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Cheryl Cawdron

Second time, second chance?

“Do you have the opportunity to re-evaluate your life’s purpose from the very core of your being... where you contemplate life and death to the extent that it enriches your life beyond measure?”

The mental challenge was never and has never been easy. For years whilst in remission every toe pain, cough or hiccup was potentially the return of cancer. I went every six months and eventually every year to check my “bloods”. This was later to found a futile exercise, but more about that later. Finally the brain “got it” and I was normal again…..for fifteen years. During “normality” it was if the world was too small for me. I arranged to take up rowing, with the vigor of someone half my age, and in doing so competed at National level in the category of SA master rowers and then in international competition - The Henley Royal Regatta for Veterans in 2006; I captained the quadruple team and we had a magnificent row and achieved our ambition to participate. As a family we decided that after my gigantic effort we would make our way down the Thames in a barge through the many locks, I fondly remember the fun we had simply messing around in a boat.

I worked as a Regional HR Manager for a Bank. Loved the action and took on each challenge with vigor. Human Resources was a foreign practice for the Bank and all the foundations around the practice needed to be put in place which was a complex challenge together with equally difficult male colleagues. I was the only female senior manager in that Bank at that time. As the Bank developed in complexity I was to become involved in strategic National Projects working from home. These projects changed the organizational structures of the broader FirstRand group and were fascinating to be part of. Around this time I started to work from home, finally taking on the eLearning portal for the Bank. The crunch came when the Bank decided to centralize all their “talent”. I was given no option but to transfer to Fairland, Jozi to continue work. I purchased a little “lock up and go” and began to commute from Monday to Thursday each week. This was tough going and I missed my family terribly during the week.

I started my own new retail product, in fact a range of seven products encompassing natural creams and sprays, with two partners. Together we designed the branding, costing, marketing and sales. All this whilst gainfully employed at the Bank. I am still employed to this day and very grateful to the “Bank” for their dedication and loyalty through it all.

I started teaching art (I began my work career as a university qualified fine art teacher) both in Durban on a Saturday morning and in Jozi on a Wednesday night. I hosted had an art exhibition together with my Durban students out of my previous Durban North home (I exhibited my own art too). Steve my husband asked if he could exhibit his world class photographs and ended selling more photography work than the fine art on offer during the opening evening of the exhibition.

These years all felt like an intuitive race against time...

I found myself loving more openly, believing more avidly in people, giving unconditional love more freely, listening to people more intently, and caring for people with greater passion. I have been told I helped many individuals regain their “mojo” and their life light. I mentored my African secretary who was later to become an HR director for an international company. We still meet today on occasion at our favorite Jozi eatery to share ideas and regain focus on our priorities. Life was peachy and exhilarating!

My Daughter was to be married in December 2012, having completed her final exams for her Honors Law Degree. During the prep for her Wedding we did things so differently. I gave Kirsten a challenging budget for the wedding expenses and in doing so she realized that we would have to do much of the preparation ourselves. The table settings for one were squarely our responsibility so we set about choosing a colour theme, textures, fabrics, lighting and overlay décor for the tables and chairs. We spent most weekends for the entire preceding year (when I was home for the weekend) making the decorations, chatting up a storm and talking about her dreams. These were special moments and we often refer to them today. This portion of my life is an important example of how the cancer changed us as a family in becoming acutely aware of the important things in life and in doing so spending intense quality time together.

Late last year I started feeling off color and visited my local GP; my chest did not feel right and in general I felt unwell. I explained that on my various trips to Jozi I had battled to breathe when getting off the plane and had asked the ground crew if I could use the ramp Instead of the stairs. Lanseria is very obliging and off I went up the ramp. What worried me subconsciously is that the days at gym both in Jozi and Durban were now slowly reducing.

On several trips to the GP I recall saying “All is not well” “Something is not right” but never for one minute suspected cancer because I had done all the six monthly check ups and later the annual ones - all was fine. In fact cancer was not even a consideration. I thought bronchitis, chest infection, water on the lung, working too hard, flying too much but not cancer?

Then ten weeks ago whilst traveling from Jozi back to Durban I had the most awful pain again in my arm mid flight and I asked a flight attendant for a pain tablet which she proffered without much enthusiasm. On leaving this weekly flight, I realized that the not being able to breathe and the dreadful pain in my right arm were serious. I instructed my dearest husband Steve to take me to the nearest hospital so that I could be put on a morphine drip. All was not well and I knew that the tight chest was not merely a case of chest infection.

Thereafter, my GP sent me to a lung specialist, (a pulmonologist) who frog marched me to the hospital. A CT scan confirmed a terrible lung infection, 250ml of water on the lung. We were shocked and speechless when the pulmonologist told us the news once I had come around from surgery to remove the fluid from my lung. The nightmare cancer had lodged itself between the inner chest cavity and the lung as well as a tumor of approximately 3 to 3,5cm in the lymph node under the right arm. This, we later realized, was the cause of the swelling and the awful pain in my right arm; the tumor had wrapped itself around some nerves. More was to come with the PET scan.

This was the first time I realized that maybe I was going to visit my mother in heaven who lost her struggle to stomach cancer. I have long wished to be with her as she was my very best friend and confident. She has been late for many years now; she passed shortly before Kirsten was born. Kirsten has taken this mantel of being my very best friend and confidant; we love each other madly and with respect.

On returning home I do think I was in a state of complete shock: “Not a second time around”, “Had I not done my stint the first time?”. We were to understand that all the blood check- ups I had done throughout the years were for naught; for some reason the “indicators” do not show up in my blood. I stared blankly at our four walls in the lounge for about three days, said nothing just stared. I felt comatose, an out of body experience. Friends visited but I am not sure that I actually saw them? I existed that week, I was disappointed with myself, I was angry at God for doing this to me again, and now wanted to protect Steve and Kirsten against this second horror. My daughter had grown from nine years old to a beautiful 23 years old swan. She has completed her Honors Law degree, got married, gone overseas for her honeymoon and purchased a home in Assagay.

Her view of the current diagnosis and her reaction to it is shock and panic. Being the attorney type Kirsten likes to view things in a black and white. She attends every meeting with the oncologist and asks probing questions requiring some exact answers which we all know too well can’t really be answered in this fashion. She would prefer to think of the worst case scenario and then when a better outcome comes to pass she is relieved. Her perspective is that this second attack has made her re evaluate life. She believes that we should be grateful for the people in our lives and the time we spend together. She makes every effort to spend quality time with me and her father. She says her priorities have changed “going out” is not going to enrich her relationships so she would rather spend time with the family and friends on a personal level. Kirsten continues to feel “panic stricken” with the situation; every phone call from me to her at work is a worry for her.

My husband pretended that nothing had happened; well he appeared not to be able to say anything. He busied himself with things around the house as we were midway through a house renovation. It is his way of coping. My husband is the light of my life alongside my daughter and son-in-law. My husband sees to my every need. He cooks for me daily, feeds all the animals and makes me coffee whenever I want. I am truly blessed to have him in my life.

Finally, I have come to view cancer as a blessing; it makes our lives richer as we use our time gratefully and graciously. Our priorities are not muddled in busy things but given a spotlight that is all too clear.

Looking forward; I have decided that we are going to celebrate my second remission. I have it set up in my mind to take the family on a barge trip through the south of France. I will be assisting in a soup kitchen in Red Hill Clinic. I will be trying to raise funds through the Pink Phoenix Foundation for those patients whose medical aid will not see fit to complete their chemo therapy due to a lack of funds.

We will be videoing a line dance and uploading it onto Facebook to link our fundraiser to this initiative. We are having fun during our chemo day whilst practicing the line dance steps and each attempt is being videoed. I will be looking to find channels to market for our beautiful products called JustHealing, continuing with my job in the Bank and more importantly I look forward to spending quality time with my dear family, friends and most importantly God.

I have learnt that life is about how you make others feel, how you touch their souls and not about things or objects.

Shalom Mkhize


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