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Former magazine editor’s breast cancer battle

Lindsey Dawson's latest book was a personal struggle as she fought the disease.

It all began with a book of letters from the 1880s. Written by Lindsey Dawson’s great-grandfather, they were on yellowing tissue-thin paper and mostly about boring business matters. But tucked away in the middle was something more intriguing – letters he had written that dealt with a tragedy and scandal in the then struggling coastal town of Tauranga.

Before the ink could fade too much, Lindsey transcribed them and was rewarded with a real-life story involving gambling, drinking and a young man’s “unfortunate attachment” to a married woman.

“It was all so fascinating,” she says. “I felt blessed to have this treasure trove handed down through three generations – it was almost as if I owed it to my ancestors to do something with the story.”

Aucklander Lindsey (71), is a former magazine editor (she founded titles such as Next) and has written several books, both fiction and non-fiction. These days, she also has a project called True Story Central, which involves mentoring people who want to write their memoirs.

She knew there wasn’t enough information in the letters to produce a factual story.

“But they made me wonder – who were these people, what would have been going through their heads, what might have happened afterwards?”

So Lindsey decided to weave her great-grandfather’s letters into an historical novel. It’s taken a long time, partly because she got so absorbed in researching what the daily lives of Victorian settlers might have been like. And when she did finish writing her book, Scarlet & Magenta, Lindsey couldn’t get a local publisher interested as at the time, they were all cutting back on what they produced.

“So I decided to publish it myself,” says Lindsey. “I’d done it before, so I knew it is quite an investment and a lot of work, but I really wanted to get the story out there.”

Two weeks into her cancer treatment, the writer lost her hair but is happy it’s slowing growing back.

Fate threw a serious obstacle in Lindsey’s path. Late last year, she was away on a dance retreat in the Coromandel when she noticed a pain in her breast.

“In all those years as a magazine editor, I ran so many stories about breast cancer and don’t remember any mention of a pain,” she says. “But there was a lump.”

Hoping it would turn out to be nothing, she went to see her GP. From there, she was sent off for an immediate mammogram and ultrasound, and then a biopsy. In a startlingly short time, she had the news. It was breast cancer.

“It turned out to be a grade 3 tumour, which is fairly invasive,” says Lindsey. “Since the cancer had spread to a lymph node, I needed to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It takes months to get through that. You feel sick and exhausted, and it’s all a grind as anyone who’s had it will tell you.”

Plans to push forward with the publication of Scarlet & Magenta were put on hold as she focused on getting well again. For Lindsey, who’s always been a high-energy person, it wasn’t easy to accept she wasn’t capable of doing much.

As she struggled on with her scalp itching and her hair falling out in drifts, she says she went through the classic five stages of grief described by Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross nearly 50 years ago – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

“I remember getting really grumpy at one stage and thinking, ‘How dare this be happening to me?’” she says. “I had sad times and then there were also the bargaining times, promising to look after myself better in the future.”

A brave smile while having chemotherapy.

Creativity was one of the things that helped get her through that difficult period.

“I was grateful that just before I got the cancer, I’d embarked on an online diploma in art therapy,” she says.

“I had all these assignments I could do when I felt up to it. Art therapy helps you delve into your emotions, who you are and where you’ve come from. I found that really useful.

“I also came across the concept of serenity stones. You get round, flat pebbles and paint lovely designs on them. I’d sit there at the dining table for ages painting things on stones. I think it helps to have something creative that keeps your hands busy but doesn’t necessarily occupy your brain too much.”

Lindsey has now finished with chemo, her hair is slowly growing back and her prognosis is good. She is celebrating at last with the release of Scarlet & Magenta. It’s a wonderful story about a friendship between two very different women, as well as love, scandal and survival.

Lindsey is launching back into life again with her old vigour and will tour the country to talk about her new novel. And then she has ideas for two more non-fiction books and will be holding more writing workshops, online and off.

Painting serenity stones during her cancer fight helped Lindsey relax.

She hopes the cancer journey is over and she can go back to enjoying the creative one.

“There’s nothing like diving in and having a go, and knowing the delight of creating something whether it’s with your mind or your fingers,” she says. “It’s a good thing to do.”

Words: Nicky Pellegrino

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