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Federal MP Peta Murphy is living with incurable breast cancer. This is her letter to herself.

There are maiden parliamentary speeches, and then there is Peta Murphy's. 

When the new Member for Dunkley addressed the House of Representatives in July 2019, she spoke about her vision for politics, called for meaningful action on climate change, the gender pay gap and social disadvantage. 

But she also spoke about her experience of breast cancer: her first diagnosis at the age of 37, and her second, just two weeks before stepping up to the microphone.

Watch: Take it from Corinne and Rachelle, talk to your family about their health history.


Video via Mamamia.

"Ladies, check your breasts!" she told the chamber. "Men, stop ignoring what your body is telling you. Fellow members of this parliament, listen to the experts who warn that the promise of universal health care is under threat. Commit to the reform and funding that our health system needs and do whatever is required to ensure that Australia trains, retains and invests in the healthcare professionals and researchers who make our system great. We owe it to our community to do that."

She concluded with a quote from children's book character Pippi Longstocking, who, when told she couldn't beat a circus strongman because 'he's the strongest man in the world', replied, "Man, yes... but I'm the strongest girl in the world, remember that."

Eighteen months on, Peta remains committed to advocacy, her job as a representative, and says she intends "to be around for a very long time" to continue that work.

Breast Cancer Network Australia recently invited her to write a letter to herself, which she has shared with Mamamia

Below, she explores the moments of fear, compassion, dark humour and determination in her life with cancer. 

***

Dear Peta,

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This feels utterly odd, writing to past me. A little like Back to the Future, but sadly, without the involvement of Michael J. Fox. It is just one more thing that I never imagined doing but that I now do because of breast cancer. Add it to the list.

So, let's start at the start. When you first find the lump in your breast, you are, of course, going to decide that you are about to die. This will not be true (...as you have probably worked out, given that future Peta is writing to you). In fact, that lump will not even be cancer. But you should know that because you take it so seriously, because you go straight to your GP and find the first available mammogram, and because you push to get in to a specialist quickly, the sneaky cancer in your right breast will eventually be uncovered. If it hadn’t been, you may not be receiving this letter from future Peta.

Sure, it won’t be entirely necessary for you to react to the news like a character from Days of Our Lives and ask through a flood of tears, "How long do I have to live?" But to be honest, it won’t be the last time you act like a drama queen. It's OK.

It doesn't feel like it right now, but you are, in fact, incredibly lucky. And never forget this (you know it, but make sure you remind yourself frequently): you are fortunate. You get in to see a specialist and are able to start your treatment quickly, you have a supportive partner and extended family, you are financially secure. Too many women in your situation do not have any of these, and in addition to dealing with being told they have cancer, are wondering if they can still work, how they will pay the bills, who will look after the children.

Your friends and family want to help. It feels very strange to have people make and deliver food for you, for bunches of flowers to turn up at the door, to receive messages of support from people you do not know well. Let them help. Again, not everyone has a network of support. Eat the food if you like it, pretend you ate it if you don't. Enjoy fresh flowers. But only answer the phone or return the messages if you want to. 

You will find yourself playing the role of emotional support to other people, letting them know that your prognosis is excellent once you go through the treatment. I know you don't want to do this, but just occasionally listen to your husband Rod when he tells you to put the phone away and just enjoy going for a walk with him—you can always call people back later. 

There will be moments of dark humour. Fainting while clamped into the mammogram machine will not be your finest moment. You will also yell at an unexplained group of men in suits watching you get a wire inserted into your breast before an MRI: "Who the f*** are you, and what are you doing here?" The looks on their faces will be gold. And when the plastic surgeon puts so much saline into your temporary breast implants that you can't sleep on your stomach, you'll have to go back and tell him that you were not joking when you said you wanted to 'downsize'.

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There will be moments you are not prepared for. The first time you walk into the chemo room and it hits you that all the women there have breast cancer. When the doctor says you should get some eggs frozen because chemo at your age could make you infertile, and you realise you may never have children (the many, many unsuccessful rounds of IVF that follow will prove her correct). The night before your first chemo when you think you've lost your mind before you realise it's the pre-chemo steroids.  

You will become both stronger and more fragile. You will learn to display vulnerability without fear of appearing weak. (But don’t get too carried away; you will still be yourself, with all your existing flaws and good points.)

There will moments of triumph you would not otherwise have experienced. It's a long story, but at the end of your three-months' recovery, you will win the US Masters 35 years Squash Championships at Harvard. You will spend two years as a Senior Public Defender at Legal Aid. And, most amazing of all, you will get elected to represent your community in the Australian Federal Parliament. You will take everything you have learnt about the health system yourself and what it means to have cancer, and you will use that to become someone who can make a difference to the lives of other women (and men). As your mother says, "Things always happen for a reason".

Finally — and this bit sucks — you will think your cancer journey is pretty much over (aside from the scars and the insights). But almost exactly eight years from your first diagnosis, you will find out that your cancer has come back. You have metastatic breast cancer – it's in your bones, with a couple of tumours that grew out of your sternum. You are now the poster girl for Murphy's Law because you will get this diagnosis a couple of months after getting elected to parliament, just days after being sworn in and two weeks before giving your big 'first speech'.

But listen carefully, drama queen. You will be angry, you will be distressed, you will rail that life is not fair (of course it's not!). You will blame yourself because you listened to GPs who told you the pain in your chest was nothing to worry about, and you will wonder why, even though you did everything right and followed every piece of medical advice you were given, that still this happened to you. It will be almost unbearable to have to tell your family and friends. 

You will hate the menopause symptoms and wish you didn't have to put on so much weight. You will get tired in a way that you didn't used to, and you will have to look after yourself a bit better.

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You will feel all of this, and you will feel it in waves. 

But you will also use that strength, that acceptance of vulnerability that your previous diagnosis gave you. You will take a deep breath and you will choose to use this latest bump in your life journey to make a difference. Because, remember: you are fortunate, there is excellent treatment available and you have the privilege of serving in the Federal Parliament. Use that privilege to help other people living with cancer feel less alone; to push for better cancer treatment and services; and to show your community that it is possible to demonstrate strength and vulnerability, acceptance and determination, illness and wellbeing.

Also, not only will you get to meet Olivia Newton-John, she will publicly describe you as her twin because you are both doing all you can to live your best lives with the same chronic disease (but if people want to think it's because you look the same, who are you to contradict them?). You never thought that would happen, did you?

In the spirit of Pippi Longstocking, stay strong, girl.

Peta.

To learn more about Peta Murphy MP's experience, listen to the latest episode of Upfront About Breast Cancer, a podcast by Breast Cancer Network Australia. Download it via your favourite podcast app or listen via the website.

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