My Personal Journey
By Shirley Whitaker
(Posted June 2009)
Shirley writes of her experience with breast cancer and how it inspired her to ride the Otago Rail Trail ...(Shirley pictured at far right)
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2008 at the age of 62. I was called back after a routine mammogram under The National Breast Screening Programme. This had happened to me twice in the past under private consultation and had turned out to be fibrous cysts so I was not unduly worried. When I was finally diagnosed with cancer I went straight into shock. I can remember all the noise around me slowly disappearing into the distance then everything went black. This couldn’t be real. There was no cancer in my family so where had this come from?
After the shock came the anger. Why me? This shouldn’t have been happening to me. Someone else yes, but not me. I hadn’t done anything to deserve this. Owning a small farm with animals to look after, lawns to mow and gardens to tend keeps me on my toes so I was reasonably fit and lived a healthy lifestyle.
Then came the fright. I was so frightened that I was going to die from the big ‘C’. A terribly painful death as we so often read about or see on television. I thought long and hard about my own mortality.
Waking up in the wee hours of the night was the worst. My overactive mind was my worst enemy. I decided it would be much easier to just end it all and not bother putting myself and family through all the trauma I could see in the near future. I decided to confide in a very good friend who had been through a similar situation a few years before. She told me she had had the same thoughts at the time but instead of talking to someone had gone ahead and had a go at ending her life. After three goes and messing them all up she ended up in a special ward at Waitakere Hospital. She told the story in such a way that we were both laughing hysterically by the time she had finished, I decided it was a pretty desperate idea and between her and the psychologist at the Cancer Society I got over that silly thought.
It is a very frightening feeling when you suddenly realise just how fragile this life really is. I guess we all know that in the back of our minds, but when we are face to face with that knowledge it gives you a wake up call to sort your life out.
In May I had a lumpectomy with the use of a hook wire to target the tumour. I recovered well from this operation then spent a week in Fiji with friends for a bit of sunshine and R & R.
In June I had a Lymphoscintigraphy Sentinel Node mapping. A small amount of radioactive liquid is injected around the nipple and travels to the lymph nodes. These are visualised using a gamma camera. The surgeon can then remove a node with a small incision and not have to remove half your armpit. Recovery from that procedure was also very quick. In fact the operations were not really a big deal. In my case it was the psychological effects that really knocked me around.
At this stage I must say that the staff at the Breast Clinics were absolutely fantastic, I couldn’t have asked for better treatment. The breast care nurses and specialists really looked after me. The Cancer Society was also great. Their nurses gave great backup and support and the psychologist helped me get my head back together again.
I had to wait until October to get radiation and had to travel to Waikato Hospital for treatment as Auckland Hospital was over committed. My four week stay in Hamilton wasn’t too bad - the Ministry of Health paid for my motel and friends were able to come and stay during the week - and I returned to Auckland at the weekends. I told myself I was on a lovely relaxing holiday. Hamilton is a beautiful city with its lake, gardens and river, amazing what you find when you ‘stop to smell the flowers’!
On my return to Auckland I decided I needed to re-think my life’s priorities. I needed to drop my stress levels, increase my fitness and put some goals in place.
A few years prior I had been watching a programme on TV about the NZ Rail and it showed a story on the ‘Otago Central Rail Trail’. At the time I thought ‘what a great thing to do!’ and put it in my ‘might do that one day’ box.
In December 2008 I had friends visiting and they said they were going to bike the rail trail in February. It was only six weeks after I had finished radiation so I was still very tied and didn’t think I would be able to get into shape in time so decided to give it a miss. But all weekend I thought about it and by Monday morning had decided to go for it. I phoned my friends, got their booking dates, made a few phone calls, I flashed the MasterCard and it was all on.
Not having ridden a bike for quite a few years (college days) I wasn’t even sure I could balance on one anymore. So off to the big red barn ‘where everyone gets a bargain’ to purchase a push bike. It took a couple of weeks and some very sore leg muscles but I soon got up to about 8k a night. Sometimes biking, sometimes walking and by the beginning of February I was pretty confident I could do the rail trail as long as I took it easy and had lots of rests.
We flew down to Christchurch and stayed a couple of nights at the YMCA. We were booked with ‘Adventure South Tours’ for a 5 day cycling trip from Christchurch to the Otago Central Rail Trail including the Taieri Express to Dunedin then up the coast via Oamaru back to Christchurch. We were collected on Monday morning and taken to their depot to be fitted out for our bikes. There were 14 of us on the trip, six Kiwis, two Canadians, four Americans and our two kiwi tour guides. After a quick ride around the car park the bikes were loaded onto the trailer, we were loaded into the bus and were on our way.
Our first stop was Tekapo where we had lunch then a trip up Mt.John to admire the beautiful lake and the spectacular sight of the clouds rolling over the top of the mountains and down into the valleys. Our first cycling was a quiet ride alongside a canal system, nice and flat or downhill so we could get the feel of the bikes and learn to use the gears, probably about 15 – 20km.
After practicing on a bike from the ‘big red shed’ then getting on an Adventure South bike was like going from driving an Austin 7 to driving a BMW. Sheer bliss! My girlfriend had been practising on a bike she had brought in 1957 with her first pay packet, so as you can imagine, she was almost low flying on a quality mountain bike.
We arrived at Clyde about 6.30pm, and after unpacking at Dunstan House where we were to spend the night, some of us went for a walk admiring the beautiful stone buildings, while the others went for a ride along the Cromwell riverside. They all managed to get lost and ended up cycling about twice as far as they should have so I was very pleased that I stuck to the sightseeing. That evening we had a beautiful dinner at the old Post Office, then back to Dunstan House for a nightcap and off to bed.
Day Two saw us up bright and early and after a 5 star breakfast and a very interesting talk on the history of Clyde and surrounding country from our hotelier we were on our bikes and away. A nice easy ride through the countryside and on to Chatto Creek. There was a bit of huffing and puffing from here to Omakau but a quick two minute rest now and again got the circulation back into my legs and the bits that came into contact with the seat and off I went again.
We stopped at Omakau for lunch and then were driven to the little historic village of Ophir. Once again beautiful stone houses and quaint little shops. The afternoon ride was on to Lauder where we stayed at the Lauder Railway School. Late afternoon we were taken to the historic gold mining village of St.Bathans where we walked to the beautiful blue lake then had a drink at the local pub. We returned to our school house and had a lovely dinner at a little pub across the road. Biked 44km that day.
Day Three we were up nice and early again and all chipped in to get our own breakfast at the school house and clean up, then hit the trail. Still a little bit of huffing and puffing to go, through tunnels and over bridges and finally into the Idaburn Valley. Next stop was the little art deco township of Ranfurly where we stopped for lunch. We then drove to Naseby and booked into the Royal Hotel. That afternoon we went to the local indoor curling rink -the only one in the southern hemisphere. I wasn’t too keen to play as I was a bit tied and really only wanted to rest for the afternoon but I would have messed up the numbers so decided to have a go. Well, what a great game! We had a ball or should I say ‘curl’. The girls came out with more points than the boys so of course that helped with the thrill. Back to the hotel for a meal - one serving would have fed four people! If anyone was thinking that all the exercise would make you lose weight there was no show! The southern hospitality really shone through and the meals were enormous. Biked 48km today.
Day four and another large breakfast under our belts and we were off into the Taieri Gorge. More bridges and a tunnel, slight huffing and puffing then a nice downhill run into the old hotel at Hyde which is now a café. After lunch the final 27km took us past the scene of the famous Hyde rail disaster of 1943. A slow descent across the plains into Middlemarch and the end of the trail. Time for a celebratory drink at the ‘Kissing Gate Café’ then off to catch the Taieri Express for a spectacular ride through the gorge, said to be one of the worlds great train journeys. WOW I was impressed! That night we stayed at the George Street Boutique Hotel in Dunedin and had dinner at a Pizza restaurant in the city. Once again more food than we could eat. Biked 59km today.
Day Five. Yahoo, it was raining! We were supposed to do more biking along the coast north of Oamaru but I was so saddle-sore I didn’t care if I never saw another bike as long as I lived!!!! We had a lovely breakfast and took off for Oamaru where we stopped at the old warehouses where the early buildings are being restored and were able to explore the past. After a leisurely meal at the Latitude 45 Café we headed across the Canterbury plains back to Christchurch where we were delivered back to the YMCA. One more day to explore the beauty of Christchurch and her river then back home to Auckland.
The trip was a wonderful experience and the weather, scenery, food, company and most of all the guides from Adventure South Tour Company who looked after us so well made the whole thing a beautiful memory to be put into my ‘Been There, Done That’ and loved it box.
I have no doubt, if I had not been diagnosed with breast cancer the Otago Rail Trail would still be sitting in my’ might do that one day’ box. I am so glad that it isn’t.
Life goes quietly on, May came around and time for my 12 month mammogram, first one since diagnosis. Off to North Shore Hospital on Thursday, all goes well except ‘sorry, we are short of doctors and will contact you when the doctor has checked the results’.
Monday night on arriving home from work a message on the answer phone to say ‘please contact the hospital’. Too late of course to phone that night so had to wait until Tuesday morning to call. An abnormality had been found in the right breast ‘please come back Thursday for further tests’. Monday night lasted for about 24hours but Tuesday and Wednesday nights were at least 48 hours long and that crazy woman came back into my head to haunt me. The thought of going through all that again really got to me.
We had our Western Districts Breast Friends meeting on the Tuesday night and being able to share with women who understood what was going on in my head was certainly a comfort to me. By Thursday morning I was pretty tired but resigned to what might lie ahead.
Four more pictures where taken of the right breast with lots of measurements taken and off the information went to the doctor. About 10 minutes later - which felt like 10 hours - he popped his head in the door and said, ‘All OK, just some calcifications.’ I could have jumped up and kissed him. What a relief, to say the least. I had told my sister and some girlfriends what was going on and they were all sitting with their mobile phones waiting for the verdict. I sent one text to all saying ‘everything OK’ and my phone went crazy with all the texts trying to get through at the same time. I sat in the North Shore Hospital car park and cried like a baby.
There are lots of things this journey has shown me and one important thing is the love, caring and compassion of our family and friends, especially our girlfriends - God sent and priceless.
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