‘Here if you need it’: How the warmth of the women’s athletic community helped me through cancer | sport
OWhile I was awaiting the results of a biopsy on a suspicious lump in my breast, I was doing some editing work at Guardian Australia’s sports office. Football writer Samantha Lewis has submitted an article about the city of Melbourne and New Zealand player Rebekah Stott which elaborated on her diagnosis and treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a story I should be working on at that time, but reading it made me feel calmer. For a long time women’s sport has been my home and here is the story of someone who was part of that community and experienced something similar. It was my first sign that being part of this community would be my saving grace.
A little over a week later, I received the phone call that would change my life. It was the unique experience of being diagnosed with cancer during lockdown. Rather than sitting face to face with my GP, who has cared for me for 10 years, I was crouched in a corner of the common yard in our unit block when I heard the news during of a telehealth appointment – trying to get enough reception to hear doctor while maintaining some semblance of privacy.
Despite having no family history or risk factors, the lump was breast cancer and from then on everything was a whirlwind. Nine months later I’m still not sure I’ve dealt with exactly what happened to me, I just put my head down and did what I had to do to get through it. There seemed to be no other choice – a week later I had surgery, then a week later I found out that more operations were needed as the cancer was spreading further than we had had thought. It also meant that I couldn’t avoid chemotherapy, so it was closely followed by radiotherapy.
Of course, the ongoing effects of the pandemic have compounded all of this. No visitors to the hospital while I was recovering from surgery or on one of my first appointments. But despite all this, I never really felt alone. I had the support of my amazing husband, family and friends of course – I knew they would be there for me and I couldn’t have done anything without them.
But I also decided to share my story on social media because I never imagined that I would end up with breast cancer. I wanted people to be aware of this possibility and stay alert with their controls and I knew that often the best way to convey messages like this is through personal stories.
Within hours of sharing my story online, I was overwhelmed with the love and support that came flooding back to me, especially from the women’s sports community. I received messages, gifts and flowers from all over the country. From friends, colleagues and sports fans to professional athletes, clubs and national organizations, this community has rallied around me in ways I never expected.
It’s a community I’ve been part of ever since I had access to the internet and found people who loved netball as much as I did. From there, everything snowballed into cricket, rugby league, AFLW and football, with our individual communities of passionate fans finding each other, intertwining and learning to love each other’s sports. For many of us who love women’s sports, the sometimes toxic world of Twitter is our home, where we met and where we carved out warm, safe corners to share our love.
Lots of people from this community that I have never met. We are spread across the country, across the world even, but we talk and share our stories almost every day. They are people I care deeply about and I was surprised and delighted to find that they cared just as much about me.
It inspired me so much that I made it an integral part of my chemotherapy process. With the ongoing restrictions, I haven’t always been able to have a support person with me for those long, sometimes painful, and always boring infusion sessions. The nurses were lovely, but busy, and I often spent many hours alone in my little cabin, watching the traffic on Missenden Road. And so I thought of ways to bring my community with me. I created a collaborative playlist and asked everyone to add a song to it – something that would get me through the treatment. Many of these songs were tied to memories we shared of women’s sporting events – from Taylor Swift Shake who penetrated every inch of the 2015 Netball World Cup, in Lorde green light which brought back memories of working on the sidelines of the 2018 Commonwealth Games and Katy Perry Roar which immediately brought me back to the 2020 T20 World Cup Finals at the MCG.
I also wore a women’s sports team jersey to every chemo session. Each came with their own stories and emotions. In many ways, cancer treatment reduced me to childhood – I became much more dependent than I thought and needed stories to help me. As a lifelong fangirl, elite female athletes are my superheroes. As much as a child might dress like Elsa or Spiderman to help them through chemotherapy, I dressed like my heroes and channeled the fierce determination of Alex Blackwell and Nat Medhurst, the incredible resilience of Ash Brazill and Amy Parmenter, the heart and strength of Hannah Darlington and Sharelle McMahon, and the power and leadership of Kezie Apps and Emma Tonegato.
It hasn’t been an easy nine months and although the worst is hopefully behind me, cancer is now part of my life story, something that will linger long after the scans are clear. Although it’s never something I wanted or expected, I take silver liners wherever I can find them. And the fact that the entire women’s sports community is standing behind me saying “Here if you need it” is perhaps the best beacon of all.