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The mana of survival

When Emma Mitchell was diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer, the Wairarapa Cancer Society was one of the first places she reached out to.

“At the time, I was completely shell-shocked. I contacted the Cancer Society because I knew they were a safe place,” Emma said.

“I’d seen them all over the TV – and I knew they knew their stuff.

“I just walked right on in. Jacinta [Buchanan – former centre manager] was fabulous. She welcomed me, reassured and comforted me – and made me feel like whanau right away.”

Six years later and now in recovery, the mum-of-three and health worker is determined to give back to the organisation which “wrapped [her] in love” during her cancer journey – and “carry the mana of those who have gone before”.

Emma [Rangitāne, Muaūpoko] is one of the Survivor Champions for Relay For Life Wairarapa 2023, to be held at Clareville Showgrounds from March 25-26.

Relay For Life, held every two years, is one of the major community fundraisers for the Cancer Society: Allowing it to continue its community support services, education and advocacy work, and ongoing cancer research.

As a Survivor Champion for Wairarapa, Emma, with fellow champion Matt Fryer, takes on the role of ambassador for Relay For Life within the community – as well as leading a relay team and walking in the opening When Emma Mitchell was diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer, the Wairarapa Cancer Society was one of the first places she reached out to.

“At the time, I was completely shell-shocked. I contacted the Cancer Society because I knew they were a safe place,” Emma said.

“I’d seen them all over the TV – and I knew they knew their stuff.

“I just walked right on in. Jacinta [Buchanan – former centre manager] was fabulous. She welcomed me, reassured and comforted me – and made me feel like whanau right away.”

Six years later and now in recovery, the mum-of-three and health worker is determined to give back to the organisation which “wrapped [her] in love” during her cancer journey – and “carry the mana of those who have gone before”.

Emma [Rangitāne, Muaūpoko] is one of the Survivor Champions for Relay For Life Wairarapa 2023, to be held at Clareville Showgrounds from March 25-26.

Relay For Life, held every two years, is one of the major community fundraisers for the Cancer Society: Allowing it to continue its community support services, education and advocacy work, and ongoing cancer research.

As a Survivor Champion for Wairarapa, Emma, with fellow champion Matt Fryer, takes on the role of ambassador for Relay For Life within the community – as well as leading a relay team and walking in the opening

lap at the event’s opening ceremony, alongside survivors and carers.

She hopes to provide “a voice of hope” for her fellow survivors – and, above all, support the Cancer Society [which receives no government funding] to carry out its “vital services”.

“It provides services for people who desperately need them – travel costs, counselling, food for whanau, a centre where people can sit and chat. We need it to keep going in our community,” she said.

“When I was on my journey, having the Cancer Society’s support helped me feel lighter – like a weight had been lifted. It wraps people in a korowai of love and care.

“So, it’s an absolute privilege to be able to do this.”

Emma, from Alfredton, first received her bowel cancer diagnosis in 2017, at age 30 – though her doctors believe she’d been living with the disease for at least four years beforehand.

Suspecting she may have irritable bowel syndrome, Emma received a colonoscopy at Wairarapa Hospital – and was “shocked” by the news that followed.

“I was getting dressed afterwards, and the doctor said, ‘what are you doing the rest of the day? We need to have a chat.’

“They’d figured out it was cancer right away. I spent the rest of the day as a lab rat – they did every test imaginable. As it turned out, the cancer was progressing throughout my body.

“Another six to eight weeks, and I’d have been buggered.”

Five weeks later, Emma had surgery to remove the cancer, and then started two aggressive courses of chemotherapy at Palmerston North Hospital.

“Chemo was absolutely horrendous – really hard.

“I knew the chemicals were doing their job. But I felt like it stripped me away, and left me a hollow shell of a person.

“I was very athletic before but, during chemo, I was about 30kg. I could fit into my eight-year-old daughter’s clothes.

“It was tough – but I’m proud of myself for coming through it.”

Initially, Emma was given a 64 percent chance of survival, but was given the all-clear in 2019. She credits her recovery in part to the Cancer Society – in particular, the aroha from “all the inspirational people” at the centre’s bowel cancer support group.

The organisation also provided counselling, which gave her “the tools to cope” with anxiety and uncertainty.

Bringing her journey full circle, Emma now works for the Māori Health department at Wairarapa Hospital, where she promotes its bowel screening programme.

Fellow Survivor Champion Matt Fryer has a similar story – in that his diagnosis followed what he thought was an unrelated, fairly minor procedure.

The Eketāhuna local presented at Wairarapa Hospital in “massive pain”, where a CT scan revealed kidney stones – and other abnormalities. A biopsy confirmed testicular cancer, which was progressing to his lymph nodes.

“They found out completely by accident. Apart from reflux, I had no symptoms,” Matt, a personal trainer, said.

“Had it not been for the kidney stones, I’m not sure what would have happened. I was lucky they caught it early.”

Soon afterwards, Matt had an orchidectomy [surgery to remove an affected testicle], followed by four months of chemotherapy at Wellington Hospital – which “knocked [him] around a bit”.

“You’re basically sitting there for eight hours while they put poison into your body.

“It’s harder on your weeks off – when you’re getting treatment, they give you steroids to counter all the side effects. At home, I’d be living on jelly and ice blocks, as I couldn’t hold anything down.

“It was pretty s*** – but my medical team were amazing.”

Making the process more bearable was staying at Margaret Stewart House – accommodation provided by the Cancer Society near Wellington Hospital – allowing him to rest and recuperate after the gruelling sessions.

Matt completed his treatment in August and is now in remission – though he confessed the experience left him feeling “raw”. Side effects from the chemotherapy include neuropathy in his hands and feet and reduced hearing in one ear – and he struggles with the guilt of having survived when so many he met along the way did not.

However, he is seeking solace in working on his fitness and training his team – including some of his clients – for Relay For Life.

As a Survivor Champion, he hopes to reduce the stigma of testicular cancer and encourage other men to seek support from one another.

“The boys do tend to be more closed off about these things,” he said.

“When I was diagnosed, not many people in our wider community of friends knew. I debated saying anything – but I ended up posting on social media, which I don’t usually do.

“It got a really good response – including from my guy mates, who were all really supportive. It was hard when I had my surgery, but my friends were all comfortable asking questions and were open to talking about it if needed.”

Cancer survivors are invited to place their handprints on the Relay For Life banner, carried during the first lap. The banner will be available from March 10 at Property Brokers offices, throughout the region. Relay for Life Wairarapa 2023 will also include an afternoon tea for survivors and carers, held at 2.30pm on Saturday, 25 March, at the Survivor’s Tent. lap at the event’s opening ceremony, alongside survivors and carers.

She hopes to provide “a voice of hope” for her fellow survivors – and, above all, support the Cancer Society [which receives no government funding] to carry out its “vital services”.

“It provides services for people who desperately need them – travel costs, counselling, food for whanau, a centre where people can sit and chat. We need it to keep going in our community,” she said.

“When I was on my journey, having the Cancer Society’s support helped me feel lighter – like a weight had been lifted. It wraps people in a korowai of love and care.

“So, it’s an absolute privilege to be able to do this.”

Emma, from Alfredton, first received her bowel cancer diagnosis in 2017, at age 30 – though her doctors believe she’d been living with the disease for at least four years beforehand.

Suspecting she may have irritable bowel syndrome, Emma received a colonoscopy at Wairarapa Hospital – and was “shocked” by the news that followed.

“I was getting dressed afterwards, and the doctor said, ‘what are you doing the rest of the day? We need to have a chat.’

“They’d figured out it was cancer right away. I spent the rest of the day as a lab rat – they did every test imaginable. As it turned out, the cancer was progressing throughout my body.

“Another six to eight weeks, and I’d have been buggered.”

Five weeks later, Emma had surgery to remove the cancer, and then started two aggressive courses of chemotherapy at Palmerston North Hospital.

“Chemo was absolutely horrendous – really hard.

“I knew the chemicals were doing their job. But I felt like it stripped me away, and left me a hollow shell of a person.

“I was very athletic before but, during chemo, I was about 30kg. I could fit into my eight-year-old daughter’s clothes.

“It was tough – but I’m proud of myself for coming through it.”

Initially, Emma was given a 64 percent chance of survival, but was given the all-clear in 2019. She credits her recovery in part to the Cancer Society – in particular, the aroha from “all the inspirational people” at the centre’s bowel cancer support group.

The organisation also provided counselling, which gave her “the tools to cope” with anxiety and uncertainty.

Bringing her journey full circle, Emma now works for the Māori Health department at Wairarapa Hospital, where she promotes its bowel screening programme.

Fellow Survivor Champion Matt Fryer has a similar story – in that his diagnosis followed what he thought was an unrelated, fairly minor procedure.

The Eketāhuna local presented at Wairarapa Hospital in “massive pain”, where a CT scan revealed kidney stones – and other abnormalities. A biopsy confirmed testicular cancer, which was progressing to his lymph nodes.

“They found out completely by accident. Apart from reflux, I had no symptoms,” Matt, a personal trainer, said.

“Had it not been for the kidney stones, I’m not sure what would have happened. I was lucky they caught it early.”

Soon afterwards, Matt had an orchidectomy [surgery to remove an affected testicle], followed by four months of chemotherapy at Wellington Hospital – which “knocked [him] around a bit”.

“You’re basically sitting there for eight hours while they put poison into your body.

“It’s harder on your weeks off – when you’re getting treatment, they give you steroids to counter all the side effects. At home, I’d be living on jelly and ice blocks, as I couldn’t hold anything down.

“It was pretty s*** – but my medical team were amazing.”

Making the process more bearable was staying at Margaret Stewart House – accommodation provided by the Cancer Society near Wellington Hospital – allowing him to rest and recuperate after the gruelling sessions.

Matt completed his treatment in August and is now in remission – though he confessed the experience left him feeling “raw”. Side effects from the chemotherapy include neuropathy in his hands and feet and reduced hearing in one ear – and he struggles with the guilt of having survived when so many he met along the way did not.

However, he is seeking solace in working on his fitness and training his team – including some of his clients – for Relay For Life.

As a Survivor Champion, he hopes to reduce the stigma of testicular cancer and encourage other men to seek support from one another.

“The boys do tend to be more closed off about these things,” he said.

“When I was diagnosed, not many people in our wider community of friends knew. I debated saying anything – but I ended up posting on social media, which I don’t usually do.

“It got a really good response – including from my guy mates, who were all really supportive. It was hard when I had my surgery, but my friends were all comfortable asking questions and were open to talking about it if needed.”

Cancer survivors are invited to place their handprints on the Relay For Life banner, carried during the first lap. The banner will be available from March 10 at Property Brokers offices, throughout the region. Relay for Life Wairarapa 2023 will also include an afternoon tea for survivors and carers, held at 2.30pm on Saturday, 25 March, at the Survivor’s Tent.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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