Alice, can you squeeze my hand?”
Lying on an operating table, the fluorescent surgical lights are shining in on Alice’s brain tissue, and the surgeons are asking her questions. A circular piece of her skull has been removed and is sitting on a stainless steel trolley across the room. A sea of blue scrubs and white hospital walls surround her. The surgeons are leaning in, talking to their patient while probing the tissue to discern what is malignant tumour and what is brain. This kind of surgery would normally be performed under general anaesthetic, but they need Alice to be awake so they can see her reaction if they are probing in the wrong place. It will ultimately allow the surgeons to remove more of the tumour and give it less chance of growing back. If she can’t answer their questions, they know in advance that they are about to remove part of her brain and are able to avoid causing irreparable damage. She can hear the drilling on her skull and can feel the vibrations. She is aware of a tugging sensation as they peel back the fine membrane holding her second largest organ together and begin to slice. She needs the surgeon to remove as much of the tumour as possible, because her six week old daughter is waiting for her outside.
Issue #09 – Summer 2018, Vol 3.
Words by Virginia Tapscott
Photography by Peter MacDonald
While Alice is put back to sleep for recovery, samples of the tumour are sent away for testing. In a few days, the biopsy will tell them that Alice is now dealing with a more aggressive form of cancer than the one first diagnosed in 2015. In the weeks that follow surgery, Alice’s head is beamed with high-energy radiotherapy in an attempt to kill any aggressive cancer cells that remain. Her hair falls out, because radiation doesn’t just target cancer; it targets any rapidly multiplying cells in its path. After six weeks of daily treatments, it is a relief to finally leave the city behind and make the 500 kilometre journey back home to Angorichina Station. The soft, green lawn surrounding the 160 year old stone homestead gives way to 155,000 acres of rocky, red hills, dry creek beds and towering blue gums. The harshness of the land outside the house yard is stark in contrast, but it’s still easy to see how these settings provide comfort for a recovering cancer patient. Sitting on a rug on the lawn, tickling the feet of a gurgling, smiling baby, it is difficult to imagine the trauma Alice and her family have experienced in the past two years.
At 28 years old, Alice started experiencing mood changes and began to feel constantly run down. On New Year’s Eve she was visiting her boyfriend, Ed, at the sheep and cropping farm he was managing, when she collapsed from a seizure. After an initial misdiagnosis, specialists found a tumour the size of an apple on her brain. Symptoms that Alice had initially thought were caused by depression related to the stresses of living and working in isolation, had actually been triggered by the size and the pressure of the tumour. Alice was admitted to hospital the same day and went under the knife a week later, after doctors managed to reduce the swelling. “That was a week of complete unknown,” she explains. “It was awful, just not knowing what to expect. I remember asking the surgeon if I would still be alive at Christmas. I’d only been with Ed for two months at the time, and I told him to run while he still could, but he stayed and kept me in positive spirits. He met lots of my family and friends under less than desirable circumstances.”
Ed wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of their relationship. Not even the lab results that told them the tumour had been a Stage 2 Astrocytoma and nor the prognosis that there was an 80% chance the tumour would return within the next two years. Instead, he suggested that Alice move to the farm he was managing to be closer to major hospitals and specialists. This would prove crucial in aiding her recovery, as it also allowed her to access important mental health support frequently, as well as therapies such as yoga and meditation. “Trying to live with that prognosis in the back of my mind was difficult, but I turned to meditation and yoga, which allowed me to block it out of my mind just so it didn’t exist at all,” Alice remembers. The move also cemented their relationship, and the man himself became an important factor in her recovery. Alice believes his positivity has been an essential part of coping during toughest times. “Eddie just loves life,” she says. “He is very easy going, hard working and caring, but most importantly he is a larrikin and makes me laugh every day, even at his own expense.”
In July 2016, Alice and Ed were excited and shocked to find out they were pregnant. Alice’s tumour had been stable for 18 months and they had already made the decision to move home to Alice’s parents’ station in the Flinders Ranges. They planned to take over management of the property the following year and allow her parents to ease into retirement. Ed was excited about the new challenges that lay ahead, and Alice was fulfilling a lifelong dream to eventually return home to carry on the enterprise her family had created. “Young Eloise is now sixth generation on the property, so there is a lot of history tied to the place, and we just wanted to give our daughter the same opportunities we have had,” Alice explains.
Alice’s busy planning for the new baby and their new lives together was brought to a grinding halt by a routine MRI scan. “I thought I had it beaten, but when I was six months pregnant they told me the tumour had returned and a resection was necessary.” Alice had six weeks before her brain surgery to get to know her newborn. During this time she was undergoing an extensive psychological screening process, to ensure she was mentally prepared to undergo a rare kind of surgery called Brain Mapping, meaning the surgery is performed while the patient is still awake. “They wanted to go harder the second time, knowing that I’d just become a mum,” Alice remembers. “Being awake allowed them to get more of the tumour than they would have if I was completely anaesthetised. The tumour and brain look very similar, so there was a risk that they could take brain, thinking it was tumour. With me being awake and them using a stimulator and requesting a response from me, they knew that they were only taking tumour.”