Victory of living, even as cancer consumes you

Last updated 05:00 19/04/2013
Angela Litterick-Biggs
CRAIG SIMCOX/Fairfax NZ

STRENGTH: Angela Litterick-Biggs with photographs of her mother, who died from lung cancer. Ms Litterick-Biggs lives a full life despite having incurable breast cancer.

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Angela Litterick-Biggs says she is living with cancer, not dying from it. But one day it will claim her life.

The Wellington educational psychologist has incurable breast cancer that is creeping through her small frame. An evolving concoction of treatments - radiation, pills, chemotherapy - delays the inevitable.

"The cancer will keep spreading and one day that will be the end of it for me. In my head I live six months ahead.

"I kind of go through these phases of, 'Why don't you just chuck it all in?', but then you think, 'Well, actually I'm still breathing and my legs still work and my arms still work and I've got all these things like friends, family, a job, a life'."

A doctor signalled her death knell in mid-2008, on her 41st birthday and just after lung cancer had claimed her mother's life.

"He asked me to walk over to a chair. He said, 'Oh my God, what is wrong with you?'

"I said, 'Nothing's wrong, it's just muscular, I'll be fine in a month', which was the mantra.

"He told me then and there, 'I think it's spread to your back'."

She had been reassured for about three months by various health professionals, including physiotherapists and a GP, that the pain in her back was muscle-related and would improve.

But while she was doing yoga at home at night trying to strengthen her back, the cancer was spreading from her breast to her spine.

She was pale, walking oddly and "really, really shattered".

"I got up one day and couldn't move. It had eaten through a vertebrae so I was at huge risk of being paralysed.

"I got a really big shock when the oncologist said to me, 'Now you can't go to the gym and do power and step and all those things - if you do, you will collapse your spine and that's the end of that'."

By the time she was diagnosed it was too late to remove her breast and contain the cancer.

"I'm actually bloody lucky. I'm still working, I still live a really good life and though I don't go jet-skiing and I don't go rock-climbing anymore there's other stuff."

The 45-year-old had just moved to Wellington from Hawke's Bay when she was diagnosed, and didn't know many people.

She turned to support groups for help, such as the Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition, and was one of the first members of Sweet Louise - a charity that provides vouchers for women with advanced breast cancer to spend on improving their quality of life.

Ms Litterick-Biggs spends her vouchers on "things that are good for the soul", such as beauty treatments and massages. They also have monthly meetings where they can be honest and let it all out.

She's getting behind a campaign that starts on Monday to raise money for the coalition's Step by Step support and information pack, which Ms Litterick-Biggs used to keep track of doctors' names and appointments - things that are a blur when your life has been thrown into turmoil.

Money will be donated from every packet of Tim Tam biscuits and every Woman's Day sold at Countdown supermarkets until May 19.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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