“I’ve reached the winter of my life cycle a lot earlier than anyone would have hoped, but there is a lot to celebrate about winter if you know where to look.”
Imagine being a busy mother of four and finding out that you have terminal cancer. You’d think your world would come to a staggering halt. That’s exactly what happened to Julia Watson. Except Julia’s life didn’t — and couldn’t — stop. In her book Breakfast, School Run, Chemo she shares the challenges, triumphs and life lessons she learnt while living with terminal cancer. Below is a tiny extract of this inspiring story.
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about 2013, my last year before getting diagnosed with cancer. I’d studied a Certificate III in Community Services Work the year before, two days a week, and I loved it. After years of being a stay-at-home mum to four children, I had three at school and one at kinder. Studying gave me a balance between being a mother and being, well… being me.
In 2013, I decided to throw myself full-time into a diploma. For most of the first half of the year, I got up at dawn, got four children off to school and kinder, went to classes all day or to the library to study, did a round of pick-ups at 3.30 pm, grabbed some groceries on the run, came home, cooked, did the bath and bedtime routine, kissed four little faces, made school lunches, signed notes and washed clothes. Then at about 10 pm, you would find me studying. I wasn’t prepared to do anything by halves.
When I had to write an argumentative essay, after 20 years of having not written any type of essay, I spent 12 hours in the library to make sure I knew how to write it before I even started writing it.
I was intense. Driven. Absolutely bloody delusional. I thought I was knocking it out of the park.
All of a sudden, all the years in which I had given birth, nurtured babies, given cuddles, kissed boo boos, chased monsters out from under the bed – and all the birthday parties and movie nights and growing a bloody big, beautiful family – didn’t mean so much. Not when I lined them up against this epic year of doing it all. Being a mum, a wife, a student, all bloody things to all people.
I was exhausted.
I was so exhausted that I thought it was normal to be rundown all the time. So exhausted that I thought nothing of the fact that I was dropping kilos without even trying… anyone would if they were keeping up that pace! So exhausted that I wrote off a heap of irritable bowel symptoms as being due to stress, something I was sure would sort itself out later. Later –when I had that diploma and that job and I had replaced a full time studying week with a full-time working week and kept on donning the superhero cape until I literally dropped.
I was too busy valuing my busyness to value my health and my place at the heart of my family. This is something for which I will, one day, pay the ultimate price.
With my return to ‘chemo for life’, I will never be able to ‘do it all’ again. Not even close. And despite the lessons I’ve learned in the last fifteen months about slowing down, finding out what matters, cutting the bullshit and giving less fucks, I still feel diminished by my new reality. It hurts.
The first chemo cycle treated me quite well, but I had issues with pain from past treatments and I was still getting used to my terminal status and trying to process that emotionally. There was a bit going on. I took things in my stride and comforted myself with the fact that it was still a life while I was still in it and that the side effects could have been a lot worse. I trooped off to the second cycle feeling pretty good. Things were settling down at home and I was making plans for small victories.
All was well until I came home. Then the cramps set in from the platinum-based monster drug that, while useful in the fight against cancer, is about as toxic as they come. I had cramps in my calves, thighs, forearms, lips and eyelids. Who knew? It was like a combo between an eye twitch and a cramp, and quite special when watched in the mirror. I totally panicked and hit the sack hoping the next day would be a lot better.
This was not a life at all.
You can watch a clip from the 60 Minutes episode on Julia’s story below. Post continues after video.
The next day was slightly better. I took the kids to the movies, shopped for dinner and cooked it, and got the kids ready for bed. Not bad for two days out from chemo. I stopped panicking and embraced what I could do.
I documented my movies and dinner achievement and the next few days’ small victories on Facebook, because, well, I am a classic over-sharer and that’s what I do. But also because I wanted to celebrate what I can do, not dwell on what I can’t. I’ve reached the winter of my life cycle a lot earlier than anyone would have hoped, but there is a lot to celebrate about winter if you know where to look.
In the last week, I have cooked for my family five times. Some days that’s all I’ve achieved, apart from getting out of bed and stumbling through the school runs. But I’ve taken pleasure in selecting the ingredients, and simple amusement at the exclamations of my children: ‘Mum cooked again?’
I’ve handed them ingredients to chop, and we’ve talked about things they might like to help me cook, and what their responsibilities at meal times might be.
There is no use worrying or punishing myself for the fact that the mess and my impatience saw me driving them out of the kitchen in the past. They thrive on being involved now. Whatever I fucked up in the past, I can start getting right now. No looking back, no regrets.
Do you know what? My children are okay. Despite having a terminally ill mother and a father that also battled cancer in the last few years, and despite witnessing more tears and fears and heartbreaks than any children should ever have to at their tender ages, they are OK.
Children are incredibly resilient, which, while it gives me a bit of a pang, will be a comfort when the day comes that they lose me. But they haven’t lost me yet, not by a long shot, and don’t they love it. Mum cooked something yummy.
Mum took us to the movies, and bought us a sneaky beanie boo at the supermarket for no good reason. Some days Mum is only out of bed for an hour, but gosh it’s snuggly to jump in there with her and put a movie on. My children are happy. I did that.
And that is enough. I am enough. And you are enough too. I was always enough and so are you.
Why do we think we need to do it all? Why do we glorify ‘busy’ so much, as the years race by and we wonder where our lives have gone? We go so fast and so hard that we don’t stop to appreciate the sheer beauty of what is right in front of us.
Let’s do something together. Let’s stop the glorification of busy. Let’s start a social movement where we tell ourselves we are enough. If you got out of bed this morning, and you loved another human being or nurtured a baby or gave some words of encouragement or a smile to a stranger, then you are enough. If you somehow made someone’s world a better place, just because you are in it, then you are enough.
Hell, if it’s been a shithouse day and you’ve spent all of it in your pyjamas with your head under the pillow, you’re still enough. Bloody good on you for acknowledging you needed that today. That’s enough.
Who’s with me? Repeat after me: ‘I am enough’.
Mother of four girls Julia Watson thought her world was falling apart when she found out she had terminal cancer. But with humour and courage, Julia faces the greatest challenge of her life – and in the process becomes the person she’d always wanted to be. Follow Julia and her family, as she writes her way through the crisis, chases her dreams, gets her dancing shoes on and discovers the lighter side of life with a colostomy bag. This is a candid, entertaining look at life with cancer and living each day with humour and hope. For more on ‘Breakfast, School Run, Chemo’, click here.