Friday, 7 June 2013

Guest Post: Rosa MacPherson - My Cancer Journey

Happy Friday!

Another one of my fabulous ambassadors has written a piece for this blog. I've featured the lovely Rosa on this blog before ( I hugely admire Rosa's spirit; she is incredibly brave and very proud to stand up for what she believes in. She is also a wonderful supportive person and very interesting too. She fully deserves her commendation at the Flame of Hope Awards, she is a wonderful asset to Cancer Research UK. I'm honoured she has allowed me to share this incredible piece of writing with you. Rosa has been through some horrific things and I think she is hugely inspirational. xxx

It was 2008, just a few months before I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I walked up the steps into the chapel and took a deep breath. I didn’t feel ill but I felt far from well.

I looked at the face of my dead mother lying in her coffin. Strangely enough she looked more like herself than she had done in recent years. The Funeral Director had applied her lipstick and painted in her eyebrows and I had made sure she was wearing a pair of her favourite earrings: multi-coloured parrots. She had on her bright beads and her flowered shawl was draped across her shoulders.

Every part an elderly Polish peasant, once more restored to an image of herself she was happy with.  And which made me smile.  At last she seemed like herself.

She had not had an easy death: she starved slowly over a long period, unable to live following the death of my father four years earlier in 2004.  He’d endured amputations, gangrene and late onset diabetes following a lifetime of smoking about 60 a day. He died a heroic death in 2004; facing death squarely and cursing the fact he had ever smoked.

At that time he’d urged me to stop smoking but I didn’t. In fact when he died, my mother, then aged 83 took up smoking; half-heartedly I admit.

Six months following his death my husband George was diagnosed with lymphoma. An ex-smoker he faced chemotherapy with determination and courage and urged me to stop smoking -- but I didn’t.

He was dead within six months of my father and I kept right on smoking.

I developed pre-cancerous cells in my cervix and had treatment to remove them. I was warned that smoking increased my chances of the cells becoming abnormal again. But I kept on smoking.

I took a year out of life and escaped to Poland where I lived on a writer’s grant and tried to trace my parents’ family. I tried to make sense of my family history and myself. I think I felt a deep introspection growing inside me and I felt the loss of those I loved. I tried to fill it with opera and theatre and vodka and cigarettes. In Poland smoking was almost compulsory.

So I kept right on smoking. What was the point?  Anybody could drop dead at anytime. You ‘ve got to die of something, right?

Then in 2008, a full year after I had returned from Poland I decided to finally quit. My son had lost his father and his grandfather and watched as I was smoking my life away. At the same time I watched as my mother withdrew from life; day after day renewing her determination not to eat; me renewing my determination not to smoke. One wanting to die, the other determined to live.

And then that day she died and I looked at her painted smile and thought , ‘how strange that she looks more like herself now, finally.’’

And then I suddenly started to bleed. I felt the blood gush from me and in shock rushed home from the chapel. I decided it was just the trauma of seeing her like that, looking happy to be dead, which had caused the spontaneous period. That’s all it was.

I had been off cigarettes for almost two years. A few weeks after her funeral I walked up the Ochil Hills, a guest member of a group of ramblers enjoying an Indian summer.  The walk was tough.  I was less fit than I ‘d realized and was desperate to get home even though I was enjoying walking to the summit, then down into the ravines at Dollar ‘s Vale of Gloom. The village of Dollar derives its name from Doilleir, an Irish and Scots Gaelic word meaning dark and gloomy. It perfectly suits the place – wild, savage at times but splendid in its greenery and energy. Looking over the Vale I felt the deep desire to connect with the place; to get a feeling for the lives lived here, the dark romance of the land and thinking about the turbulent histories of the age-old inhabitants of nearby Castle Campbell.  I thought of my husband, Georgie, as he fought for every  last breath he had remaining; his desire to be outdoors , just one last time, before  his life was gone.

I wanted to take all of it in.  For him. For my dad. For my mum. All the friends I had lost through cancer.

And then I felt it – the gushing of blood once again.

I wondered if I was going to make it back without any of the other walkers noticing my discomfort and distress.

Back home I crawled up the stairs on my hands and knees and joked about how unfit I was.

I was on the verge of the menopause; that’s all it was.

A surprise opportunity to see Leonard Cohen in an open-air concert at Edinburgh Castle later that Autumn should have filled me with excitement but something stopped me. My friend Anne sensed it as I suddenly jumped up during his rendition of Hallelujah, one of his most memorable songs. I rushed to the temporary portaloo pouring with blood.

It was the excitement of seeing Mr. Cohen and hearing him sing so mournfully. That’s all it was.

That’s what I told the Doc when I finally went to see her. She listened to each of the three occasions when I had bled but when I told her I walked out of a Leonard Cohen concert she shook her head.

“We’re going to have to see about this ,’ she said.

Still no word of cancer.

I was checked for fibroids. Yes, I had them. ‘Best get you a scan,” Doc said. So I did.

“Best get a wee bite out of you,” she said.

So I did.

And still I refused to accept anything was wrong with me. Menopause. Stress. Anxiety. Depression. Loneliness. Anything. Not cancer.


It was cancer. A phone call on the evening of Friday December 5th 2008 changed my life.

I went out and got drunk. Then I went home and cried and cried, all of Saturday and Saturday night. On Sunday I sat on the couch, red-eyed and swollen. I listened to myself breathing, aware of my breath rising and falling, the oxygen filling my body with energy.

I was still alive. And I suddenly felt a calm descend on me and fill me with quietness and stillness.

I had no idea what was going to happen to me but I knew at that point I would survive this.

There is such a relief when you hit rock bottom.  With nowhere else to fall there is only a deep acceptance and a gentle relief.

I found I was very lucky: Stage 1 uterine cancer, spotted by my eagle-eyed and understanding Doc who, over the years, had taken the time to understand me; who knew that for me to walk out of a Leonard Cohen concert was not normal. It made her move, check me out.

Others are not so lucky.

I have a survivor’s guilt I think.  I lobby, I raise funds, I promote Cancer Research UK. I talk to doctors, scientists, fellow survivors but Georgie is still gone. Family and friends still gone:  Werner is gone. Donnie. Mary. Reiner. David. Ian. Margaret. Jean. And yet I have many survivors in my life too: Olive, Sheena, Rae, Alexandra, Karen. Linda. Me.

I wasn’t close to them all, but enough of them.

Cancer kills. Part of me thinks, well we need to die of something; why not cancer? But cancer is, in part, a manifestation of disharmony in nature, mutation in our bodies, our diets, our hearts, and our spirits. It has pervaded human life and set us challenges to fight back; find answers; change the way we live our lives, to encourage us to offer help, kindness and time to finance and support our fellow humans. Cancer is giving us the opportunity to feel wholly human.

Cancer changed my life. Took people I loved. Changed me. Made me strong. But I still feel I am not doing enough, for others, for the cause, for myself.

Four years on and I remain clear of cancer. I still drink too much,; I don’t walk enough and am overweight. I am not a saint but cancer has changed me. It’s made me realize my mortality. It has helped me reach out for my own humanity. And in doing that I found so much more.

Rosa Macpherson

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