structuring my identity, my time, my community and a new way. I sensed other’s frustration about the ambiguity of my existence, the disorientation I was experiencing and the confusing glimpses of new perspectives. From the outside, it likely looked like I was wandering in circles, dabbling and experimenting, but really I was adjusting and calibrating and integrating the new parts of myself and finding where they fit. I’m at the tail end of this now, I sense a transition into a new authenticity as I follow my long standing dream of becoming an artist and finding new courage and sharing my story.