It is said that cancer reaches far beyond the body it attacks. Liz, the youngest of four siblings, spent the majority of her early years in Victoria and Tasmania. In her thirties, she followed her heart to the coast of New South Wales. By age thirty-nine, she was a wife and mother on the verge of a new life as a theology student. And then she heard the two words no woman ever wants to hear: breast cancer.
It's [Not] All About Liz! tells the true story of her battle with cancer through her eyes-and through those of her family. Liz; her older sister, Judy; her eldest daughter, Clara; and Joe, the family patriarch, each share a unique perspective on how Liz's cancer impacted them.
The experience took her family and friends on a roller-coaster ride of emotion, one that contained moments of heartbreaking darkness- but also unexpected light.
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It's [not] All About Liz!
By Judy Rankin, Liz Rankin, Clara Cassidy, Joe Rankin
Balboa PressCopyright © 2014 Judy Rankin, Liz Rankin, Clara Cassidy and Joe Rankin
All rights reserved.
It's All About Jude!
Saturday, March 17th, 2012
After a recent trip to visit my sister and her family in Batemans Bay, I sat at my computer thinking about a new writing project. During the previous few weeks, some major events had begun to unfold. With these fresh in my mind I wondered if this would be my next project, however, unlike other writing projects, I knew this one might not be as much fun. At that moment it felt quite sad, a little overwhelming and realistically may not have a happy ending. I was, however, hoping and praying for one!
Labour Day long weekend in Melbourne, I decided to drive to Batemans Bay for an extra-long, five day weekend. (One of the perks of being self-employed.) Why not make the most of the long weekend with some time in "the Bay" with my sister, Liz; her husband, Craig and nieces, Clara and Matilda.
I arrived there mid-afternoon on a Friday. As usual, I went straight to the Anglican Church offices where Liz worked as the co-ordinator/manager of Hope House and the Community Life project. She was working with marginalised men who were trying (to varying degrees) to get their lives back on track. Liz had been working there for the last few years and loved it. In recent times, she'd decided to undertake theological training and become a deacon of the Anglican Church.
Anyway, I arrived at the office, found Liz, and we headed to "our coffee shop" (the Pancake Parlour on the Clyde River–a favourite spot). Once there we did what sisters do–talk, talk, and then talk some more–while waiting for Clara's school bus, which was due to arrive in an hour or so. "How are the kids ... Craig ... work ... study?" All the usual, every day, run-of-the-mill stuff sisters talk about.
"Study is hard, Jude. I don't always understand what they're talking about, even when I read it several times. I was hoping you could explain some things while you're here."
"Me?! I spent the first twenty odd years of my life as a minister's daughter trying very hard not to understand the Bible! I don't think I'm going to be much use to you."
"Oh, I have to have a full medical too."
"For studying? Really?"
"Yeah. I don't know ... though ... I thought I felt a lump in my breast. I actually felt it several months ago and got it checked but my doctor couldn't feel it. She said it was probably a hormonal thing. Very common but it's come back."
"I had some hormonal cysts a few years back. My doctor sent me off for an ultrasound but they were nothing. Just 'that time of the month'. It's probably nothing."
The next four days were the usual lovely time with my sister and her family. We had a few laughs and didn't think too much more about Liz's 'lump'. However, the day before I was due to leave Liz expressed a bit of apprehension about the medical examination, which was due to happen on Tuesday–the day I was to leave. Very little time or thought was really given to it so the usual platitudes were given, "It'll be nothing Diz; don't worry."
My life up to this point had been fairly 'ordinary'. I was the second born of four children. My father (now retired) had been a minister of religion for most of my life. He and my mother divorced back in the mid 1980's, and Mum had been married to Don for eighteen years. My older brother, Graham, lived with his wife Bette in the southeast suburban corridor of Melbourne with two of their five children. My younger brother, Andrew, lived on the south coast of Victoria in Anglesea with his wife, Wendy, and their two boys. Liz, the baby of the family (also known as Diz or Dizzie), lived on the south coast of New South Wales in Batemans Bay with her husband, Craig, and two daughters. I was a mother of four, grandmother to one, and lived in the beautiful Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.
As a child, our family moved around a great deal due to my father being a Uniting Church minister and before that a missionary. While this had some drawbacks, it also had positives: I had lived in five states/territories of Australia and experienced quite a few different cultures and communities. I guess the religious background also gave me a strong sense of social justice and wanting to "go in to bat" for the underdog. Not that I'd ever really expressed any of that in any grand gestures. I was a very average person with a travelling spirit.
At the beginning of 2012, my work life was in transition; I was employed part time in finance and management, whilst also working for myself as a contract bookkeeper. My little business was starting to grow, with a new client every few weeks, but not quite enough to support me financially full time.
I left Batemans Bay after my extra-long weekend to drive back to Melbourne around six in the morning on the Tuesday morning. Liz's medical appointment was due around nine thirty. Usually I would drive home via the coast road taking nine to ten hours but, on this occasion, I had decided to go inland via Canberra and the Hume Highway for a change. As I'm less familiar with that way, I used my mobile phone navigation app so I didn't get lost. The result of this was my phone battery soon went flat and no one could contact me. When I finally got home around six in the evening, I rang Liz straight away. Firstly, to let her know I was home safely and, secondly, to see how she went at the doctor's. She said the doctor felt the lump this time and wanted her to go for an ultrasound the next day. The doctor had said it was probably cysts but one felt quite large. Liz sounded a little worried so I attempted to make a joke of it.
"Don't you go getting any ideas about getting sick. I am not raising your two daughters! Clara would be OK while she's a twelve year old, it's when she turns into a horrible sixteen year old that I'm not too interested in! And Tilly! She's a terrible, two! You forget about that right now!"
"Yeah, but what's a cyst Jude? What do they do with cysts? The doctor said one felt really big. It feels a lot bigger to me than it did a few months back." "I don't know Diz, but I'm sure it will be fine. I'll Google it and get back to you."
You often hear people say, don't self-diagnose on the Internet, and normally I would agree with them but, as there was a part of me that was also feeling a little uneasy, I did a search. Wikipedia said, "A breast cyst is a fluid-filled sac within the breast. One breast can have one or more breast cysts. They're often described as round or oval lumps with distinct edges ... Breast cysts can be painful and may be worrisome but are generally benign. They are most common in pre-menopausal women in their 30s or 40s ... Treating breast cysts is usually not necessary ..." (Mayo Clinic Staff. Breast cysts. Wikipedia free encyclopaedia. Mar 9 2012. Mar 14 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Breast_cysts>)
That was enough for me to dismiss any silly thoughts and I called Liz back to tell her. She had also been surfing the internet and she sounded a little relieved but not completely. The ultrasound would investigate it further and make sure it was only a cyst.
Liz was scheduled for the ultra sound around the middle of the next day. She was going to call afterwards to let me know how it all went. I was nervous but not anxious at this point. It was the tone I heard in Liz's voice that made me nervous more than because I seriously thought there would be anything wrong.
The next day, a friend of mine, was at my place when I returned from work. I'd just walked in the door and he was asking how I was when the phone rang. Feeling apprehensive, I thought it would be Liz so replied, "I'll tell you after this call."
"Jude, there are heaps of them. The woman didn't like the look of them and said that I'd need a mammogram. I'm a little worried." She'd obviously been crying.
The ultrasound showed many dark spots. The largest being nearly three centimetres in length. Because the ultrasound technician didn't like the look of them she asked the radiographer for a second opinion. She said the results would be back at the doctors first thing in the morning. Liz sounded a lot more anxious while I tried to keep things in focus. Liz was worried–and so was I. One cyst twenty eight millimetre long seemed big: too big for my liking.
As I do when not always feeling in full control, I attempted another joke. "You're a bitch! What did I say to you? No getting sick! I'm not raising the girls!"
"I love you too Jude." Liz wasn't laughing.
Through a lump in my throat I replied, "It's gonna be OK Diz. Whatever it is we'll deal with it. It's going to be OK."
Over time you learn the 'right' things to say. Whether you believe them or not at the time is a different matter. At that early stage when nothing was confirmed a million things were going through my mind. The "what if's" had started. Along with that, was the "don't be silly!". Nothing had been confirmed! It felt like we were standing on a rickety old sway bridge. It was ugly and precarious looking but there was a good chance it was safe, we'd get to the other side, look back and say "Whoa! That was a bit scary!" But there was also the chance a gust of wind would come up from the valley below and turn us upside down! Stay focussed. There's a lump ... that's it. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Liz went to the doctors early the next day. She was advised she needed a mammogram along with a biopsy as soon as possible as there were many abnormal cysts. What did that mean? Abnormal. It seemed such a vague term that, at that point, was making me angry. I guess it was the best non-descript word they could use for something that wasn't right without terrifying you.
Anyway, Liz's doctor rang the local Moruya hospital–they couldn't fit her in for either the mammogram or the biopsy until the following Thursday. The doctor rang Canberra, two hours away; no, they couldn't fit her in until the next week. They rang Nowra; they could do the mammogram straight away but not the biopsy until late the following week.
Liz was adamant, "No! I can't live not knowing what's going on in my body for another week! There's got to be somewhere I can go before then." Just as Liz was expressing this Nowra hospital rang back.
"If Liz can be here by 2.30pm we can get her in for both the mammogram and biopsy."
Nowra was a two-hour drive north of Batemans Bay and it was already midday. Liz had just enough time to organise someone to collect the girls after school and from day care, call me and let me know what was happening and get to Nowra for the mammogram. I wished her luck and nervously waited.
Liz rang me at work around 4.00pm after the procedures in Nowra. "Jude, the mammogram showed there are heaps of them. They're in my lymph nodes as well. The biopsy was really painful but the nurse was beautiful. Very caring, very comforting."
By this time Liz was crying.
"It doesn't look good Jude."
The biopsy results would take a few days to come through and would be confirmation one way or another whether Liz had Breast Cancer.
We talked for a while but as I was at work trying very hard to hold my emotions together, I encourage Liz not to over think things, and reassure her that whatever it was she wouldn't be dealing with it alone. We hung up and it hit me. I stood in my office with my friend Josie the receptionist and couldn't help but cried. My sister could have Breast Cancer. How could this be happening? My little sister who is one of the nicest people I know. My little sister whom I couldn't bear to think of losing. My little sister ... Wow! This wasn't happening.
The scenarios started playing out in my mind again. You try to switch them off but they seem to have a life of their own. What if it is cancer? What if it's travelling through her body? What if they say she's only got a few months to live? What about the girls? Should I move to "the Bay" to help out? No matter what, I wanted to be as available as possible for Liz. I started thinking about re-structuring my life. With modern technology, I could have clients anywhere in the world. I didn't have to be based in Melbourne ... I could always take work with me to "the Bay" and make trips back to Melbourne in between Liz's treatments ... The list went on. The scenarios playing out in my mind were not all doom and gloom though. Some reflected an epic battle between Liz and this terrible disease with Liz overcoming all sorts of hurdles to become the victor! Whatever was ahead of us, the unknown was incredibly overwhelming.
After work, I called in at Dad's house on my way home. He greeted me at the front door with, "How you going?" and the tears began. For both of us! I was scared stiff of what this could all mean for my sister, but for Dad I think it was harder still.
"I feel like I've been here before with other family members, am I now going to watch my daughter go through it too? This one's the hardest to take," he said.
My cousin Helen had died only a few years earlier aged in her mid-40s from Breast Cancer. Helen was Liz's age when she was diagnosed and battled for a long time. These things play on your mind. The "what if's" are horrible. Even Dad said, "I don't want to think about this too much but what would happen to the girls if something happened to Liz?"
My reply was instant, "They come to me!"
So much for, "I'm not going to raise your kids."
While there was little doubt Liz's husband Craig–Tilly's dad and Clara's step father–could raise the girls I was prepared to do anything if needed. 9It's All About Jude!
Sometimes Craig could be an awesome guy, fun to be with, strong, sensible and a true leader. However, it felt like this Craig wasn't around all the time. Liz and Craig had been separated for a while several years earlier, but were giving their marriage a second chance and recommitted their wedding vows several months prior to the cancer journey. With all this to consider my first thoughts were I would take the girls in a heartbeat and do whatever for them if the worst came to fruition.
Dad and I decided to go out for dinner to talk and basically comfort each other by being together. It wasn't all doom and gloom over dinner. We also spent time talking about things other than Liz. I still went home feeling anxious about my sister's future but tried very hard not to let my mind run away with me. It was too early to know what we were dealing with.
Usually I'm well and truly in bed by 10.30 of an evening. However, on this evening I decided to stay up and watch RuPaul's Drag Race at 10.30pm. A bit of light entertainment to take my mind off things. 11pm the phone rang. It was Liz in tears. She couldn't sleep either. What a surprise! Amazingly, I held it together. I'm a naturally emotional person and usually it doesn't take too much to make me cry; soppy ads on television, movies, songs, and I cry at the drop of a hat. Here is my sister in potentially the fight of her life and somehow I wasn't crying. The last thing Liz needed was me breaking down in tears every time we talked because I wasn't able to cope with the thought of losing her, the lingering thought at the back of my mind. But this wasn't about me. It was about supporting her; and somehow, I was managing, no tears from me. Liz told me what she hadn't been able to verbalise earlier, because of the tears, that the technologist had said she was 99% sure it was cancer. It's just the type of cancer and the treatment needed that we'd need to wait for the biopsy results to know. That alone was a shock! But I didn't flinch. Strong! Stay strong for Liz! It's all about Liz! We talked for forty five minutes, ending with going through relaxation techniques to try to help her fall asleep.
Friday finally arrived and I wondered, will results be in? The ultrasound staff had put an 'urgent' on the test results so there was a slim chance Liz would get the biopsy results Friday. Waiting the weekend to find out more seemed unthinkable! However, it was very possible the results wouldn't come through before the weekend. In Melbourne, the Friday was a beautiful, sunny, warmish day–way too nice for bad news, I thought.
At 10.30am Liz rang. All the results from pathology had been delivered to Liz's doctor but, unfortunately, the results for Liz hadn't come in. Augh! I felt deflated and needed to summon up some energy to get through the day. Thank God the sun was shining! That always helped. It was going to be a very long weekend.
Liz had an appointment for the following Monday to see her doctor when we were assured the results would be in. All day Friday, I hoped and feared hearing. The anguish of not knowing what exactly we were dealing with was excruciating for me so I can only imagine what it was like for Liz and Craig.
It was to be Craig's birthday on the Monday. However, as Monday had the potential to be a fairly ordinary day, Liz and Craig had decided to invite some friends over for a birthday dinner on Saturday night. I rang just as they were getting ready, the party had become a nice distraction for Liz and she sounded quite happy. Saturday was to be all about Craig.
Excerpted from It's [not] All About Liz! by Judy Rankin, Liz Rankin, Clara Cassidy, Joe Rankin. Copyright © 2014 Judy Rankin, Liz Rankin, Clara Cassidy and Joe Rankin. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
It's All About Jude!, 1,
It's All About Clara!, 103,
It's All About Joe!, 139,
It's All About Liz!, 149,