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Personal cancer story

Ginger Gorman

In 2007 I nearly died twice.

It was a time of flux in my life. The year before I did a fellowship in the United States. This gave me a taste for something different. I made plans to leave the ABC to work overseas but my manager at the time convinced me to stay a few months longer.

Ginger Gorman

So I was camping in my friend's TV room and driving my brother-in-law's car. I bought a ticket to Spain and a new suitcase.

Two weeks before I was set to leave, I was speaking to a colleague of mine. As she walked away from my desk, I strained my neck at a strange angle.

"What the f*** is that on your neck?!" she screeched.

After visiting my GP and a biopsy of the lump, thyroid cancer was the answer.

"How long would I live without surgery?" I asked surgical oncologist Dr Peter Barry a few days later.

With kind, crisp blue eyes he smiled at me.

"That's not a very nice question," he said.

"I know," I replied, "I'd like the answer."

"Without surgery, eighteen months. Maybe two years," he said.

A shattering thought. I was not a 30-year-old with my whole life ahead of me. The cells inside me had turned upon themselves. Without intervention, my body would destroy itself.

It was hard for me to understand this. Physically and mentally I felt on top of the world. I asked Dr Barry if there was someone who could show me the bad cells.

Behind the scenes at Canberra Hospital, Associate Professor Sanjiv Jain, Director of Anatomical Pathology, welcomed me into his office with a firm handshake and wide smile. He told me that in all his years working as a pathologist, I was the only person who had ever asked to see their own diseased cells.

What I saw through the microscope was alarming. My cells were not neat little units of vigorous life with clear, strong nuclei at their hearts. They were nasty, malformed clumps which seemed to bleed into each other in long fingers.

This was the moment of reckoning. This was evidence. The cancer wasn't a word, a theory, a discussion with a physician or nurse. It was real.

While a cancer diagnosis is always a profound shock, I learned later that in fact, thyroid cancer is the seventh most common cancer diagnosed in Australian women.

In July 2007, Dr Barry and his team performed surgery to remove my thyroid. I swam up out of the anaesthetic into a moment of medical kindness: Dr Barry was holding my hand and he was talking. “We removed your tiny, cancerous thyroid,” he said. “It's gone. Everything is fine. You are fine.”

I was released from intensive care into the general wards. But within 48 hours after the operation I stopped feeling my hands, feet, and face. I was in trouble with a severe unchecked case of hypocalcaemia (severe drop in calcium), a complication caused by removal of the thyroid.

In the end the duty doctor came. He looked at me and yelled for liquid calcium. There is no terror greater than hearing alarm in a doctor's voice: the realisation that you are the emergency.

He saved my life again.

The cancer wasn't a word, a theory, a discussion with a physician or nurse. It was real."

Ginger Gorman

Six weeks later I underwent radioactive iodine treatment. Two small pills were taken out of a lead container. I swallowed the pills and became radioactive. The doctor assisting me couldn't wait to get away. I was ‘hot’.

For three days I sat alone, on a bed in a room with a yellow nuclear sign emblazoned on the closed door. No one was allowed into my room and I wasn't allowed out. My food was left at the door. Occasionally someone called on the phone or stood at the door behind a black tape line on the floor. After 15 minutes, visitors were required to leave. “Don't get too close,” was the warning. “She's radioactive.”

Mum sent me orchids but apart from that, there was nothing to look at. I watched dozens of episodes of The West Wing on my laptop and worked hard not to think about anything at all. As the medical staff requested, I drank litres of water to wash away the radioactivity. Eventually someone came in with a Geiger counter and when the reading was sufficiently low, I was allowed out into the world again.

Waiting in the foyer of ward 14B for my mother to collect me, I started to cry and couldn't stop. What had happened seemed incomprehensively big. I was small. Why do some of us live and some of us die? And why is it even important to live?

Simultaneously I was both more alone and more supported than I ever had been. The outpouring of community love was engulfing. My dear friend Poppy flew from England to be by my side and my sister Kate made me a scrapbook of all the cards, letters, drawings, photos and poems friends and family sent me. Even today, it's my most precious possession.

Cancer touched me again in 2012 when my beloved father died of aggressive prostate cancer. He died on Melbourne Cup day just 10 weeks before the birth of my second daughter.

My belly swelled, I felt my baby get stronger and stronger, kicking me and punching me in the ribs. Dad's limbs got weaker and weaker. He talked about seeing the birth of my little girl, but I knew he never would.

In one of the last conversations I had with him he said, "I don't believe in heaven, eternal life or being born again. Our only legacy is our children."

During his illness and subsequent death, the Cancer Council gave our family enormous support.

On the upside, the cancer also gave me a husband. Instead of flying to Europe, I spent a week numb from shock at my diagnosis. I partially emerged from that immobile state and bought a car and an apartment in the same week.

The bloke I chose to be my housemate was a short, slightly rotund Filipino-Australian with a warm face and a beard. He smiled easily, loved his family and loved to cook. He was a far cry from the emotionally unavailable men I usually dated.

"Great, I'll never fancy him," I thought with a substantial lack of self-awareness. But removing the cancer changed me. Within a few months Don asked me to marry him.

We now have two beautiful little girls, six chickens and a giant vegetable patch. And we're both very, very grateful for the life ahead of us.

I recorded my experience in radioactive isolation for ABC Local Radio. You can hear it here.

Read more stories about people's personal experiences with cancer