About this story
Federal MP Peta Murphy writes a letter to her past self about the things she will learn while living with metastatic breast cancer.
This feels utterly odd, writing to past me. A little like ‘Back to the Future’, but sadly without Michael J Fox being involved. It is just one more thing that I never imagined doing, but now I 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 took it so seriously, because you went straight to your GP and found the first available mammogram, and because you pushed to get in to a specialist quickly, the sneaky cancer in your right breast was eventually uncovered – and if it hadn’t been, you may not be receiving this letter from future Peta.
Sure, it wasn’t entirely necessary for you to react to the news like a character from ‘Days of Our Lives’ and through a flood of tears ask ‘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 does not feel like it right now, but you are in fact incredible lucky. And never forget this – you know it, but make sure you remind yourself frequently – you are fortunate. You got in to see a specialist and were 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 want to do this, but just occasionally listen to 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 was not your finest moment. The looks on the faces of the unexplained group of men in suits watching you get a wire inserted into your breast before going into the MRI when you yelled at them, ‘how the #$% are you and what are you doing here’ was gold. When the plastic surgeon put so much saline into your temporary breast implants that you could not sleep on your stomach – and you had to go back and tell him that you were not joking when you said you wanted to ‘downsize’.
There will be moments you were not prepared for. The first time you walked into the chemo room and it hit you that all the women there had breast cancer. When the doctor said you should get some eggs frozen because chemo at your age could make you infertile and you realised you may never have children (and the subsequent many many unsuccessful rounds of IVF proved her correct). The night before your first chemo when you thought you had lost your mind, before you realised it was 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 3 months recovery you will win the US Masters 35years Squash Championships at Harvard. You will spend two years as a Senior Public Defender at Legal Aid. And, most amazingly of all, you will get elected to represent your community in the federal parliament. You will take everything you have learnt about the health system, yourself, 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 8 years from your first diagnosis, you will find out that your cancer has come back. You have metastatic breast cancer – 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, you will wonder why you did everything right and followed every piece of medical advice you were given but still this happened to you. It will be almost unbearable to have to tell your family and friends. 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 – you will not only 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 (and if people want to think that is 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.
To hear Peta read the letter, as well as listen to her story in her own words, listen to our podcast episode Vulnerability and strength: Peta Murphy on breast cancer. In the podcast, we explore Peta’s experience of displaying strength through vulnerability, the many emotions tied up in a breast cancer journey and, ultimately, how Peta’s using her position to improve the lives of others living with breast cancer.
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