real life

Gina Liano: What happened in the days after she was diagnosed with cancer.

In 2003, barrister and star of The Real Housewives of Melbourne, Gina Liano, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In her newly released memoir, Fearless, Gina writes candidly about receiving the crushing news, the support of family and how she felt in those difficult days following the diagnosis.

I desperately wanted to send my body back to the maker for repairs.

I wasn’t ready for everything to end in tears. My boys needed me, and I had just bought half a dozen pairs of new shoes in Hong Kong that I wanted to wear. I spent the next five days trying to find the right surgeon. I was looking for a doctor with a good track record who wasn’t knife happy and would not chop me up within an inch of my life.

I eventually chose the first surgeon I was referred to. Doctor O’Keck was revered by his colleagues and considered to be the best. One doctor told me that if I was his sister he would only send me to this doctor.

Gina with her book, Fearless. Image via @ginaliano.

I felt safe with Doctor O’Keck. The other surgeons I went to see were general surgeons whereas he specialised in the operation I needed. One of my concerns was that I’d need a permanent colostomy bag. I knew that I’d require a temporary one; there was no getting around that as the wound would take time to heal. But every other surgeon told me there was a good chance I’d need it permanently. Doctor O’Keck, however, reassured me that I wouldn’t. I told him that if he turned out to be wrong, then he needed to make sure the bag was by Prada or Gucci.

We talked at length about the procedure and I told him all my fears—that my body would be scarred for life; that I wouldn’t be able to have another baby … But Doctor O’Keck reassured me that the cancer was in its early stages and that I wouldn’t need chemotherapy or radiation and he said that I should be able to have another child in the future. A few days later I was booked for surgery. I knew I would be in hospital for at least two weeks so, to Bettina’s bemusement, I had my hair and nails done. I wasn’t about to fall apart.

The night before being admitted to hospital was the hardest of all. I was terrified. I had never had surgery and knew this was going to be severe. Friends and family came over to keep me company. Inside, I was verging on hysteria but somehow managed to remain calm and quiet. I didn’t want anyone to know how I was feeling. For the first time in my life I took a sedative to sleep.

The following day I arrived at the hospital. As part of the prep for the operation, thick black texta was drawn all over my belly to mark the places for incision. Glancing down, I could see that I was going to be cut from my ribs down to my pelvic bone and across. It looked like I was about to be drawn and quartered. I took some comfort in knowing that a plastic surgeon I’d consulted about the scarring had written to my surgeon to advise him of the best way to stitch up the wound to minimise tissue damage. But I also felt a bit guilty about my vanity.

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A friend of mine had passed away recently from cancer. During the operation, her surgeon could see that she wasn’t going to make it. He stitched her back together rather carelessly, as though there were no need for preservation. He gave her six months to live. I was afraid the same thing might happen to me. I knew that until the surgeons opened me up, they wouldn’t know the severity of the situation. I certainly didn’t want to get stitched back together like a sack ready for disposal.

Gina is a cast member of The Real Housewives of Melbourne. Image via @ginaliano.

Sitting on the edge of that hospital bed, staring at the texta on my stomach, I was deep in shock. Blank and numb. Was this really happening? I felt like I was in a nightmare. What if I didn’t survive? I hadn’t said goodbye to my boys. I hadn’t said goodbye to anyone. I couldn’t have said goodbye; that would have been an admission of defeat and I was determined to survive. I had worked too hard for it to all be over so soon.

I had requested that only my husband be with me when I was admitted to hospital. I didn’t want any other family or friends to come as I had to stay focused. I didn’t want anyone else to witness me not coping as I knew that I’d have to counsel them through the experience, and I didn’t have it in me. I was barely coping myself. I sat there on my own, waiting for my husband to turn up, distressed and starving as I’d been fasting in preparation for the operation.

Finally, my husband arrived two hours later than he had promised to come. I knew he’d been stalling, he was not looking forward to this journey either. I wish he’d told me though, I would have arranged for someone else to be with me rather than sitting on my own. It seems he wasn’t coping very well with his fear. He hated seeing me in this state and couldn’t wait to get out of my room. I realised then that men are like mascara: at the first sign of emotion, they run.

The following day I was ready for surgery. As I was wheeled into theatre, my mother, my husband and one of my cousins were there waiting. It was time to say goodbye. Mum looked at me with anguish in her eyes. Her face was purple, as if she’d been holding her breath and was about to pass out. She couldn’t talk. Her words were locked behind a lump in her throat. I looked at her; I could see her pain. I knew what she was feeling. I’m a mother, and it was obvious that she wasn’t coping. I kissed her on the cheek and could feel her holding her breath. ‘Mum, snap out of it,’ I said. ‘If you believe I’m going to survive you can’t fall apart like this.’ Here I was, about to be wheeled into theatre, but counselling her. I knew that if I didn’t, she’d lose the strength I needed
her to have. She needed to have her act together; I needed to know she would be there for me. If I couldn’t fight, she would have to fight on my behalf.

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This is an extract from Gina's book, Fearless. Image via @ginaliano.

My mother looked at me in shock. She could see my strength and my courage. Quickly composing herself she said, ‘Of course you’re going to get through this. I love you.  I will be waiting here when you get back.’

Seven hours later, I was wheeled into the recovery room. My cousin had supported my mother during the long wait. My husband had smoked a kilo of tobacco and chewed his nails down to a stump. As I was wheeled into the room he was surprised to hear me laugh and talking in my sleep as I seemed to be in a lot of pain. Later he asked me who I was talking to and why I was laughing, but I had no recollection of this, and no idea what he was talking about.

I certainly wasn’t laughing because I felt good. I had been cut from one side to the other, forty lymph glands and thirty centimetres of tissue removed. There was an epidural in my back with bags, tubes and wires hanging off me. My mother’s face was strained with exhaustion and worry. Her first comment was how beautiful I looked; that with my pink skin, I looked just as I had as a baby. She had seen me wheeled into theatre looking grey and ravaged with disease, but when I returned I no longer had it. In fact, as soon as the cancer was removed, my eyes were clear and my skin glowed. My health had been restored. Of course, I needed
to recover from the operation, but the cancer was gone.

At the time, I still didn’t know whether I would survive; no-one ever does.

This is an extract from Gina's book, Fearless, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $29.95 and you can purchase it here

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