Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
Chris O’Brien AO was a surgeon and Director of the Sydney Cancer Centre at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He won public fame for his empathic bedside manner in the television medical reality series RPA. Many people thought that if they had cancer, Chris would be the doctor of choice. Part way through the series, Chris himself was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour.
You would think that as a highly experienced doctor with a large staff and patient list, he would thoroughly understand the patient experience and there would be few surprises for him:
“I think I’ve learnt a bit about uncertainty. With my particular tumour, for example, there is no expert, no one place that deals with brain cancers at a world-class level. There are a couple of good surgeons, there are a couple of good oncologists, but they’re not necessarily at the same hospital. That’s the way things are set up – we don’t have a system that encourages people to collaborate.”
Even before diagnosis, he had wanted to create “a world-class comprehensive cancer centre” which was integrated and multi-disciplinary and “the most important thing is that people get good care and they are treated kindly and professionally”.
The Leap Year is Jane Delahay’s experience of a health care system that is sometimes a long way short of world class. The book has two related elements – the treatment process for her cancer and her subsequent walk in Italy to raise money for the Breast Cancer Network Australia. The combination of medical treatment, inner strength and support of others, turns out to be her recipe – but there are many twists and turns along the way.
After her diagnosis, this shocked mother of two teenage girls is suddenly plunged into a world of industrial scale treatments. The early days after diagnosis were fraught with thoughts of many possible futures: “Stay in the now. I was telling myself, all the while my brain had other ideas. It was filling up fast with the thoughts of a mad woman. I had become a stranger in my own head”.
There is no manual for surviving cancer – everyone is different. In any case, Jane is determined to work out her own pathways to good health:
“I decided to read the Cancer Council website information on breast cancer; I downloaded all 120 pages of it……. It’s so much commitment to read all that information when you are in denial anyway. Usually an avid reader, it sent me into a spin…. “
Jane retains sense of proportion and is unwilling to brook bad behaviour from specialists: “How does someone who charges $480 an hour have holes in his clothes?” Setting that aside, this first visit did not improve: “I spent the rest of that appointment clutching my handbag and staring out of the window”. She never goes back. Another is chronically late. Fortunately, by Chapter 5 she has found one she likes – both organised and punctual.
When chemotherapy begins, she decides to undertake a complementary procedure – scalp cooling – designed to prevent massive hair loss. It also requires marathon five hours sessions. Disrupting the sessions for a toilet break is a major event because it involves disentangling from all the apparatus and parading around the hospital in a less than fashionable cap and gown. Dignity is usurped by comfort: “I seriously wanted to use an adult nappy because I hated the whole toilet thing”.
The radiology was particularly bad. The specialist told her that radiation treatment is just like a “bit of sunburn”, but to Jane with her sensitive skin, it feels like a second degree burn. The treatment is in an unwelcoming basement with seemingly indifferent staff (with one notable exception). Not an environment to raise the spirits of someone with a dangerous illness.
But that’s not to say that Jane is ungenerous about the medical system and the staff that she meets. She regularly refers to “angels” and they impart some of the most important advice and comfort.
The treatment is only one side of the first year. The other is about Jane’s search for complementary ways of dealing with her illness and its emotional impacts – from yoga to traditional Chinese medicine. She has close friends and family who also provide support and her way of involving some of them and hiding her cancer from others provides engaging reading.
After a year of relentless treatment, she goes on a journey, raising over $7000 for BCNA by walking 100km from Florence to Siena with nineteen other women. For Jane, the joys of the Tuscan landscape and the medieval villages, not to mention the world’s best gelato, are complemented by meeting others who have stories to tell – whether about cancer or about their lives. Jane sees the best in people and seems to make friends easily, all of which helps her healing. The Italian journey leads to a new phase:
“Who would have thought that I would be sitting in the most exquisite place only twelve months after my cancer diagnosis? My life had changed immeasurably in that time, to the point where my former life was unrecognisable to me. I had weathered the storm and come out the other end. I have surprised myself really. Who would ever have thought that I was capable of such inner strength?”
This is an intensely personal book and Jane is prepared to share a lot about her most embarrassing moments as well as her beliefs and values. Her voice is sometimes strident, sometimes naïve, sometimes funny, but she is always prepared to speak her mind. The reader is constantly stimulated to think – what would I do in this situation?
This book should be of interest to people who have/are experiencing cancer directly or through others. For me, as one who has been close to women who have been treated for breast cancer, the detail about the treatments and their effects was shocking. None of the people I know shared in this way.
It is also a book about resilience in the face of adversity. It demonstrates the power of the human spirit to not only face up to a horrible situation, but also to find renewal and a better life. For those reasons, The Leap Year has much wider appeal.
By Jane Delahay