Healthcare professional Lesley McPherson had a rough ride with breast cancer. Now, eight years on, she’s grateful to tell her tale and help others, too.
As a healthcare professional aged 57, Gestalt Therapist and Counsellor Lesley McPherson knew the importance of regular health tests and screening. However, at no stage did she imagine her routine mammogram would see enduring gruelling treatment and find her close to death.
However, fast forward eight years and Lesley, now aged 64, looks back with gratitude that she faced the challenge head-on, battled the beast that is breast cancer and has lived to not only tell the tale, but to help others, too.
Here, she tells Pink Hope her story!
“I had absolutely no inkling I may have had breast cancer,” she recalls, still quite incredulous. “Not a single clue! There was no lump, no discomfort, no sign whatsoever. It was discovered at my regular Breast Screen NSW visit. My first reaction was outright denial, I guess.
“I had had the screening and went away on holiday. When I returned, there was a message from Royal North Shore Hospital Breast Screen Unit telling me I needed to come in for a screening. I ignored the call because I had already had my screen. I figured they had their wires crossed.
“They rang again and left a couple of messages. Their persistence began to annoy me, so I rang them to set them straight. How wrong I was! I needed to return for another screen, as they had noticed something they wanted to be certain about and double-check. My heart sank. I just knew from that moment that this was not going to be good news for me. As soon as I could, I got in for another screen. I’m a woman who likes to get on and get this stuff over and done with.
As a healthcare professional specialising in mental and emotional healing, Lesley knew the importance of acting quickly – for her frame of mind as well as physical health.
“Both my adult sons were with me when we were told that the lump was cancerous. In that same meeting, I was asking about surgeons and time frames to get the lump removed. I can’t even really recall the diagnosis as I set my brain to ‘get it out and get on with my life’ mode. It wasn’t until after the surgery that the weight of what was happening began to sink in.”
Heeding The Advice Of Her Healthcare Professional
“For once in my life, I pretty much did everything my specialists recommended,” reveals Lesley, who admits she has a tendency to question everything. “I didn’t argue and rarely questioned. My attitude was that they had far more experience with this than me, so if I was to get through this alive, I was to do as they recommended. And that is what I did.
“I initially had a lumpectomy. It was one of those ‘test the cells as we go’ procedures. When I went under the anaesthetic, I had no idea if I would lose a little, or all, of my precious boob. Thankfully, it was only a little and I have been left with only a small crater-like impression. As soon as I recovered from surgery, I headed on an overseas trip that I was adamant I was going to go on, and then it was straight to chemotherapy!”
The Treatment Process
“I recall my first treatment as though it was yesterday. I had returned from my overseas trip the day before. I was so jet-lagged, yet ready to face this enemy in me! I fronted up to the Kinghorn Cancer Center and was bombarded with information. True to form, I glazed over it all, until I heard the part about losing my hair. My attention was suddenly laser-focused! I was more concerned about that than anything else they had to tell me. As far as I was concerned, I would roll with whatever happened, but losing my hair, in that moment, was absolutely non-negotiable. I had a complete meltdown and wept for ages.
“As the chemo began, I recall the feeling of the toxin entering my veins and moving through my body. I immediately felt faint and weak. My blood pressure dropped, and they had to slow the treatment down considerably, to the point that I was there most of the day. This itself should have been an alarm for me as to what may be in store, but I pressed on with absolute faith that this cancer was not going to beat me! I would get my life back after this treatment protocol was done. After every treatment, I ended up in the hospital within exactly one week. So my life became a roster of one week free, a week in hospital and a week recovering before the next treatment.”
The Emotional Toll
Physically, this was a pretty basic routine at that time, yet it was an incredibly difficult time for me from an emotional perspective. My first round of chemo was on 1st August. I was in the hospital a week later with no red blood cells, and I was struggling to come to terms with the fact that my hair was beginning to fall out. My husband was also in another significant hospital on the other side of the city with a deteriorating condition, and he needed me!
“Before being discharged from the hospital, my oncologist implored me not to go visit my husband as the exposure would place me at a significant risk of infection again. However, not being by my husband’s side was not an option. I went from my hospital bed to his and stayed pretty much constantly until he passed away on 31st August. In the end, I travelled my journey without him – the man who had promised to be with me through every challenge I faced.
“As my treatment progressed, I became more vulnerable, and my hospitalisations escalated to ICU. However, given their beloved Dad had died, I was more concerned about causing more stress to my sons and their families. I tried to play down my condition. No doubt, it was an awful time for my family, but they were there always, as were my female friends.”
The Haircut ‘Rite of Passage’
Any woman who has undergone cancer treatment will tell you how traumatic being hairless is. These women may also reveal that shaving their hair helped them regain power over the disease and treatment that was ravaging their bodies. For Lesley, it was no different.
“A week after my second round of chemo, I was back in hospital. I noticed my lovely long curly hair was beginning to succumb. I tried to wash it. That ended in disaster. It all clumped together, and I couldn’t move it. In tears, I rang two of my dearest girlfriends and left messages crying for their help.
“It was a shocking wet, windy, cold day, yet despite that, these two women turned up in no time with scissors, clippers, and a bottle of French champagne. It was both sad and funny at the same time. By the end of their visit, I was clean-shaven. Without my darling friends, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Using Therapy Work As Therapy
Because I work as a therapist, I continued to work, unless I was hospitalised. It was an interesting time to be continuing my treatment and working with clients. The relationships I had built with my clients, and the understanding and compassion they offered me, was of considerable support. It was also really productive for the overall development of our working relationships. To this day, I work with other women who have gone through what I have, and I host a breast cancer support group at our local RSL club once a month. We come together, we share our stories, our challenges, our fears, and our successes. It has been of enormous help to me, and I genuinely look forward to welcoming others who come to the regular meetings.”
Internal Strength And Resilience
“From the outset, my internal resources were set on getting through whatever was thrown at me and getting my life back. I never once deviated from that deeply felt sense of being around for my sons, their families, and friends. I knew I had more life to live. I’ve always been a strong, resilient woman, which was the most significant test of my capacity and conviction.
Obviously, losing my hair was a particularly low point in my journey, but in the end, I realised it’s just hair – not my life. At one point, I was in ICU in Queensland. I was away from my family and friends, save for one dear friend who sat with me through my darkest time.
“During this time, I finally realised that I was critically ill. I had 24 hour one-to-one nursing care, and well, I was basically dying. Medicos had no idea what was happening or why my system was shutting down. I insisted to my friend that she keep me alert and keep me present. It was during this time that we worked on a conference presentation for work, which, when eventually presented, was very well received.
“But being in intensive care was sheer hell for me. The realisation that my body was misbehaving and my lack of control left me completely vulnerable. Being in hospital for Christmas was also no fun at all, but at least I had managed to escape from ICU!
However, more prominent than all of this put together was my fear of placing extra stress on my sons. I could not die because they had already lost their Dad, and I had to stay around to support them and see my family grow!”
The End Of Treatment
“Towards the end of my treatment, I packed up and moved to a beautiful regional part of Australia. The skies are clear and open, and I am surrounded by nature and great friends and family. One son and his family moved within five minutes of me – the other is only a 70-minute drive away.
Throughout this time, I have connected with my therapy practice and, of course, traveled as much as possible! I have seen my beautiful grandchildren, arrive in this world, and grow to be such beautiful, love-filled souls. The doctors had me on Tamoxifen for five years, which I finished in January 2012 – hooray! I am happy today. I have already lost the eight kilos that joined me on this journey.
What The Journey Taught Me
To frame such a big lesson in a paragraph or two is impossible, but one of the things I tend to do these days is to say YES to as much as I can. There is no either/or. I ensure that I have all that I am able to have – my answer these days is both/and. I travel. I laugh. I am open to change and move with life as it unfolds. I am more giving and fun, with much less of a sense of preciousness and need to feel in control. Staying healthy and fit is imperative to me, and I am also doing as I’m told by having all my regular checks and follow-ups.
“I’ve learned the preciousness of life must never be taken for granted. I love those close to me and hold them tight. I tell them every day that I love them and appreciate them, because one day all I will be is a memory. If that memory is that I loved them, then that will be good enough for me.”