Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Cancer is really hard to go through and it’s really hard to watch someone you love go through, and I know because I have been on both sides of the equation.

Cynthia Nixon

This year, as I tiptoe towards 5 years of being clear of breast cancer, the disease seems to haunt me. My dear friend Margaret lost her battle a few weeks ago, another friend is beginning the fight again after being 13 years clear, and I’ve reconnected with a past student because she wanted me to edit what she has written about her battle with depression after her diagnosis.

Sometimes it is hard to remain positive and I’m grateful I’ve been able to use my writing as therapy to work through a lot of negativity.

Rainbow in NZ leaving Oamaru

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2010 after my 57th birthday mammogram I was stunned into silence – and for anyone who knows me that is a rare state! I’ve been described as chatty, sociable, loquacious and vocal as well as the negative connotations – talkative and verbose!

You can’t plan or know how you will react when you receive a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes silence is the best option until you work out how to knuckle down and get on with the treatment – one day at a time.

Through the several operations, chemo and other treatment my mantra became “This too shall pass.”  I had to survive. My girls had already lost their Dad, it was too soon and they were too young, to grieve over their Mum!

Fortunately, I had friends who had survived. They were only too happy to support me, share their journey, and show me there was a future.

me and Diane

However, chemotherapy takes you to a place you never want to revisit, but you do get through it and recently I found this piece I wrote about my experience.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Mairi Neil

The rows of chairs along the walls face each other like a hairdressing parlour. They are reclining armchairs, not the swivel seats found in salons, but the clientele has a fixation on hair even if fragrant shampoos and conditioners are absent. Everyone aches to be transformed, hopes for some magic from the experts.

Unlike a trip to the hairdresser, wearing trackie pants and t-shirt to be beautified for a glad-rag event later in the evening, I take great care preparing for an all-day stint in the Chemo Room at Cabrini Hospital. Personal grooming necessary to feel good, clothes chosen to lighten spirits. A whiff of antiseptic with metallic and chemical strains assaults the nose and salivary glands, intensified by the pungency of rubber aprons and gloves. Amidst this proliferation of hospital smells, diligent nurses measure each person’s dose of poison for the day.

I’ve massaged copious moisturiser into skin and discharged several sprays of perfume to mask the clinical and industrial odours wafting around the armchairs, where even the white freshness of laundered pillowcases hint at harsh detergents.

Turban or scarf selected with care so I can pretend to be Maggie McNamara in Three Coins in the Fountain or Sophia Loren in Sunflower. Acetone from the black polish layered on brittle fingernails the night before still teases my nostrils. I hope the effort will save them from disintegration considering the treatment already wreaks destruction on my scalp.

If a real hairdressing salon, I’d sue, but I’m told bald is beautiful and a more common ‘hairstyle’ today than years ago. I’m a reluctant convert.
Nurses squeak a metal trolley over the gleaming waxed floor, a testimony to the courageous cleaners’ care. They too work in this dangerous environment, put themselves at risk of exposure. The waste receptacles of bright purple and yellow, scream danger as I am hooked up to the IV machines beeping loud and insistent as prescribed concoctions are programmed.

I murmur appreciation as the sweetness of mint-scented buttercream drifts from my feet where Marge, a regular volunteer, caresses and smooths. Closed eyes and a huge sigh tunes me out, as valium laced relaxants transport me to a far-off tropical beach. My destination any of the idyllic scenes depicted in the array of paintings decorating walls and softening the harsh reality.

Music flows from my iPod and John Denver reminds me Some Days are Diamonds and Some Days are Stone. Without thinking, I feel where my breast once was and tears well again. Marge senses me tense, encourages me to concentrate on the healing rhythm of her massage – or we could discuss the latest book her bookclub has chosen – have I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society novel? A joyful book celebrating how reading brings people together, affirming messages about the strength of the human spirit and the value of relationships, even unexpected ones.

In the past, a trip to the local hairdressing salon referred to as a life-saver, but the Cabrini visits have actually saved my life. Each trip I’m challenged by the stories shared by other recipients: tips to adapt to loss, shared fears and tears, deliberate efforts to laugh, and always admiration at the dedication of staff.

Life will never return to what it was before breast cancer and I may never find the person I was, but surgery and chemicals triumphed to keep me alive. Hair regrows and protheses improve – I’ll just dig deeper for the diamond days.

One wonderful diamond day was the night the girls took me to see Neil Diamond. Lost in the music and flanked by Anne and Mary Jane, I swayed to Song Sung Blue and other numbers. The wonderful evening concluded and a complete stranger appeared at our sides. She said, ‘I’ve been watching the love between you three all night,’ she squeezed my shoulder, ‘you’re going to be all right.’


 There were many random incidents like that – complete strangers coming up to me in the street or in shops and telling me I’d come through the breast cancer and be stronger for it. Supportive friends visited prior to hospital visits to cheer me up, remind me that sisterhood is powerful!


Courtesy of the ABC, I won a lunch date with NZ cooking guru Annabelle Langbein. I may take her up on an invitation to visit her farm one day!


I returned to work and coped better after an 8 week stint with Encore, a wonderful program that helped me regain body strength and my equilibrium.


I walked the Larapinta Trail, camped in the desert, and reflected on my life and future.(The story of this journey still to be published.)  The last day in the desert I texted my daughter: “Yay! I can feel the wind through my hair.”

 My hair almost normal when I farewelled daughter, Anne on her travels to North America in July 2011. Twelve months still to be reached, but the worst was behind me – I hoped. More up-lifting news of  a student achievement award and receiving my master’s degree helped too!

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I ‘m praying nightly that my friend in NZ will come through her cancer’s return and recover quickly to enjoy life again. I pray too this depression and foreboding I feel will pass…


I Remember Mum Saying – You’ll Eat Worse Than That before You Die!

The secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

Mark Twain

Today was probably not the best day to take delivery of an anthology with the title You’ll eat worse than that before you die, edited by Kari O’Gorman and published by Melaleuca Blue. The media is full of a hepatitis A outbreak caused by frozen berries imported from China – no deaths reported, but the number of people falling ill increases each day.


However, the current crisis aside, I was thrilled to receive my copy of the anthology in the mail because one of my stories is included. Kari has done a magnificent job collating the pieces, which include poems, anecdotes, photographs, quotes and sayings as well as stories and recipes.

Writers want to be read and opportunities to publish short stories and poems difficult to find unless you have a body of work to be made into a book – for the traditional publishers or self publishing. Entering competitions or submitting work to projects with specific themes can be a great avenue and I thank Kari and Melaleuca Blue Publishing for the opportunity to be read and to be included in a delightful and entertaining book.

Broth and Trouble!
Mairi Neil

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green, waiting in a hot tureen! Who for such dainties would not stoop? Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

So sang the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland and I often echo this praise of soup when remembering a childhood where it provided healthy and hearty meals— especially if accompanied by freshly baked bread.

Many a night I‘ve carried on the childhood tradition of substituting Scotch Broth or thick vegetable soup as the main course when the day’s dramas left little time for preparing a more elaborate meal, or the energy and inclination for cooking couldn’t be found.

When recovering from chemotherapy in 2011, I chose a July trek of the Larapinta Trail in the Central Australian desert as a challenge and to tick off an item from my ‘Bucket List’. The five nights camping provided opportunities for soup to shine as a nutritious meal; easy and quick to prepare over the campfire for the small family on the trail.

Most days a large pot sat on glowing logs, witches black against grey ash as orange flames danced like dervishes in the gusts of wind common in Arrentre country. The enticing aroma of vegetable soup wafted in the winter air. Soup spiced by additional herbs from the ancient garden surrounding us, where tasty plants have flourished for thousands of years. The healing properties of these plants revealed each day by our Arrentre hosts: Nicholas, Malcolm and Genise.

The pot and its often mysterious contents stirred memories of 1962…

The first few months adjusting to life in Australia proved a testing time, especially for Mum, the centre of our close-knit Scottish family. After leaving London by ship in fogbound November, we arrived in Croydon, nine days before Christmas, to a blistering summer. Croydon, on the outskirts of Melbourne, nestled at the foot of the blue Dandenong Ranges, which were still boasting scars from bushfires in January. The area faced more danger before the summer wilted, necessitating anxious Mum and Dad to organise a bucket brigade. We lugged pails of precious tank water to dowse burning embers carried in the hot north wind when the hills burst into flames. Aware of the vulnerability of the rented ramshackle house of dry cracked timber, Mum soaked the weatherboards and surrounding bush to prevent fire from taking hold.

The ‘old house’ as it is now referred to with affection at family get-togethers, had a wartime Raeburn stove fuelled by red gum logs chopped and stacked weekly by my father and two older brothers. Mum cursed the Raeburn because in the swelter of that first summer she literally baked herself. The heat of the kitchen of wood-lined walls under a corrugated tin roof not relieved by air conditioning, or even a fan. Immersed in the habits of Scotland, our taste buds and customs attuned to cooked meals, not salad and cold meat, meant life was not easy for Mum. Regretfully, we never gave her discomfort a second thought. Six children aged from 3-13 raced each other to the table to devour whatever was on the menu.

One afternoon, Mum cooked a pot of vegetable and barley soup. The tureen sat on the side of the old stove until she slid it across to warm for dinner. The eight of us gathered around the large cedar table protected by a green and white chequered oilcloth. The meal was early because Mum wanted to visit an elderly aunt in hospital. The soup swiftly ladled into blue and white Willow-patterned china bowls with the order to ‘hod yer wheesht (be quiet) and eat.’

Brother Iain, the fussiest eater in the family inspected and prodded with his spoon. ‘What are those black bits in the soup, Mum?’

‘Barley,’ Mum replied as she sliced a loaf of bread.

Iain examined the soup on his spoon in more detail, ‘But the black bits have legs.’

Interest sparked, we all searched our soup for black bits. Brother George, declared, ‘Mine have legs too,’ with closer inspection he announced with triumph, ‘They look like ants!’

We moaned as if poisoned, pushing the plates away, gulping water, dramatising as only six siblings can when trying to outdo the other’s reaction. It took a thunderous roar from Dad to restore order.

An army of ants had drowned or been boiled alive in the soup, a sprinkling of their cadavers in all the bowls. Dad suggested they had found their way into the soup via loose mortar in the chimney bricks, ‘This house was built during the First World War and has been neglected ever since.’

However, Mum always had an answer for everything. ‘A few dead ants won’t hurt you,’ she said, checking the time so as not to be late. Her final word, ‘The Aborigines eat them so stop your nonsense and finish your dinner.’

‘But Aborigines only eat Honey Ants,’ said Iain, who also happened to be the family encyclopaedia.

A withering look from stressed Mum chastised us to silence. We rolled eyes and exchanged funny looks behind her back as she debated with Dad whether to strain the soup and salvage the meal, or throw it out and open a tin of tomato soup kept in the cupboards for emergencies. Money always being tight in our working-class home, the thought of wasting food was unthinkable. Those still with a desperate appetite supped the strained soup, the others filled up on toast and jam. Not surprisingly, Scotch broth was renamed Ant Soup in the family lexicon forever onwards.

The camp cooks, Karl and Kathleen, interrupted my musings and I was back in 2011. Soon we would queue for a meal of spicy vegetable soup, camel sausages, and sizzling kangaroo steak, mushrooms and salad. I pondered the difference in menu to those early days at Croydon and what I would be eating with my daughters if home in Mordialloc.

One of the camp hosts, Nicholas, grinned and whispered his appreciative ‘good tucker’ looking forward to piling his plate high. Earlier that afternoon he had managed to dig up a witchetty grub, a delicacy he was prepared to share with me, advising ‘it tastes like cooked egg yolk.’ But I had watched the effort it had taken to unearth the white grub. Small and wriggling in the palm of his hand; it was hardly ‘a meal.’ His brown eyes begged me to refuse his offer and I obliged. A sacrifice I was happy to make; insects and grubs still a taste I have yet to acquire.

‘Fetch your mugs, it won’t be long till we serve.’ The pot of soup was eased off the fire and I watched ants scurrying over leaf litter around the campfire not far from the pot.