“It felt like I had been given a
“I’m sure it’s nothing, but I’ll send you for a biopsy just to be safe,” the GP said to me. I wasn’t too worried. Yes, I’d just found a lump in my breast, but I was only 32 and it was barely four weeks after the birth of my second son, Freddie. It was likely a blocked milk duct, not breast cancer. In fact, I only remembered to mention it because my husband reminded me to. With a newborn to look after and my older son, Olly, being only 20 months old, there was just so much tiredness and chaos in our family.
Within 24 hours of the biopsy, I got a phone call from my doctor. “We’ve got the results,” she said. “I need you to come down here.” I knew immediately that something was horribly, dreadfully wrong. “It’s not great news,” she said. It was the most serious I had ever heard her sound. “It’s cancer.”
I felt like the world went dark and the floor just immediately disappeared out from underneath me. You know how your body gets all shaky? That’s what it was like. It was so surreal.
At the time, I didn’t know anyone with cancer who had survived – breast cancer or otherwise. The only experience I’d had was a few people, like my father-in-law, who had passed away from the disease, and so I associated cancer with death. I felt like someone was telling me my own death sentence.
When I told my husband Ed I had cancer, I just kept looking at him and wondering how he was going to cope with looking after the two little ones without me. As a mother, that’s all I could think about. It wasn’t so much about me. It was, “Oh my god, these kids
Breast cancer survivor Paulina White opens up to Stellar about facing her mortality, leaning on her best friend, actor Marta Dusseldorp – and being one of the lucky ones
are not going to have a mother. How will my husband survive?” You start making plans for life without you.
One of the first people I told was my best friend [actor Marta Dusseldorp]. Marta, my twin sister Elsa and I were all born on the same day in the same hospital, so we were destined to become friends. We went to school together. When Marta changed schools at 15, we became best-friend penpals. I remember we used to write these long letters to each other and even record messages on cassette tapes and send them. We had our first boyfriends and went through the rebellious stage of sneaking out at night together. In the holidays we were inseparable and I was miserable without her at school.
During my cancer experience, Marta, Elsa and I became the three amigos. My husband was a massive support in the way he could be and in the way I needed him to be, but there were some things I could only explore with Elsa and Marta. Life, death, my purpose in life, the meaning of life… These are very female conversations, I think. For a lot of men, it’s a bit of an exhausting discussion and my husband is no different. I needed my girls around me to explore the other path – instead of being fine, what if I wasn’t? What if I died?
The three amigos were strong as I went through surgery to have my right breast removed [the cancer was an aggressive malignancy], through six months of chemotherapy and the long road to recovery. Going through the journey with me was one of the main reasons Marta decided to emcee the recent Bazaar in Bloom charity event, which was held in order to raise money to purchase a mammogram machine for The Royal Hospital For Women in NSW. Mammograms are imperative for early detection of breast cancer. I’m so proud of Marta for raising awareness of breast cancer and hopefully raising funds, too.
Even though I couldn’t have gone through cancer without my family and friends, it really is a solo journey. Sitting in the surgeon’s office, getting ready to sign the consent form to remove your breast when you don’t actually feel sick, was so strange. “It feels like I’m signing up for elective surgery,” I said. The doctor
“There were some things I could only explore with Marta… what if I wasn’t fine?”
replied, “You are. You’re electing to live. I can’t guarantee what’s going to happen, but if you don’t have this surgery you will die.” It was terrifying.
It has now been 14 years since my diagnosis. I remember someone saying at the time that the cancer might be the best thing to ever happen to me, and I thought, “Well, that’s ridiculous.” I found it offensive for all the people going through the gruelling treatment and fear of the unknown.
But in saying that, it does hold some truth. There is not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for being here.
It hasn’t stopped the fact that I’m going to die, because we all are, of course, but to be blessed with being able to experience getting older, watching my children grow and become teenagers, and hopefully see them one day have children of their own… I am truly lucky.
If you would like to donate to The Royal Hospital For Women Foundation’s mammogram machine fund, go to royalwomen.org.au/bazaardon.
Liz Cambage didn’t want to hurt in silence any longer. So two months ago, the Australian basketballer decided to make some noise. She opened up for the first time about her battle with mental-health issues, revealing how a panic attack caused her to withdraw from a WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) game in the US. She also talked about how she was put on suicide watch after the 2016 Olympic Games.
Today, Cambage is again telling it like it is – and wants you to know that she is OK. “I am in a really good spot,” the 28-year-old tells
Stellar. “After my breakdown [at the WNBA game] during the year, I am back on medication. If I was not in a career that is so up and down, I would be fine, but in this lifestyle, I need balance. I’ll be staying on them until the Olympics next year.”
Australian basketball star Liz Cambage has never been one to “just shut up and play” – and in characteristically candid fashion, she tells Stellar why she’s proud to be known for taking a stand
Her job brings a “roller-coaster” of hectic emotions. Joy, fun and happiness crash up against fear, doubt and worry on the court – and spill into her life off it. Being on show week in and week out, and in intense professional environments, can cause even the hardiest to crumble.
Cambage always wrestled with self-belief. “She’s only good because she is tall,” was something Cambage – who now stands 2.03 metres – heard often as a kid. She started to believe it. “It would get to me,” she admits. “I never thought I was that great.”
Now she tries to embrace her world-best status rather than shy away from it. She has had many conversations with friend Dylan Alcott, the Paralympian and Grand Slam-winning tennis champ she met when they were teens. He’s persuaded her to own her accomplishments, revving her up with compliments – “Liz, you are the greatest basketball player in the world.” “You are the best.”
He boosted her when she needed it, and hearing the same from teammates and coaches, both in the WNBA and in Australia, reinforced it in her head.
Yet not until a WNBA game in July last year – when she wrote herself into the record books with 53 points in a game – did Cambage start to truly believe in herself. She had posted big numbers in games before, but many said she couldn’t do it in the world’s best league. She proved them wrong.
“It took me until last year that I really believed it, like, ‘Wow, I am great,’” says Cambage. “It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that out loud. People look at it as arrogance or cockiness – but look at the facts. It is what it is. Until someone can shut me down one on one, then I am going to wear it with pride.”
Along with ownership of her talent has been the rise of her star status. Cambage plays for the Las Vegas Aces and Australian Opals and is worshipped by basketball lovers across the world, particularly in the US, China and Australia. Such is her status in the US that she recently earned a coveted nude portrait in ESPN magazine’s annual Body issue. “I loved doing it,” she smiles.
IN THE PAST few weeks, Cambage has been back at home in Melbourne. She loves the city – having moved there at 10 after a stint in NSW’S Coffs Harbour. (Cambage, who was born in London to a Nigerian father and Australian mother, came here at three months old.) But being back is also difficult, as it can shine a light on how tricky she can find life when playing overseas. The solitude and lack of a big network are often challenging.
“It’s a reminder of how unsettled I am,” she says. “It’s hard being all over the shop because of my job. But look, I know it’s not forever. I am soaking it all in. I have a fantastic opportunity to live the life of a professional athlete.”
Cambage is not driven by fame, personal records or the money a career in sport can offer. “At the end of the day, I just want to win,” she says. “I want to get my team to the championships. I want to lead Australia to a gold medal at the Olympics in Tokyo. That is my end game. That’s my goal.”
With the rapid ascension of women’s sport, more sponsors have come knocking. Cambage recently did a shoot for Bonds and she is signed to telecommunications giant AT&T. “It’s a change in the way we view athletes,” she says. “It’s gone from, ‘Just shut up and play your sport,’ to ‘Oh, athletes are educated and have great views on what they are taking a stand for.’ Having something to stand for and say and giving a flying f*ck about social issues. I care a lot about equality, about everyone having a fair go.”
Cambage has questioned why the NBA has been praised for introducing a rule that states every men’s team has to have a mental health professional on staff, yet has not extended it to the WNBA. She has also been vocal about pay parity. In 2012, she was so incensed that the Australian Opals were flown to the London Olympics in economy while the men’s team went business that she leaked it to the media.
“A lot of people have put me down and told me to shut my mouth, but at the end of the day I have made a lot of bigger changes to women’s sport – especially basketball,” says Cambage. “I don’t need thank yous. I am riding the wave and living in the changes that me speaking openly has made. ” Lifeline 13 11 14
MARTA (left) WEARS Rotate By Birger Christensen dress, myer.com.au; her own jewellery (worn throughout) PAULINA WEARS Art Club by Heidi Middleton dress and belt, thisisartclub. com; her own jewellery (worn throughout)
SOUL SISTERS (from top) Paulina White, husband Ed and their children Olly (left) and Freddie; Paulina, Marta Dusseldorp and Elsa Morgan in Sydney in 2006.
LIZ WEARS (above) COS jacket, cosstores.com/au; Scanlan Theodore dress, scanlantheodore.com; Linden Cook ring, linden cookdesign.com; (left) Dundas dress, mytheresa. com; COS bike shorts, as before; her own shoes (from top) Liz Cambage shoots for the Las Vegas Aces during the WNBA semifinals in September; Djing at Flemington Racecourse on Melbourne Cup day in 2016; pictured with her mum Julia.