Ice cold in Alice with Anna Donald

Anna Donald I have just returned from a 40-year “anniversary” with my father, who adopted me, sort of, at two. A long time ago. When Morris Minors still bootled about with wooden interiors; Chuppa Chups had not yet been invented; and the moon was still unmarked by human boots. Martin Luther King, however, was dead.

We flew to Alice Springs, in the middle of Australia (more or less) and stayed with my cousins for a couple of nights, before traveling “out bush” to camp beneath the stars on big canvas swags: huge canvas bags into which you stuff a foam mattress and bedding. They roll into enormous rolls which no swaggie of yesteryear could possibly have lugged from town to town. (Their swags were much meaner, usually consisting of a rolled up blanket or piece of canvas.) Thank heavens for utility vehicles ie open-backed trucks (‘utes’ in Aus- speak) which comfortably transports your tucker (food) box, swags, and, in my case, an enormous suitcase that looked decidedly un-bush-like, belonging more to a European hotel.

The suitcase was enormous partly because I brought every bit of thermal gear I have, as the desert is notorious for reaching 40+ degree C during the day and plummeting to freezing point at night. I still haven’t figured out why the ground doesn’t hold the heat better after the sun goes down. As it turned out, Dad had brought all HIS enormous thermals for me, and in any case most nights were mild.

The other reason is that I was lugging every bit of possible photography and camera equipment, as I’ve just found out that a friend of mine (who is, thank heavens, an experienced film maker) has won a grant to make a documentary about my living with advanced cancer. So I wanted to get footage of what it’s like camping with bags of medicine, bandages, and creams (for inflamed hands and feet), and, of course, books, the most therapeutic element.

Only problem is that I’ve never before handled a camera. So the first few tapes were full of camera shake and pictures of the inside of my backpack (when I left the camera on for the 10th time). I (or, I think, Dad, but he wouldn’t fess up) erased some footage, and my voice sounded like a cracked crow’s. Despite all that I think I managed to get a bit of OK footage, but I have a long way to go before I reach my friend’s proficiency.

The complicating factor, of course, was cancer, grrrrrrrr. I coughed every time I turned over; crawled from my little fly tent (extremely effective at protecting you from the swarms of flies – and wild bees – that we encountered everywhere we went) or moved in any other way, no matter how lightly. I was then assailed with a weird kind of arthralgia that left me almost crippled for a couple of days. Poor Dad had to transfer me from truck to mattress to chair and back again. Happily, in true Aussie fashion, at 63 he is a tall, muscle-bound man after 10 months of renovations to the house and lugging stones from various quarries to build walls and pavements in the back yard. As a student in the 60s, to earn money he helped build the Australian National University and is still proud of his mason’s skills. (He was not, however, impressed with a flock of birds with mulberry diarrhoea who alighted and relieved themselves right along the total length of his newly laid limestone paving before it was sealed.)

So, in short, lugging me about was no big deal. For him. But for me it was the ultimate in invalid status. In a large Desert Park we quickly realised that a wheelchair BUGGY was going to enable us to see the park before it closed. Otherwise we’d pretty much have to stick around the entrance, as my hips and legs had completely frozen up. It was both fun (those things are great and mildly hazardous in the wrong hands, though super slow on hills). And, of course, totally humiliating. Visitors to the park kept not-very-discreetly peering at me over their sun glasses. In true Miss Marples style I did my best to ignore them and speed past in my rather elegant scarf and hat that my aunt gave me (actually her children did; she doesn’t yet know that the hat has been recycled to me). This tactic was fine until I nearly bowled over an elderly Japanese man and missed the main pole holding up an aviary by 0.001 cm. Fortunately no damage except to my already dented ego.

We returned to Sydney to the joys of more chemo. Today was D-day. I finally got a port-catheter inserted under my clavicle, marking me as a chemo veteran. And I started again on docetaxol, an infused form of chemotherapy. My lungs have just gone awol, with nodes and fluid everywhere (am not surprised given cough). Liver is better, but not perfect and, once again, the cancer markers are going in the wrong direction.

What is this? Why are so many parts of my anatomy perfectly capable of recognising the cancer (kidneys, pancreas, spleen, etc), while others haven’t got a clue? I thought my body was one big holistic, integrated organism. Yet this represents failure of sharing of information, in my view. Liver, head, chest, skin (I have one subcutaneous lump on my right shoulder), bones, get with the programme! What is this?

This is the first time I’ve really welcomed the chemo as something I need and want. I need time to heal. And to date, chemo has given me that time. I’m very grateful to everyone involved, including the yew tree, from whose berries at least some of taxols’ potency derive.

Time to sleep. Hope the GsF kicks in and I don’t wake up with a lizard’s tongue.

  • Diana M

    Well: at least with a port you won’t have junior doctors doing horrid things with your precious veins (I was one of those junior doctors poor patients). I’m glad to hear both Qld and Central Australia were memorable: I bet your Dad LOVED looking after you!
    Diana x

  • Debbie Brooks

    Dear Anna
    It is always a joy to read your news and feel your joy for life and living. You are remembered with much love and gratitude in London and I shall be so happy to remind people to read your blog and be inspired.
    Loads and loads of love

  • Dr.Viveck Atheya

    Marvellous mail.You made me cry.I………(undescribable emotion) you for it.What are u doing -going for a Booker’s

    Viveck Atheya

  • Margot Wood

    Dear Anna
    How fantastic that you were able to enjoy Central Australia with Bruce. What an experience! So sorry the ca is causing such problems. Hopefully your chemo will do some good. My thoughts are with you, and all my fingers and toes are crossed.
    Love Margot Wood

  • Dear Anna, I’m sorry to hear you need IV chemo again. Because of chemo I am alive today but I sure wouldn’t have wanted my chemo trip recorded by anyone. It was rough and I was exhausted by it. I didn’t feel photogenic! One of the things I’ve learned “post” chemo is that drinking plenty of liquid during and after the treatment protects the kidneys by flushing the chemicals through. Drink (or get a drip) even if you feel sick from the drugs as you will want your kidneys to function properly when you are well again. Metta, Vivian

  • Debbie B

    Dear Anna

    I’m so sorry to see you need yet more chemo, but I know what you mean about feeling it’s something you want and need. I also have terminal breast cancer, but mine is Her-2 positive, and diagnosed in 2004, so I’m beating the odds so far. I do hope your experience with docitaxel is as good as mine was – I was given it in combination with herceptin and started to feel better very quickly. But I have not had secondaries in my lungs, so I don’t know what to expect there. Mine were (are)all in my liver, and now in the lymph nodes in my abdomen. I’ve been back on chemo for 15 months – 5 different regimes. The current one is good for me but very bad for our bank balance.

    I have really enjoyed your blogs, especially your musings on the best way to behave. I have also had the experience of very short conversations with people who are not used to thinking about such issues, let alone dealing with them in social situations. (Mind you, it happened even more when I was a science student, and later a scientist: “What do you do?” “Plant physiology” “Oh” end of conversation). We seem to have a very limited range of comfortable conversation topics, and can easily be derailed by something that touches on areas we don’t habitually venture into, like the sacred, or science. Writing this I find myself wondering whether some of the awkwardness around science stems from a feeling that it touches in some way on the sacred…now there’s a thought Richard Dawkins wouldn’t like.

    Enough maundering. I do hope the docitaxel treats you well, in every sense.

    Thinking of you


  • Mary E Black

    Dear Anna,

    We have never met, and like many people who read your words I am sorry we have not as you seem very special indeed. I have just met your brother though in London recently and kept wondering if you are like him in any way.

    Your gift in writing comes with a total lack of pomposity. That is quite hard to achieve and is very liberating for the reader. I do not know if you have always been like that or if this has come with your cancer.

    My father lived with cancer for seven years, during the last two his body pretty well fell apart, yet there were still especially clear and special days that we spent together. They had a particular light that was born from knowing time was short.

    But then I wonder why we should ever take it for granted that we have all the time in the world and so can afford to disregard even a single day. I was going to say waste a single day but realize I meant the opposite. I should waste a lot more of my days doing pointless and wonderful things with those I love.

    Warmest wishes,


  • Tom

    Annie, you did wake up with a Lizard’s tongue. I’m so sorry, but you’re going to get through this bit. Stay strong. Much much love.

  • I seem to always read your blog on grey mondays when nothing seems right. i soon pick myself with the sheer energy of your writing.the simple fact is that we don’t know what to say or think around people with cancer.we shouldn’t need a different script or language, should we?i’m sure your dad loved looking after you.
    do listen to beyonce’s new one -‘if i were a boy’. totally soppy pop song but very soothing to listen to.
    here’s hoping the chemo is you know there is this gel called gengigel which is great for mouth ulcers?available on the internet as everything else is!

  • Tom

    A quick note for those of you who keep track of Anna via this blog: She hasn’t posted in a while as she’s battling the side effects of the latest round of chemo. She’s in hospital, and seemingly through the worst of it, but will be there for a bit longer and not able to post blogs. Thoughts, prayers, etc. all appreciated.
    Tom (her brother).