Real Life

The Kiwi women who have been to hell and back

Three women share their stories of ordeal and survival. Think of the worst that could happen; would you cope?

Rebecca Wadey, 39

The phrase 'I couldn’t think of anything worse’ gets bandied around the place a lot these days. It’s often in response to remarks about trivial things, such as long queues, annoying jobs and general first-world problems. And it’s a phrase that would probably make each of these three women roll their eyes – because they’ve seen worse.

They know how hard life can actually be. Cancer, death of a partner, losing a child – these women have lived through truly tough, heart-wrenching times… and they’ve come out the other side.

For these three individuals, going through the hardest experiences in their lives has tested them, pushed them to their limits – and also shaped them into the women they are today.

They bravely shared their personal stories with NEXT in order to give hope to others going through similar ordeals, and for them to know they’re not alone.

Rebecca Wadey, 39
“I was 26 when I found the lump in my breast in the shower. I didn’t think much of it but I told my mum, who insisted I see the doctor. So on a rainy Friday I drove my big old beautiful Valiant to my GP’s, slightly hungover after a big night. I was working in fashion PR and had a busy professional and social life, partying most nights. My idea of looking after my health was going for the falafel option at the kebab shop.

My GP immediately sent me to a specialist. The first clue was when the nurse came back from checking my ultrasound and mammogram results and wouldn’t look me in the eye. Then the doctor came in and started his spiel. It was all gibberish until he said the carcinogen something or other. I thought, hey, I’m sure I’ve heard that word on Shortland Street. I had to stop him, ‘Is that cancer?’ He said yes then continued his dialogue.

I went outside, rang my boss and said matter-of-factly, ‘I won’t be back this afternoon. I have cancer. I’ll see you Monday’. Then I rang my boyfriend and said, ‘Hi, I’ve got cancer.’ He thought I was joking and we went back and forth a few times. Then I screamed, ‘I’ve got f*ing cancer!’ Then he believed me.

Ten days later I was in surgery having a mastectomy. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment followed. I was supposed to do hormone treatment for five years but the chemically induced menopause really affected me: I couldn’t go out and be in a room of people, I wasn’t sleeping, I’d get ready for work then have to change again because I was dripping in sweat. I begged the doctor to let me go off it early.

Through the whole ordeal I’d been very aware the doctors thought I was going to be infertile. I’d just started dating Ant, my now-husband, and things were going really well – the thought of not having kids was scary so I was thrilled when I found myself pregnant with Tobias (now eight) six months after finishing hormone treatment. Ant was amazing through my treatment. He’s 10 years older than me so was able to handle it with a maturity my friends didn’t possess. He encouraged me to talk, to laugh, to cry.

The problem with getting cancer at 26 was none of my friends wanted to sit home with me; they wanted to keep their partying lifestyles going. I was a buzzkill. So I had to choose: either be a loner or go out with them. So I was kind of abandoned. For me, the isolation was the hardest part. I’m lucky I was the age where I didn’t have any dependants so I could just look after myself, but being only 26 meant I missed out on having the sort of people around me who’d organise meal rosters and cleaning and rides to the hospital.

Eventually I socially engineered a group of young women going through cancer. There were six of us – the youngest 23, the eldest 35. We became best friends; we adored each other. We’d talk about fears and anxieties, laugh and cry, poke each other’s breasts. We’d throw a dinner party and make sure we had the organic roast chicken and a list of leafy green veges. Those women were a big part of my healing process.

Around that time I became more aware of my diet. I realised I was really overweight. It had become a crutch for me as I knew if I wasn’t losing weight then I wasn’t dying. I started eating well and soon realised the effect it had on my mental wellbeing; it was amazing. It helped relieve a lot of that anxiety (that little voice in my head telling me my cough was lung cancer or that I’d be dead by next year) and helped me ward off colds and flus.

When my youngest son was one I went to a health retreat in Australia that offered kinesiology and hypnotherapy. It was incredible and I realised there was nothing like it in New Zealand. It must have ignited something in my brain…

At some point I came across Megan May, who owns raw-food café Little Bird, a super-talented woman who knows how important it is to stay on top of your health. She took me to a yoga class, my first in years, and I loved it. When the room above her inner-city café came up, I jumped on it and in 2014 I opened The Centre – a yoga studio with a nutritionist, naturopath, masseuse and counsellor so people could come for any of those things and grab a green juice from Little Bird on the way home.

It was a major, having your own business and never being able to switch off from it. I became so stressed out about running The Centre, I wasn’t enjoying it. The overheads were very high and I had to make huge amounts of money each week just to break even. I wasn’t living a good example. I had to think about my own wellbeing practices – I had to be strict; not replying after hours, not responding when I was taking kids to school.

I recently decided to close The Centre [as from June 1], in its physical incarnation at least. I’ve decided I need to put the needs of my young family first. We’ll still be doing the special events and workshops for which we’ve become so well known, but as pop-up events without the crippling overheads.

I’m proud of what I achieved. There’s something very special about getting people out of their busy lives and offering them tools for transformation. We had a big cancer class every Wednesday – restorative yoga, with the teacher’s fee paid by [cancer support charity] Look Good Feel Better. The women had an amazing time, then I’d bring out smoothies.

When you have cancer you’re in the medical system and you give your body to them – you’re prodded and poked and whispered about – and you feel like you lose a bit of power. This class gave them their body back. Having cancer is like having a new baby – it’s isolating and you can’t do it alone. You need a community and these classes helped build that community. And every class they did, the money went towards people suffering from cancer.

If there’s been a positive from being sick so young it’s that I don’t look at exercise as indulgence; I see it as a necessity. You can’t continue to give if you’re not refuelling the tank. It makes you a better person in every way.

As an ambitious PR executive, it’s a million miles from what I thought I’d be doing at my age, but it’s been incredibly rewarding and feels absolutely right.”

For info on The Centre workshops and other events see www.the-centre.co.nz

Adrienne Porter, 40
“It was a warm Friday in October nearly a decade ago and I was on holiday in Noosa when I got the phone call that made the world stop and go over all black. My husband Mark had been in a high-speed motor-racing crash at Bathurst and he was in the back of an ambulance. They said I needed to get down there as soon as I could.

I guess you could say ours was a story that read like one of those Nicholas Sparks novels: childhood sweethearts who met at 16 and grew up together in Hamilton. By the time we reached our early 20s we’d moved to Auckland, got married, built our first home together and Mark had his own racing team. A few years later our son Flynn was born and when he was six weeks old we moved to start a new life on the Gold Coast. I didn’t really know much else - Mark had been in my life for half of it. We were one.

I kissed our little boy goodbye – he was fast asleep when I left him – and within a few hours I was in a jet waiting for ground clearance to land at Sydney airport. All I knew was Mark was in a critical condition and had been airlifted to RPA Hospital. The next 72 hours were shrouded in numbness. I kept a bedside vigil, hoping with everything I had that he’d wake up. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I hardly moved from the chair I’d positioned beside his hospital bed. I had to gather up every bit of strength I didn’t even think I had to make it through.

There were excruciating decisions to make, like when to cut the machines that were keeping him alive. Did I want to donate his organs? (We did and he saved six lives.) His transportation home to New Zealand. Where and when we’d hold the funeral… They were coming at me like bullets at a rifle range only I couldn’t dodge them. Worst of all, I would have to tell our little boy his daddy was never coming home.

Denial is one of the first stages of grief. I knew the only way I was going to survive was to just keep going. I couldn’t think about what was happening because I had to stay strong. There are no choices in tragedy, in grief, because you’re thrust in head-first. There isn’t someone asking, ‘Do you want to do this or bail out?’

I learned pretty quickly to keep my emotions to myself and to put up this facade because it would make Flynn scared to see me upset. I didn’t want him – or anyone else – to worry about me. Flynn would say, ‘Please don’t cry Mummy’, so I didn’t. I had to shield him from a lifetime of hurt so I did, and still do.

I thought about moving back to New Zealand – there was this expectation that because our friends and family were there it would be better for us – but everything Flynn knew in his tiny three-year-old life was in Australia: his home, his friends. I chose to stay in the Gold Coast where the sun shines almost every day and the birds make the sky come alive.

A few months later I sold our home (maybe to escape the pain and the ghosts) and threw myself into the project of building a new home for what was left of my family.

Our friends and family took it in turns to stay with me because in those first months you’re living a real-life night-mare. But life doesn’t stop; it keeps on going around you and you can choose to pick yourself up and keep going, or get washed down with the flood waters. Flynn still needed to go to kindy, the dog needed walking, the washing needed doing. It didn’t matter if I was falling down this great crevasse of grief; my son depended on me.

Sometimes I’d sit in the car and cry and scream and yell and punch the steering wheel, thinking ‘Why me? Why us? How could I have stopped this from happening?’ But I started seeing a psychologist about a year after I lost Mark and she said I needed to accept my life was different now. He wasn’t ever coming back and it was time to move forward.

I didn’t want my life to change from what I knew. It’s so much easier to keep going like nothing is different but of course it is, everything is: what you eat, how you sleep, making life decisions… I slowly started to realise despite the many beautiful caring people in my life, I had to be the one to heal myself.

After a while I began to grow a thick skin. I didn’t want people to worry about me so I’d act strong on the outside so no one worried about what was really going on in the inside.

Adrienne with the Mark Porter Memorial Trophy.
Adrienne with the Mark Porter Memorial Trophy.

People would sometimes rather avoid you as a widow because they don’t know how to deal with grief and death. They’re not sure what to say and are terrified you might break down in front of them. But self-pity doesn’t help anyone so I had to suck it up. I’d go out sometimes on weekends and try to at least get some me-time, some adult conversation to escape the loneliness and the quiet at night once Flynn was in bed.

It took a long time to heal, but one day I met John, my now husband. I knew he was right as soon as we spoke. It takes an incredibly strong and beautiful person to take on the ghost of someone else and he hasn’t tried to replace Mark. He’s an incredible man who allows me to speak freely of Mark because he knows how important he was in our lives. Flynn adores him. I’ve had two soul-mates. I’m living my second chance.

I’m a different person to who I was before the accident. It’s given me the ability to deal with our constant IVF struggles over the past three years that have seen us go through nine unsuccessful rounds and one early miscarriage. It makes you think about people more and consider growing old as a gift rather than just a God-given right.

Trivial things don’t matter… I have a new perspective because I’ve lived through tragedy and come out the other end, a bit bruised and battle-worn, but I survived.

To anyone going through a similar situation, you will make it – you actually will. I’m not going to lie and say there weren’t times I didn’t absolutely hate the bloody world, when it was hard to put one foot in front of the other. It takes a long time to properly grieve. Even when people want you to get over it, you won’t – instead you’ll just learn to deal with it at your own pace.

For me, writing a blog has been extremely cathartic. Write it down and get the pain out, even if it’s just a journal you can go back and read in your own time. The healing power of being able to share your pain and your feelings is invaluable. It takes strength and courage to get through and we all have those within ourselves. Give yourself time to hurt; give yourself time to heal.”

Gem Adams, 30
I wrote a blog introducing my baby to the world on February 8, 2014, when I was 20 weeks pregnant. In that blog I shared that I was pregnant with a girl and that we were going to name her Coco Darling. I hadn’t imagined I’d share my baby’s name before the birth… but nothing about my pregnancy was what I had imagined.

Coco Darling had Trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder that makes babies ‘incompatible with life’. God that’s an awful term. The ratio of children who make it to full term is slim and just 10 per cent survive till their first birthday. We were pretty much told to prepare for the worst; that day felt so surreal – like a movie, a really shitty movie. From that moment it was just this really weird six months of me and my husband Nathan waiting for Coco to die.

The doctors gave me options. Because of the severity of the problems, they told me I could terminate the pregnancy – they almost recommended it. But Nath and I couldn’t, knowing there was a slim chance that we’d get to meet Coco or that it would work out in some way. At that point, we named her. I struggled to do it initially, thinking I wanted to remain detached, but naming her made us feel she was being honoured and recognised – that she was a loved baby. From then on she was always referred to as Coco, even by the doctors.

My pregnancy was a pretty horrendous time. I retreated because I found it so hard to go out and be constantly reminded of my situation by people asking when I was due. I’d almost have panic attacks when someone came to the door, terrified they’d ask me about my baby.

When they did, I’d sometimes say simply, “We’re due at the end of May and it’s a girl” then go to my car and bawl my eyes out.

Occasionally I’d take a deep breath and say, “Oh, this baby’s really sick” and explain a bit about it. It turned out a lot of the times I gave that answer, I was talking to a woman who’d experienced a miscarriage. That’s what this horrible situation has taught me: you never know what battles someone is facing.

Coco made it to 39 weeks and two days. We were at our weekly hospital check-up and listening to her heartbeat. Then while we were waiting to see the specialist I felt this big kick. We went in to have the ultrasound, the specialist put the wand on and couldn’t see a heartbeat. She couldn’t find it, I couldn’t find it. She took the wand off and put her arm on me. I was like, 'F**k. This is it. This is the moment we’ve been dreading'. I was just frozen and my heart was going like crazy. 'Let’s get you a cup of tea', the specialist said.

So in that week I had a death, a birth and a funeral. Hardest week of my life. The labour was intense and hard, with no reward at the end, but it was also beautiful and a little healing in that we finally got to meet our daughter. I only got to hold her twice: once when she was born and then when I put her into her casket.

Yep, I feel ripped off. Really ripped off. And it didn’t end once I had her. I had my milk come in, I had to deal with mastitis, baby hormones and a post-pregnancy body but no baby. I had neighbours who saw us but didn’t know what was going on – they’d say, 'Oh! You’ve had your baby!' It’s shitty. Really shitty.

And it doesn’t stop. I’ll be reminded for the rest of my life because people always ask us if we have kids. For a while Nath and I said no, but it made us feel sick to our stomach. I feel like I’m disrespecting my child every time I say I don’t have one. Now we say, 'We had a child, Coco, but we lost her because she was stillborn.

It’s a year and half and I’ve recently had a miscarriage, at 12 weeks. It’s been devastating, too – it feels like it’s been three years of waiting for this baby that just doesn’t come. But I’m trying to get some positivity out of these situations. To talk about it, cry about it, share my story. It’s hard but I [hope I can] make it easier for someone else going through this harrowing situation.

I posted about Coco on my blog just after the diagnosis. I figured I either had to go under the radar for months or talk about it. I got a crazy amount of emails from women who’d had a miscarriage or stillborn baby.

There were so many people telling me I wasn’t alone or that they felt good they weren’t alone after reading my blog. It was a turning point; it helped shift it outside of something we were going through to something bigger than us. We felt like Coco could have a life further than her time on this world and help people.

Sharing it is a painful thing but I want to be real about what’s gone on in my life. There’s so much shit in the world and I think if we can band together somehow, we can make that shitty time better.

Going through losing Coco made Nath and I press into each other; it took our relationship to a whole other level. We’re even stronger now. It made us figure out what things are so much more important than work. It’s why we moved from Auckland to Hawke’s Bay when I was about 28 weeks pregnant – for the lifestyle. We wanted to enjoy each other, our friends, our family, our life.

Through Coco and our whole mind shift, I was able to hone my skills and excel in the areas I’d never had time to focus on before. I found working a lot helped me cope with Coco, and my styling career took off. Renovating our house was another good distraction. Then I took it a step further and opened Blackbird Goods, a homewares store. This is a new chapter in my life and I’m grateful for it.

But Coco and this recent miscarriage have taught me I need to slow down; stress is a massive factor in miscarriages. So I’m taking two days off a week to exercise, paint, garden. I realise I need to get serious about looking after myself. That it’s important to have that time to yourself. To be happy because you know you’re doing it to be a better person. That’s been huge for me: do what you enjoy, do what you can but don’t do everything. That’s where I’m at.”

As told to Debbie Harrison

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