LOVE MY WAY

Mum of two Meg Welch­man will likely be hav­ing can­cer treat­ment for life but noth­ing is get­ting in the way of her liv­ing her life to its fullest.

MiNDFOOD (New Zealand) - - MINDFOOD SHOP - WORDS BY ELLI JA­COBS

Iwas born in Mel­bourne but raised in Bal­lina, a coastal town on the far north coast of New South Wales, to­gether with my two older sib­lings. From a very young age my par­ents nur­tured and en­cour­aged me to be what I wanted, with a good dose of in­de­pen­dence and free­dom that comes from liv­ing in a small town.

I went on to study psy­chol­ogy at the Bris­bane cam­pus of Grif­fith Uni­ver­sity, where I played bass gui­tar in a band called The Crim­son Cardi­gans and wrote mu­sic re­views for the uni­ver­sity news­pa­per.

After grad­u­at­ing, I be­gan my ca­reer as a coun­sel­lor in the space of mental health and cou­ples coun­selling. I met my hus­band Si­mon when we were both 18, through mu­tual friends. Ten years later, we be­gan dat­ing and mar­ried in 2002. Our son, Reuben was born in 2007 and then, shortly after my daugh­ter, Ivy was born in 2009, our lives dras­ti­cally changed.

I felt lumps in my breast which I thought were mas­ti­tis from breast­feed­ing. They weren’t.

The hard lumps were, in fact, ag­gres­sive breast can­cer that had spread very quickly from my breast through my lymph glands and into my liver. In March 2010, age 37, I was di­ag­nosed with Stage IV breast can­cer.

Re­ceiv­ing the di­ag­no­sis was like jump­ing off the end of the earth. Ev­ery­thing I thought as my re­al­ity and my fu­ture just dis­in­te­grated and was re­placed with in­tense shock and fear.

It was very hard to make sense of it be­cause there’s no his­tory of breast can­cer in my fam­ily, and I had al­ready strug­gled for so long to have

chil­dren. Both my new­born daugh­ter and my son, Reuben – who was just two years old at the time – were con­ceived through IVF, so there was this sense of un­fair­ness, that we’d al­ready been through such a mas­sive hur­dle and now we were faced with this new chal­lenge. But I guess life’s filled with un­ex­pected cir­cum­stances.

Prior to the di­ag­no­sis, I was look­ing after a tod­dler and a new­born baby, tak­ing two dance classes a week, and at no stage did I feel un­well or that my body was al­most ready to shut down, and that con­trib­uted to the shock.

I had to give up breast­feed­ing im­me­di­ately and be­gin six months of hard-hit­ting chemo, fol­lowed by a mas­tec­tomy, all the while sur­rounded by the love and sup­port of fam­ily and friends. My mum and in-laws came to live with us for a pe­riod of time to help with the chil­dren but to also al­low me and Si­mon time to be to­gether and con­nect.

Be­ing in the mo­ment and spend­ing as much time as pos­si­ble with each other be­came our pri­or­ity as we weren’t sure how long we would have. At the same time, as a psy­chol­o­gist, I knew what would help, and I be­gan to prac­tise that with my­self. It all seemed to work as after treat­ment, the re­sults were pos­i­tive. I was in re­mis­sion.

Un­for­tu­nately, since that ini­tial di­ag­no­sis, I’ve had three fur­ther re­oc­cur­rences of metastatic breast can­cer, twice to my liver and lymph nodes and once to my lungs.

The se­cond time, in 2013, was when my lit­tle boy was just be­gin­ning prep school at age five. I was very lucky to have a won­der­ful group of school mums who formed a ros­ter and cooked home-made meals for us and I some­times also found gifts on my doorstep.

Ev­ery Thurs­day when I was hav­ing an­other six-month round of chemo, they would take turns look­ing after my chil­dren, pro­vid­ing them with play dates and things to look for­ward to.

In a time of cri­sis, that gave me a lot of hope and it al­lowed my chil­dren to de­velop re­silience as a re­sult of be­ing around other car­ing par­ents and chil­dren.

In 2015 when my breast can­cer re­turned for the third time, I went through an­other six-month round of chemo and was put on a new drug called Kad­cyla.

Since then, even though my scans show no sign of can­cer, I’ve been put on chemo for life which means ev­ery three weeks I have tar­geted ther­apy for my par­tic­u­lar type of breast can­cer known as HER2+. The ther­apy is keep­ing me alive.

Then in March last year, I no­ticed how breath­less I felt just walk­ing up the stairs to my front door and I was also cough­ing a lot. At first, my doc­tor thought it was a form of pneu­mo­nia, but we found out it was the breast can­cer and it had formed in the lungs. Be­ing my fourth time, I was com­pletely dev­as­tated.

It was very dif­fi­cult emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally as I wasn’t able to breathe freely. But, I kept at­tend­ing choir classes which proved to help me men­tally but also with my voice, to keep it strong.

What helped the most though was a new clin­i­cal trial I was on at The Wes­ley Hos­pi­tal in Bris­bane. It of­fered

a new, tablet-based drug for women who’d had se­condary breast can­cer. I could take it at home with­out the se­vere side ef­fects like fall­ing out hair.

Since Novem­ber 2018, all my scans have been clean, show­ing no trace of can­cer and I can breathe freely again.

I con­tinue on three-weekly tar­geted treat­ment of my breast can­cer and will do for life.

Rather than run­ning down dark al­leys of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ I de­cided I would like to chan­nel my mind to­wards cre­ativ­ity.

Dur­ing my third can­cer di­ag­no­sis, go­ing through weekly chemo and just ly­ing in bed un­able to do much, I be­gan to think of what I could write about and how that might help me heal, in­clud­ing giv­ing hope to oth­ers. As a way to give back, I com­bined my love for psy­chol­ogy and art ther­apy and self-pub­lished a book with the help of my cousin, Grace Cuell, who il­lus­trated the book. It’s part mem­oir, part mind­ful­ness jour­nal, and part man­dala colour­ing book.

I felt that this way I could help oth­ers and I also want my kids, now aged nine and 11, to have some­thing tan­gi­ble they can pick up, look through, colour in and see my words as a way to know me. It’s my legacy for them, so when I do even­tu­ally die one day, they’ll know that I also truly lived and loved.

When it comes to shar­ing my ill­ness with my chil­dren, I never shielded them from it but I also didn’t tell them too much too soon. When they were six and eight, they be­gan to use the word ‘can­cer’ as they were more aware of my health sit­u­a­tion and old enough to un­der­stand that peo­ple do some­times get sick and die.

Now they also know that peo­ple can have can­cer and still live.

In ad­di­tion to pub­lish­ing the book, I’ve also given free talks in li­braries on mind­ful­ness and colour­ing all across Aus­tralia in­clud­ing at the Olivia New­ton-John Can­cer Well­ness & Re­search Cen­tre in Vic­to­ria. I am also an am­bas­sador for the Icon Can­cer Foun­da­tion.

Be­cause mu­sic had al­ways been a mas­sive part of my life, in 2015, my hus­band and I, along with two of our clos­est friends, formed a band called The Dou­ble Hap­pi­ness. He drums and I play bass gui­tar and sing back­ing vo­cals.

The beauty of be­ing in a band when you’re older is that you have noth­ing to prove and it’s so thrilling when other peo­ple like what we do.

In March this year, we re­leased a new sin­gle called ‘ No Place Like Nun­dah’ (a sub­urb of Bris­bane) and later in the year we’re re­leas­ing our first al­bum.

The mean­ing I’ve taken out of such an aw­ful ill­ness and walk­ing around with the dread that my life will most likely be shorter than many peo­ple’s, is that ev­ery mo­ment counts and the con­nec­tions we make with oth­ers rep­re­sent the most im­por­tant thing in life.

I’m now much more coura­geous and don’t rely on the no­tion of do­ing things ‘ one day in the fu­ture’. I’ve learned to say ‘no’ to things I would’ve pre­vi­ously said ‘ yes’ to, and I make sure to main­tain tight bonds of love with fam­ily and friends, and in par­tic­u­lar, a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with my hus­band.

I’ve come a long way since my di­ag­no­sis in 2010. I’m work­ing in the learn­ing and de­vel­op­ment field at Re­la­tion­ships Aus­tralia, train­ing other clin­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers.

The ter­ror has gone and although I do get these nig­gling thoughts at times when I start won­der­ing if there will be enough time for me, the re­al­ity is you don’t have to have can­cer to have those thoughts. We’re all go­ing to die at some point and we need to make the most of those pre­cious mo­ments ev­ery sin­gle day.

• Meg Welch­man’s book,

This Present Mo­ment is avail­able at pur­plecord­spress.com

“I thought the lumps in my breast were mas­ti­tis from breast­feed­ing. They weren’t.”

Above: Meg Welch­man has been liv­ing with Stage IV breast can­cer for 10 years.

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