As I reflect today on International Women’s Day, I have been thinking about women, self-care and cancer, and I consider what it means to be a woman today in the world, how our history makes us who we are, and how cancer intersects with this path.
In order to discuss our history, I love to use stories and metaphors, and I also believe that in order to understand how and why we do what we do today, we must reflect on where we have come from.
To do this I need to share a bit about my history using my Mum’s story as the metaphor for my learning. My Mum is the most academically qualified member of our family, and much more educated than most Australians, I will come back to why this is important.
My Mum was a sensitive and creative little girl and started drawing beautiful pictures at a young age, of anything she saw which mainly included animals and plants.
Little girls growing up in the 40s and 50s in Australia were told girls made great nurses and teachers. My mother went into nursing. My mother is extremely conscientious and likes to understand what she is doing (I know I get this from her), which meant the old way nurses were taught, by doing hospital work with on-the-job training, no theory and often very little supervision, caused my Mum to worry she might hurt someone accidentally through not knowing what she was doing, so she decided to leave it.
Mum easily secured a teacher’s college scholarship, which existed in the 60s for smart applicants to attract the best teachers. If only the government would do this again, to get our brightest into teaching positions, rather than getting those who can’t get into anything else. Great teachers create great learners.
This is where my Mum met my Dad. Both Mum and Dad were good at sport and proudly retell that they both had the largest ‘lung capacity’ of any male or female in their teacher’s college, which mean they were both good at sport, but also unfortunately being the 60s also meant they started smoking as everyone did at that time……
They got married and decided to save money to start a family, this is where the career trajectory split for my Mum. Dad continued to study and complete his degree in English/History on top of his Bachelor of Education, whereas Mum was pregnant with me and only completed a diploma.
I was born, as was my sister and time passed. It was not until I entered Year 9 that Mum decided to complete her Bachelor of Education. She loved it so much that she continued to study. While working full-time as Principal teacher of children in primary school, followed by a leader Regional itinerant teacher for deaf children, my mother started to study toward her Masters in Linguistics. Loving that, she then started to study her PhD in Education, which took 10 years part-time, while she worked full-time as an itinerant teach for the deaf, and did all the cooking and house duties and fitted in her extensive gardening hobby. The NSW Department of Education only gave her one day off to complete her post-graduate study. Whereas my father’s ongoing continuing education meant he got one day off from his teaching load per FORTNIGHT!
Fast forward when Mum and Dad were in their 60s, my 38 year old cousin has just died of a brain tumour and then my Dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer. My Mum became Dad’s carer.
Fast forward another 7 years, and my Mum gets diagnosed with breast cancer, through BreastScreen. While my mother is undergoing her treatment she is emotionally and in other ways supporting my father as he is not doing so well. They are both now in their 70s so I have arranged additional support for both of them, as they both need care.
My Mum when she was told she had a cancer diagnosis went into shock and only heard three words when her super fast talking surgeon told her about her diagnosis, and treatment method. All she heard was ‘Lumpectomy’ ‘Chemo’ ‘Radio’! Her educational background meant nothing, her emotional ‘fight or flight’ brain centre took over and she recalled nothing of her 25 minute consult except those three words. Lucky I was there listening too!
There are many aspects of this story I want to highlight. Literacy does not equal health literacy. Women and Men in Australia still have different career opportunities due to child bearing responsibilities. The effort that Australian women have to go to protect their families and their careers and their health is not the same as men. Men get more support as their careers develop and while they deal with life.
Women on the other hand often have to delay or stall their careers to have families, care for their children, husbands, parents, pets, co-workers and often their own self-care and health suffers, by over-working and putting others first. To use another analogy they ‘put the oxygen mask’ on others rather than themselves first.
Cancer however does not discriminate based on age, sex or ethnic or educational background. Everyone needs support at diagnosis and during cancer treatment and even after treatment due to fear of cancer coming back and other financial and psychological impacts.
Another thing my Mum shared recently is that she really needs ‘hope’. She got some extra hope the other day, as Mum put it ‘the lady next to me at chemo was much older’, is on the same treatment, and is doing very well.
Emotional and physical self-care is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself if you have a cancer diagnosis and if you don’t. All women need to unite to put ourselves first, so we can help everyone else after that! Men need to support women to look after themselves too.
We all need hope that we will move through life’s challenges, can and will be supported to do our best, will continue to improve our life circumstances and learn and evolve as we do so, which includes for ourselves, our families and our careers as we flow through the journey of life.
Yours in good health,
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