"I’m not sick!” says Elaine Lunken.
“I’ve just got cancer!" It would’ve been easy for Elaine’s world to crumble around her when she received the devastating news in 2016 that she had pancreatic cancer. In fact, most would have expected it to.
But when the Weekly visits a cheery Elaine (76) at her home, there’s no indication that the big C is around.
The successful businesswoman, who was one of Auckland’s first female Rotarians, still regularly walks 30-40km a week and continues to be a passionate campaigner for non-profit organisations, including Outward Bound. She even takes lectures on history and literature online, alongside a group of girlfriends.
Yet doctors have given Elaine only a 30% chance of living another five years.
“It’s been really strange,” she muses. “I’ve surprised myself really. It is what it is and I’ve just got to get on with it. This is something that I’ve got. I can crack up and worry about it or I can live with it and do the best I can.
“The most worrying time was wondering whether I was going to be able to have an operation because I knew that it would give me a bit more time.
“If you don’t live life, then you’re going to come to your end and think, ‘Why did I spend so much time worrying, why didn’t I live life while I could?’”
Elaine’s cancer story starts the same as many other Kiwis – with a “niggly little pain”.
“I’d had a good year last year,” begins Elaine.
“I’d walked the Great Ocean Road in Melbourne and we’d been to the tennis and we’d been to Europe. I had this niggly pain in my side which was like a stitch, but when you do as much exercise as I do, you expect to get a stitch occasionally.”
After a week playing golf in Taupo, the symptoms became worse. Her bowel motions changed, the pain in her side continued and she felt extreme tiredness. And so began test after test from doctors, including a colonoscopy, which led to a misdiagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome. But Elaine knew it had to be something else.
It wasn’t until a CRP blood test, which tests for inflammation, and a cancer marker test which showed raised levels, that the real story became clear. A four- centimetre tumour was blocking Elaine’s pancreatic duct. The surgery to remove it revealed the cancer had also spread to five of her 22 lymph nodes.
“I guess I wasn't surprised,” says Elaine, “because in my family, I’ve had a mother, a sister and four nieces who’ve had either breast cancer or ovarian cancer. And a link between all of them has been discovered.”
But her attitude to the diagnosis is astounding. Nearly one year on, Elaine is determined to live her absolute best life – cancer be damned – with the help of her family and friends.
“I’ve been extremely lucky because I think about people who go through this journey on their own. My friends and family have what they called the ‘chemo train’ and they’d take turns taking me to chemo,” she tells, beaming.
“Plus the medical care I’ve had has been outstanding. So that’s one of the things I’m going to do – volunteer to take people to chemo because there are people who don’t have those people like that in their lives.”
Chemotherapy was “a bit of a challenge”, she says, due to the nausea. So to combat it, she would walk – “they called me the Forest Gump of Parnell!” she laughs.
But it’s clear to see her gratitude to her “incredible” family, including her two children, Brett and Carmen, and her beloved husband Dennis.
“It’s a very hard thing for the partner when you’re going through chemo and at times I could see the confusion on his face. You can be quite difficult and every Friday, I’d be really sick. It was hard for him because I didn’t want to talk, I didn’t want to do anything but just lay in the foetal position in bed.
“But the one thing that is great when you’re diagnosed with cancer is the love you receive. The emails and flowers and meals and kindness. You have to be very careful not to exploit it!” she says with a wry chuckle.
Elaine makes no bones about living each day as it comes, while still continuing to devote herself to her community through charity work.
“When you do as much as I do in my life, you are going to experience more things – bad and good – because if you’re out there, it’s going to happen. But if you stay at home all the time, obviously nothing’s going to happen to you,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I know my lifespan and if you know something, you can accept it,” she says. “And I absolutely know I’ve had a very good life.”