Maria Kampyli is a teacher, lawyer and more recently a valued member of the Neos Kosmos editorial team. Up until a year ago, she was enjoying a normal life between work and family obligations filled with hopes and dreams for her future in her new home, Australia. And then she received the bad news. Here is her story.
The alarm goes off at 6 in the morning.
I get up in a hurry and look out the window.
A sky filled with fuchsia and blue-green hues sets the tone for a wonderful day.
Then, I think to myself… even if it was raining cats and dogs outside, still, for me, it’d be a wonderful day…
The mind, as it’s inclined, again wanders and takes me back, one year ago. Last year, on this day, I’d woken up in a wonderful mood. It was a warm February day and I had the morning free all to myself.
What better that an relaxing walk to the beach before evening school?
The walk lasted longer than expected.
Run back home; a quick shower and off I went.
And then everything changed.
That afternoon, my life as I knew it, and as I’d organised it, was over. For good.
“Dimitri? Are you done? Something’s wrong. Something bad. I found something in my breast and then something again in my underarm,” that was my phone call, full of angst, to my significant other, the one I rely on. Dimitris, with his own magical way could always exorcise everything and cast [negativity] away. Not now, though; not this time. Because this time, I knew it deep inside of me that something was not right at all.
My fears did not take long to come true. That same night, the family doctor, all sullen and morose prescribed me the tests, which he advised I had as soon as possible. It was Thursday.
On Tuesday, I went to have the tests. By my side, Stavroula, my eldest, my little girl.
I remember trying to decipher the look on the face of the young lady that did my mammogram. I was crying and was telling her how scared I was. She was trying to appease me. When I was leaving, she called me and said: “It’s all gonna be okay. You look strong.”
Right… I nodded and left.
Two days later the doctor called to announce the results. It was a sombre night. Myself, Dimitris, Stavroula and I at the doctor’s. The doctor’s face stiff with a look stone-cold like death. The words egressed his mouth like a sentence “advanced cancer of the right breast”.
Even though, within me, I knew it, upon hearing the diagnosis I felt as if someone had pulled the rug beneath my feet. As if the entire world crashed on my head. It was as if I was having an outer-body experience. As if I’d exited my body and was watching a scene from one of those drama films I’d love to watch. Only now,
I was the protagonist and I did not enjoy that role at all.
I felt suffocated and gushed outside.
First reaction, to jump in front of the first car on the road.
No, wait, I’ll call Vicky.
Fortunately, she picks up straight away and her voice is like soothing balm.
“Maria, calm down. Mine was stage four and I’ve been fine for 11 years now. You’ll deal with it.”
Yes, I’ll deal with it.
I did not mean it. I did not believe it. I didn’t know anything anymore. I was not prepared for something like this. Huh! And who is? I wondered.
That was it. The end had come, like knives the words were running through my mind, tearing my heart apart.
“I don’t want to die. There’s so much I have not yet enjoyed, so much I haven’t done…”
And then the agony for my children. Visions, of them being alone, helpless, without me…
Who will be beside my Stavroulitsa to listen to her and guide her? Who will remind her of her gifts and build up her wounded by adolescence confidence? Who will motivate her to pursue her dreams and always fight for them?
Who will reassure my little Chrysoulitsa who stresses out about everything and cries? Who will make up silly songs to wake her up in the morning? Who will pull funny faces and voices to make her laugh?
And my Dimitris, my soulmate, the love of my life that so many years only knows how to love me, alone… without me…
And I without them.
Pain, anguish, despair, fear. For the next three weeks, those were the feelings that overtook our home. A home that up until one day ago was a windmill.
Laughter, yells, staying up all night with good company and good music; that was our life. Now, silence, hidden sorrow and the smell of death… just like that, because fate begged it.
An unpredictable and unwanted trip was beginning for me…
Thankfully, I was not alone.
At the first stop, Katerina came on board. She, too, a breast cancer survivor, a trouncer of life. She took me by the hand, held me in her embrace and told me the entire tale. So, the dragon was undercut and all that was left was the adventures…
At the next stop, Kostas hopped on. My little brother. My Kostakis. Just two months prior, with great sorrow, we had farewelled our lovely father after an unfair but dignified battle with the damn thing. How would I now tell him that I could be next? I told him, and he grabbed me by the hand, once again like when we were little and I was scared at night, and, with his professional experience, his knowledge and by motivating a whole heap of experts and colleagues, he started instilling the first fragments of hope in my soul.
I’m certain that in his heart he knew but never showed it. I was constantly nagging him with my doubts and my fears until one day he wrote me this: “Understand one thing, I love you so much; if anything happens to you, I’ll die”. I therefore had one more serious reason to stay alive.
Then, my mum, the heroine, jumped on, Mrs Chrysoula. At 12, cancer took her mum away from her; she had just lost her partner for 50 years and now she had to go through the same with her only daughter. No problem. Born for challenges, she was here on the first plane taking all the burden on, of my home and my pain. My sweet mamma.
Then it was Tina. My guardian angel. My breakwater. She was the one hearing my cries, my complaints, my rant. She’d let the phone ring until I would pick up, without being disheartened no matter how many times I would ignore the calls, no matter how bad I did not want to speak to anyone. She would come up with a different message of courage and hope each day and would send it to me. She never lost her faith in me. It was literally her that carried me onto the other side.
And then, slowly, more people came on board. My little sis, Voula; I’d give her a headache with all my worries about my looks and my fears for tomorrow. She’d be there encouraging me and giving me strength, tirelessly.
My amazing family in Greece. Spyrakos, who’d make me laugh; sweet Maryloo; Akis; Giannis; my Renaki, an endless source of courage and power; my lil’ Aphrodite, with her words that were a cure for my wounds while – oh, the irony!- her dear husband, Dimitris was fighting his own battle against the same enemy. But, we talked about it, together we’d dance the victor’s zeibekiko!
My amazing family here, with aunt Sofia at the forefront; she never stopped caring, consoling me and supporting me.
Maria and Sotiris, my best mates from home were always by my side, at every step. Maria would even send me medications from Greece to deal with the side-effects of Chemotherapy.
My colleagues and friends from work, did not forget about me, not for a moment.
It was those messages, scattered throughout my day, asking me how I’m doing, reminding me they’re there. Small, meaningless one would say, fractions… but for me that made a difference. Because they’d draw me out of the pitch of illness into life’s bright light. And that’s exactly what I needed. One second, three words, a signal.
Then the gates of faith opened wide for me. I’d always been close to God, in my own special way. But, in this test, His presence was even more intense, even more felt, from the first moment. A series of unexpected events, from the diagnosis even till the operation and the treatments that followed didn’t leave one margin of doubt; did not allow me to question I was under His wing.
Finally, my wonderful doctors at Peter McCallum cancer centre and the entire medical staff came on board with their expertise but above all, their humanity, made my journey easier.
With those awesome co-passengers, I launched the fight to win my life.
I remember the words of my wonderful breast cancer nurse, Lisa: “Your journey will be like a roller-coaster ride, but, believe me, you will make it”.
April third, when I had the operation. Full mastectomy and axillary node dissection on the right side. Nothing will ever be the same again. My image changes completely. Inside and out.
On May first, I had the first chemotherapy. Four days in, I couldn’t even walk straight. There were moments I could not hold my head up. I struggled. I would get up to walk, move, do anything to resist. In vain.
End of May, I had a fever and was admitted to hospital. It was Mother’s Day. Sitting in the armchair of my loneliness-filled room I reminisce past Mother’s Days. Normally, my girls would wake up at first light and prepare a surprise breakfast. I’d get up, after Dimitris would discretely give it away, wear my what-a-great-surprise face and lose my self in the girls’ tender hugs and kisses. Then they’d give me their pressies and I’d cry reading their soft little words in their little cards. But not on this day.
That day I was isolated in a cold hospital room, visitors not allowed.
Sad, I was looking out the window and without realising I started playing with my hair. When I lowered my arm, my hand was full of it. Panicked, I run my fingers through my hair to see my hand fill up with another strand of hair. The fear was becoming even more real.
When I was released from hospital, Dimitris shaved my head. The girls were filming it. We had planned this moment like a celebration but it didn’t worked out quite that way for us.
I saw the sadness in my eldest’s look and the fright in my little one’s eyes.
“Mum won’t have hair anymore and that’s not fun at all,” is what I could read through both of them.
“How do I look like this?” I’d say to myself and boy, I had seen nothing yet!
By the end of the first chemo cycle, I had no hair, no eyebrows or eyelashes. I could not go to the toiled without screaming in pain and there were moments I could not even stand on my feet. I’d look in the mirror often and freak out. It was sad and funny at the same time. Everything was falling apart.
I kept the funny side and held on to it. I started giving me funny nicknames, pulling weird voices that suited my new image and made everyone around me, and mainly my children, laugh.
I remember that on my entire head there was only one hair, one, that had not fallen off. Chrysoula and I baptised hair “baby hair” and played with it for hours on end.
We’d comb it, curl it, put gel on it.
There were, however, those moments that the baby hair was not enough to distract us.
That’s when my Stavroulitsa would give me the world’s most tender hug, or when my Chrysoulitsa would softly caress my bald head, or when Dimitris would look me in the eyes affectionately and would meaningfully and firmly hold my hand, or when I’d let myself cry hard on my mother’s lap.
Time went by. In July, the second cycle of chemotherapy commences and at the same time, I was starting more treatments. Every new drug a heartbeat and a heartache. For the counteractions, the side-effects; the way my system would respond. I felt that I was not in charge of my own body, my mind, my life.
I, who was passionate with control, was now completely submitted to medical protocol.
There were moments I’d say “Enough!”… “I give up, all of it and the hell with it” and the n I’d think of my little girls, my dreams, my travel plans with Dimitru and I’d say, “Let’s go! You must move on! This too shall pass”. And I’d raise my head high and I would manage.
End of October and the baby hair fell. Hurrah! The house was on fire. Mummy started growing new hair!
In November I started radiation treatment. Easy peasy. Twenty five days; everyday at the hospital to literally get fried. By Christmas that too was done.
A small breath and then the hormonal treatment. This will go on for years.
Doesn’t matter. As long as I have years ahead of me, I’ll be on pills.
“Mum, we’re going to be late!,” I hear suddenly. I look at my watch that says its seven in the morning. I need to hurry. Drop the girls off at school and then head to the newspaper. I’ll be late again; I’ll get stuck in traffic and Sotiris will pull me up on it. But I’ll smile and get away with it, again.
I open the door and the only thing that touches me is the cool morning morning breeze and the first sunlight.
Each day, for me, this magnificent feeling is a gift. The gift of the simple, everyday life that mistakenly we take for granted.
Believe me, it is not, and that’s what makes it even more precious.