While waiting on results from a biopsy on a suspicious lump in my breast, I was doing an editing shift on Guardian Australia’s sport desk. Football writer Samantha Lewis filed a story on Melbourne City and New Zealand player Rebekah Stott that delved into her diagnosis and treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At first, I wasn’t sure it was a story I should be working on at that moment, but as I read it, I felt calmer. For a long time, women’s sport had been my home and here was a story about someone who was part of that community who had gone through something similar. It was my first sign that being part of this community would be my saving grace.
A little more than a week later I received the phone call that would change my life. This was the unique experience of being diagnosed with cancer during a lockdown. Rather than sitting face to face with my GP, who has cared for me for 10 years, I was crouched in a corner of the shared backyard in our unit block when I heard the news on a telehealth appointment – trying to get enough reception to hear the doctor while still maintaining some semblance of privacy.
Despite having no family history or risk factors, the lump was breast cancer and from then on, everything was a whirlwind. Nine months on, I’m still not sure I have processed exactly what happened to me, I simply put my head down and did what I needed to do to get through it. There didn’t seem to be any other choice – within a week I was having surgery, then a week later I found out that more surgery was required as the cancer spread further than we had thought. That also meant I couldn’t avoid chemotherapy, so on to that it was, closely followed by radiotherapy.
Compounding all this of course, was the ongoing effects of the pandemic. No visitors in the hospital while I recovered from surgery or at any of my early appointments. But despite all this, I never really felt alone. I had the support of my incredible husband, family and friends of course – I knew they would be there for me and I could not have done any of this without them.
But I also decided to share my story on social media because I had never imagined I would end up with breast cancer. I wanted people to be alert to the possibility and stay vigilant with their checks and I knew that often the best way to impart messages like that is through personal stories.
Within hours of sharing my story online, I was overwhelmed with the love and support that came back at me in waves – most notably from the women’s sport community. I received messages, gifts and flowers from all over the country. From friends, colleagues and sporting fans to professional athletes, clubs and national organisations, this community rallied around me in ways I never expected.
It is a community I have been a part of since I first got access to the internet and found people who loved netball as much as I did. From there it snowballed into cricket, rugby league, AFLW and football, our individual communities of passionate fans finding each other, intertwining and learning to love each other’s sports as well. For many of us who love women’s sport, the sometimes-toxic world of Twitter is our home, it’s where we found each other and have carved out warm and safe corners to share our love.
Many of the people in this community I have never met. We are spread across the country, across the world even, but we talk and share our stories almost every day. They are people I care deeply about and I was surprised and overjoyed to discover that they cared just as much about me.
It inspired me so much that I made them an integral part of my chemotherapy process. With ongoing restrictions, I wasn’t always able to have a support person with me for these long, sometimes painful and always boring infusion sessions. The nurses were delightful, but busy, and I often spent many hours alone in my little cubicle, looking out over the traffic on Missenden Road. And so I thought of ways to bring my community along with me. I created a collaborative playlist and asked everyone to add one song to it – something that would help me get through treatment. Many of these songs were tied to memories we shared from women’s sporting events – from Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off that penetrated every inch of the 2015 Netball World Cup, to Lorde’s Green Light that brought back memories of working on the sidelines at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and Katy Perry’s Roar which immediately took me back to the 2020 T20 World Cup final at the MCG.
I also wore a shirt from a women’s sporting team to every chemo session. Each one came with its own stories and emotions. In many ways, cancer treatment reduced me to childhood – I became much more dependant than I was comfortable with and I needed stories to help me through. As a long-time fangirl, elite female athletes are my superheroes. So much as a child might dress up like Elsa or Spiderman to help them through chemotherapy, I dressed as my heroes and channelled the fierce determination of Alex Blackwell and Nat Medhurst, the incredible resilience of Ash Brazill and Amy Parmenter, the heart and strength of Hannah Darlington and Sharelle McMahon and the power and leadership of Kezie Apps and Emma Tonegato.
It has not been an easy nine months and while the worst is hopefully behind me, cancer has become part of my life story, something that will linger long after the scans are clear. While it is never something I wanted or expected, I take silver linings wherever I can find them. And having the entire women’s sport community stand behind me saying “Here if you need” is possibly the best silver lining of all.