Melissa Stokes:

She’s trav­elled the world – of­ten into danger­ous sit­u­a­tions – but noth­ing could pre­pare Melissa Stokes for shock news closer to home. She talks to Nicola Rus­sell about her mum’s fight for life, and how it’s changed the way she lives.

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the news that shook her world

She’s worked in Is­rael with rock­ets land­ing just feet away and re­ported on the first Christchurch earth­quake with her hometown in tat­ters around her – but it was the re­cent news of her mother Gill’s lung can­cer that truly shook Melissa Stokes to her core.

“I feel like in some way I had to grow up. Even now, it is Dad who or­gan­ises my flat tyres and takes care of things, but ev­ery­one was a lit­tle at sea so I thought, ‘I have to step up here,’ which still feels quite un­usual, even though I am 38,” says Melissa, who is stand­ing at her kitchen bench squeez­ing in a chat be­fore her sons Hugo, five, and Fred­die, three, get home from school and preschool.

Af­ter her mother’s lung can­cer di­ag­no­sis on Septem­ber 1 last year, the TVNZ pre­sen­ter be­gan writ­ing a diary in an at­tempt to process the over­whelm­ing emo­tions she was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing while they waited for an­swers about treat­ment op­tions. She pub­lished that diary in a na­tional news­pa­per in March and says the re­sponse was over­whelm­ing.

“I think I un­der­es­ti­mated how many peo­ple would send me their sto­ries. For the week af­ter, I had that heavy feel­ing in the eyes from cry­ing so of­ten – I felt quite ex­hausted.

“I never re­ally feel strongly about putting my­self out there, then I thought, ‘You know what, I am go­ing to,’ be­cause this re­ally tore me apart and there are go­ing to be other peo­ple like that too.”

The mem­ory of the weeks fol­low­ing the hospi­tal visit that turned her fam­ily’s world up­side down is still fresh. Once the Stokes fam­ily had pro­cessed the shock that Gill had can­cer, they clung to the hope that the 4.5cm tu­mour on her lung had not spread and was there­fore op­er­a­ble.

Close to a month later, though, test re­sults re­vealed the tu­mour was push­ing against her heart and there were le­sions on her spine. Op­er­at­ing was not an op­tion. The good news was that a funded drug was avail­able for this type of can­cer, a can­cer found mostly in non-smok­ing Asian women.

“My grand­mother, Nana Peg, is half Chi­nese. That has been a wee bit of a bless­ing re­ally, be­cause Mum’s on­col­o­gist said, ‘If you want to get a can­cer, this is the one to get.’

“She’ll be on this drug un­til that bas­tard tu­mour works out how to get around the med­i­ca­tion and starts grow­ing again,” Melissa wrote in her diary on Septem­ber 26. “That could be any­where from 12 months. [The on­col­o­gist] says if she had nor­mal chemo she’d be lucky to live 12 months.”

Melissa says the drug has meant the fam­ily has been able to re­turn to some sense of nor­mal­ity. The med­i­ca­tion af­fects Gill’s skin but mostly she is feel­ing well.

“I think if she had been go­ing to chemo­ther­apy it would have been a real men­tal set­back. These drugs are amaz­ing, they have shrunk the tu­mour by half and she used to cough

all the time and that is mostly gone. Once the can­cer has worked out what to do and grows back, there are prob­a­bly un­funded drugs she can go on. The ad­vances they are mak­ing are quite in­cred­i­ble. She will never be classed as can­cer-free but she will get some time.”

Melissa is mar­ried to cam­era­man Dave Pierce, 41 – the pair worked to­gether in­ten­sively for two years when Melissa took on the role of TVNZ’s Euro­pean cor­re­spon­dent in 2006.

“I joke to Dave that we only got mar­ried be­cause he was re­ally the only per­son I saw for two years – and I still kind of liked him so that was fine,” she says with a smile.

The cou­ple trav­elled widely dur­ing that time and were forced to han­dle stress­ful sit­u­a­tions in war zones like Is­rael and Pales­tine. She re­calls at­tend­ing a tense funeral for a Ha­mas leader where their local aide (a fixer) or­dered them to run back to the car.

“By the time we got in the car, it was sur­rounded by men. They gath­ered around the car and tried to open my door. I vividly re­mem­ber Dave leaning over and slam­ming down the lock. The driver had to show a bit of mus­cle with them be­fore get­ting us out of there.

“The night be­fore, the bor­der had closed so we couldn’t get out. I think we’ve been two of only a few TVNZ re­porters who have ever stayed in Gaza for a 24-hour pe­riod. The build­ing down the road was bombed in the night and it shook our ho­tel so badly I don’t think I got a minute’s sleep. A to­tally dif­fer­ent life to any­thing I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced.”

The cou­ple is con­se­quently well pre­pared to sup­port each other through dif­fi­cult times in their lives.

“Dave is very solid in those kinds of sit­u­a­tions – he knows me. I fly off the han­dle and get het up and then I will calm down a bit later. He will just en­ter­tain the kids while I work it out.”

She also has four close girl­friends who called her daily for six weeks af­ter her mum was di­ag­nosed. “That made me go, ‘Have I been a good enough friend?’ and, ‘Have I been kind enough to oth­ers when they’ve told me news like this?’, which made me quite up­set. You do just say, ‘I am so sorry to hear that,’ so it made me want to be kin­der.”

She says her mum’s ill­ness has changed the way she lives her life in many ways. “I also want Mum to see me suc­ceed; it is not worth sit­ting around wait­ing for some­thing to hap­pen. What this ex­pe­ri­ence has made me think is that I have to make every op­por­tu­nity count. I don’t want to die won­der­ing and I don’t want Mum to die won­der­ing. I hate all those clichés, but you find they are ac­tu­ally true when some­thing like this hap­pens.”

Melissa’s mother and fa­ther now live just a few sub­urbs away from Melissa and Dave. They moved here a few years ago from Christchurch, where they had lived since Melissa was a teenager. They had planned to leave in 2010 but when the first Christchurch earth­quake hit they stayed on for a few more years to sup­port the com­mu­nity. In the rag trade for decades, Gill used to make all Melissa’s clothes. “She’s an awe­some seam­stress; she made all my clothes even when I started re­port­ing, un­til my friends said it had to stop be­cause she was mak­ing me matchy­matchy suits!”

Gill is a now a big part of Hugo and Fred­die’s daily life. When Melissa works, Gill picks Fred­die and Hugo up from day­care and school, and Melissa says she is al­ways call­ing her mum about do­mes­tic co­nun­drums or to tell her sto­ries about the kids.

“She is such a great grand­mother. My kids ab­so­lutely adore her, she does things with them that I would never do and teaches them stuff I would never think about do­ing. It is great.”

Melissa’s sis­ter Olivia also moved to the area re­cently from Mel­bourne to be near the fam­ily. She has two daugh­ters aged one and four; the eldest has epilepsy and a ge­netic disor­der which means she can’t walk or talk.

“Mum is re­ally great at help­ing with her. Char­lotte is the most gor­geous lit­tle girl you have ever seen and it breaks your heart. The pub­lic health sys­tem has been so good to them.”

With two chil­dren un­der five, who were both poor sleep­ers in their first year, Melissa has wel­comed her fam­ily’s prox­im­ity. The news­room also be­came her refuge. There, she had an out­let from the chaos of early par­ent­hood and the TVNZ mums also sup­ported her through re­flux and sleep deprivation.

“Wendy Petrie is one of my mother men­tors – she gave me all the hand-me-downs, and when Hugo wasn’t sleep­ing she would come around, wrap him up and stick him into bed! Re­nee Wright, Toni Street and I all have kids around the same age.”

Cur­rently, Melissa is work­ing one night a week on Tonight and also picks up news pre­sent­ing and re­port­ing shifts as they are avail­able. Asked how she feels about the way>>

I have to make every op­por­tu­nity count.

moth­ers are treated in the work­place, Melissa says her ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a work­ing mum at TVNZ is a good one. She has been able to keep a hand in while par­ent­ing her young fam­ily and re­turned to work nine weeks af­ter she had Hugo to do one shift a week. She is, how­ever, irked by the dis­crim­i­na­tion she sees many women sub­jected to in New Zealand.

“I have been re­ally lucky, but I think more em­ploy­ers need to be more open to flex­i­ble hours or job shar­ing. There is a whole work­force of women whose power they could har­ness – imag­ine that! We need to change the perception that things only hap­pen nine to five. I know so many women who would love to work, but work­ing full-time Mon­day to Fri­day is not doable. Also women do need some sup­port to re­turn even on the ba­sic level. How many work­places do you know that of­fer a place where a woman can pump breast milk?”

She ad­mits that she misses the ex­cite­ment of daily work. “I miss that adrenalin all the time, which is why I love pre­sent­ing or news­read­ing, be­cause on live TV any­thing can hap­pen, and it does. I think that keeps me on edge. I miss it. I miss live crosses and work­ing in the field.

“Rolling news or break­ing news is the ul­ti­mate for me. I did a three-hour block af­ter the Kaik­oura earth­quake. That is when I re­ally love the news­room most be­cause ev­ery­one is there try­ing to get the best work on air to in­form the pub­lic.”

Asked about her most ex­hil­a­rat­ing as­sign­ments, Melissa im­me­di­ately cites her time in Is­rael. “That was ex­cit­ing work, be­ing the war cor­re­spon­dent, but I ac­tu­ally re­ally loved the ev­ery­day nor­mal sto­ries, like when I went to Gal­lipoli and met a 100-year-old who re­mem­bered the war.”

Melissa says it is telling those sto­ries, and be­ing part of in­form­ing the pub­lic, that mo­ti­vates her, whether it is at home or abroad.

“I’ve met such amaz­ing peo­ple who have let me tell their sto­ries over the years – we are with peo­ple at their high­est and low­est. Christchurch was hard be­cause it was my hometown, my par­ents were there and it took me ages to get hold of them in the hours af­ter­wards, so I landed there still not know­ing if they were okay and know­ing that parts of Christchurch I adored, like Christ­mas Eve at the Dux, were gone for ever.

“See­ing Ki­wis do well over­seas al­ways makes me cry too. Every time we went to the 2007 Amer­ica’s Cup races in Va­len­cia and saw our boat com­ing back, I would get tears in my eyes. I re­mem­ber at the end [of the fi­nal race] we were put on the back of the black boat to in­ter­view the guys af­ter that gutwrench­ing loss – it was so dif­fi­cult to watch them and at the same time have to in­ter­view them about it.”

Melissa says watch­ing the changes in news re­port­ing since she grad­u­ated from Christchurch Broad­cast­ing School has been fas­ci­nat­ing. “When I started in Europe in 2006 we used to carry around those huge edit packs – they were 30kg. I re­mem­ber push­ing them through air­ports and pay­ing hun­dreds of pounds worth of ex­cess bag­gage. At the end of it we were do­ing ev­ery­thing on the lap­top. It was amaz­ing to see by the end of those two years how ev­ery­thing had changed.

“I hope I can keep chang­ing and be ver­sa­tile and keep on keep­ing on! It’s still a thrill to hear the news mu­sic be­fore a bulletin or to share a desk with Si­mon [Dal­low] when Wendy is away. It is some­thing that still gives me a buzz.”

Hav­ing a hus­band in the same in­dus­try while she is work­ing part­time has its pros and cons, says Melissa. “I do get frus­trated that he will get some jobs I would re­ally like to have done, but I just have to re­mem­ber that when he is away he doesn’t get to be with the kids and he misses them.”

For now, Melissa is tak­ing each day as it comes, bal­anc­ing work with her gor­geous lit­tle boys, who are hap­pily smil­ing for the cam­eras, know­ing there is some new Lego wait­ing for them to play with. She says while the past year has been a chal­lenge for the Stokes fam­ily, she’s taken from it some sound re­al­i­sa­tions about liv­ing every day well.

“I do think it has changed me.

It has def­i­nitely made me think dif­fer­ently about how I will live my life. I slip back into old habits and then I go, ‘No, re­set,’ and the next day I try again.”

A young Melissa with her par­ents, Roger and Gill.

Melissa loves the adrenalin rush of bring­ing the news to the view­ing pub­lic and en­joys be­ing able to keep her hand in while bring­ing up her chil­dren.

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