Living in cancer's shadow
Cancer survivor and mother-of-three Debbie Elsmore doesn't pause when asked how to help a friend who is seriously ill.
"Dinner," she says. "The best help I got was a whole lot of lasagnes. They were awesome."
Picking up her children from school and dropping them home after a snack and play came a close second.
Debbie was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2007. After surgery for a collapsed lung and eight months of chemotherapy, she has been in remission from this cancer of the lymph nodes, spleen, liver and bone marrow for three years.
A positive of the disease had been an intense sense of clarity, says Debbie. Paying off the mortgage and saving for a life of golf, gardening and travel became meaningless. What mattered was her family, now 15-year-old twins Ben and Tamara, 13-year-old Stacy-Rose and husband Kevin.
Her eventual diagnosis was almost a relief after six months of debilitating weakness, shivering, night sweats, bone pain and worry. Doctors ticked off endless lists of symptoms and possible causes and followed up with blood tests, MRI scans, CT scans and bone marrow biopsies.
Debbie fell into Googling her symptoms and is grateful her GP always listened and followed up on her findings.
The hours after hearing she had the disease were surreal, Debbie recalls. Before leaving Christchurch for home in Blenheim, she and Kevin went supermarket shopping.
"On one level I was asking, `Do you want pork for dinner?' and comparing the price of packages of meat and on another level I was absorbing the reality that I had cancer. Some of the fear seemed to drop away. Suddenly, there was a plan."
The hardest part was telling the children, says Debbie. She and Kevin were honest without giving too much detail.
"Are you going to die?" was Ben's first question. Her answer was no way, she was going to beat this illness. Stacy wanted to know whether her mother would keep making her lunches and picking her up from school.
The children offered to help, but after a week of peeling potatoes Ben admitted he hated that job.
"We talked a lot," she says. "Kevin was a real rock. If I had a worry he would say, `Don't worry, this is going to work out fine'."
Until she started chemotherapy, Debbie kept "soldiering on at work" to keep her mind off her illness. Once diagnosed, her husband and boss said enough was enough. It was time to focus on being well.
At first, Debbie found it freaky turning up for chemotherapy and seeing cytotoxic signs on drugs about to be injected into her body. "I said to the nurses, `I don't even clean my bathroom with chemicals and you are about to pour them straight into my veins'."
However, immediately after starting treatment she started to feel a lot better. Side-effects were controlled by drinking large amounts of water and using toddlers' toothpaste to avoid the painful ulcers that were initially a problem.
For a mother of young children, cancer was tough but also motivating.
"Some days I would get out of bed with a bright smile on my face when underneath, I felt like c..p," she said.
Losing her long hair during treatment, along with her eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair felt like losing her identity, Debbie says. The one time she wore a wig she felt uncomfortable and, to Ben's horror, whipped it off halfway down the road.
The attitude of some doctors in Christchurch who treated her as a collection of symptoms did not help. Some talked across her and never looked her in the eye. When she complained to a nurse, their attitude improved, she says.
Even when she was at her sickest, cancer had to fit in with the rest of her life, says Debbie. Between the cancer books at her bedside were books on gardening.
"I didn't talk about my illness to people unless they asked, apart from one good friend."
Some experiences she had to go through were "quite traumatic", she says.
"I had my dark days, but do not feel emotionally scarred. As my mother used to tell me, `I just pulled on my socks and got on with it'."
Strangely, Debbie found "cutting the hospital apron strings" difficult when she finished treatment, but nurses said this was a common reaction. Before checkups was also an unsettling time.
After nearly three years in remission, her three-monthly checkups are about to be cut back to six months.
"It's a very overloaded system here for cancer patients. My last checkup dragged out to quite a few months," she says.
Debbie now looks back on her years with cancer as a humbling experience. Months of feeling weak and shaky gave her some insight into the struggles of elderly people. "S... happens," she says. "I thought, `I'm a good person who would never hurt anyone. Why would I get cancer?' But that's not how it works."
Some people saw remission from cancer as a cure, she said. But for survivors, cancer "is a constant shadow that you are quite frightened of but have to learn to live with, trusting that you won't get sick".
- The Marlborough Express