Neleke McDermott – RESILIENT A.F.: Stories of Resilience


We had not long celebrated Mel’s 30th birthday. No one would expect the news we were about to receive.

Mel had a lump on her breast that she found when she was 20 years old. She went to 6 different GPs who told her she was too young for it to be cancer and that it was just a cyst, so she left it. When she was 30, she went traveling and met Conar in Thailand. She fell in love and came back to Australia to plan her move to Colorado, USA. While preparing, she decided to go to the doctor to check out the lump. They were concerned and did a biopsy. Four days later, they told her that she had stage 4 breast cancer and needed to have a mastectomy.

It was a Friday, and we met Mel at the park. We met at the park with two friends, Sky and Sally. Mel knew what she wanted to do, and we all worked together to figure out how to get her and her van to Melbourne to be with her mom and family. You need your family when going through something like this. Mel loved Connor and didn’t want Connor to feel like he had the pressure of being her support system, especially as he was so far away. So she broke it off with him.

I heard about Vipassana. I remember my client telling me that it makes you more loving, compassionate, understanding, present, and patient. This is what I wanted to be for my friend. So I went for ten days in silence to Vipassana. It was Christmas, and it was so hard for me to come to terms with being present when you are constantly thinking that it may be your best friend’s last Christmas.

Mel went through 12 months of chemo and eight weeks of intense radiation, with a 2-week break. We went to Bali for some fun in the sun, and then she came back to 12 months of Herceptin. Mel said it was too much; she was sick of feeling sick for three weeks a month and only well for one week. She refused the final two months. Mel wanted to explore CBD, which was not an option in Australia. It was in Colorado, so she went to the USA for three months, reunited with Connor, and went to Colorado to stay with Connor and his family because CBD was legal. This part of her journey with cancer, I remember being her happiest; she loved Connor.

Mel always said she wanted to spend her last year in the bush, surrounded by peace and nature. After Vipassana, Mel told me that my energy was like a raging bushfire that would engulf everything, but after Vipassana, it was like a campfire that you could sit around and toast marshmallows. I had packed up my house to move to Brisbane for work. I asked Mel, “Do you want to live with me? If you do, I will stay and look after you until the end.” Mel said yes, and we unpacked.

Ongoing challenges. Managing people’s need to spend time with Mel as she deteriorated and managing her as she deteriorated so that she still felt independent and in control. People wanted to come to say their farewells, be close to Mel, and for her to feel the love and support they had for her while she wanted more and more space. Anxiety from others made Mel physically sick, and as her appetite diminished and she got smaller, we were mindful not only of who she would see but also of the number of people she saw. We can all relate to when you’re sick, and people ask, “How are you? Can I get anything for you?” you know you need help but still respond with “I’m okay,” and you soldier on and look after yourself. So, I came up with a number system: 1 being the worst and five stars being the best. We agreed it’s a less charged way to ask, and we would start our day with me saying, “What number, Melsy?” I would do everything if she was a 1, and if she was a 5, she could have her space to take as little or as long to make breakfast, shower, take her medication, and spend time with friends and family.

What helped me to stay resilient was balance: work, exercise, family, and friends. I told Mel my heart told me to spend every second with her, but my head said I needed to keep everything else in my life. This would maybe make it easier for me when she leaves. In the beginning, I could work full time and go to the gym every day, but slowly, I worked less and less, went to the gym less, and saw friends and family less.

Personal growth. Mel loved her mom, dad, brother, and family, but she chose me. I wanted my friend to experience what my mom, dad, and family would do for me: make sure I had every comfort I needed, treatments, fun, rest, love, and no worry. I didn’t know that I had learned this from my family, but I did know that I had to be strong for Mel every day and put everything into perspective and priorities. We had counselling with a Buddhist counsellor separately and together to keep us present and not cry about all of our wonderful times with each other and cry about what we will miss out on because she won’t be around very long.

The last two months went by so fast. I was now only working two days a week. I invited a friend or family of Mel’s choice to come and help me for a day or 2. We had an SOP and information, so they were informed, and Mel could feel supported.

I called Connor in the USA; he said Mel didn’t tell him how sick she was. I invited him to stay. Connor came with his mom for two weeks. It was so good for Mel; she was happy, slept well, and laughed a lot. It was beautiful to see.

Mel didn’t want to celebrate her birthday, but everyone wanted to wish her a happy birthday. How do we make that happen? I thought, wouldn’t it be great if all our friends could come and dance and sing and wish Mel happy birthday? 

With only five days to organize, I went to Kawana Stadium, and they said I could invite people to come. We went on the radio and, in the paper, dropped flyers all around the Sunshine Coast, inviting everyone. I wanted Mel to see all her friends, family, and the awesome community of people come and do something extraordinary for her birthday. Over 500 people showed up, sang, and danced. We had five camera crews and edited a video and testimonials to show Mel on her birthday. On Monday, we showed her, and it was beautiful how happy it made her and to see her excited to see all of the people that we know and some we hadn’t seen for over ten years that came to wish her a happy birthday.

Mel called me at work and asked me to come home. It was the first time that I’d heard her so upset. When I got home, she said that she could feel herself dying and that she was scared. It was one of the most emotional days we had.

The following two weeks, I told myself that for me to be there for Mel, I needed to reschedule all of my emotions for when she left. I didn’t suppress them; I just put them on hold. My poor darling was only around 40kgs, having fewer lucid moments.

Hospice brought a bed, and we put it in the lounge, looking over the swimming pool. I knew my friend was coming to the pointy end of the stick, so I called all my friends and family to come and pour love all over her. Our nearest and dearest came and respectfully said their farewells.

I knew now that I needed help and had support, and RNs came. It was their first and last night. It was 7 am; I was talking to Mel. I asked her if she wanted me to sing her a song; she turned her head and looked at me, so I held her hand. She took three deep breaths and then never took another.

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