ON REFLECTION: Robyn Sparks wonders what could have been if Lismore had had its own radiotherapy cancer unit.
ON REFLECTION: Robyn Sparks wonders what could have been if Lismore had had its own radiotherapy cancer unit.

Wrong place, lousy time


IF LISMORE had a radiotherapy unit Robyn Sparks would still have her house.

She would never have been treated for depression after enduring the isolation of a four-month stay in Sydney for cancer treatment and she would be running her own child-care business in Lismore.

Ms Sparks' life changed two years ago when she got breast cancer.

After being told by two doctors there was nothing wrong with her when she arrived complaining that something was 'wrong' with one of her breasts, Ms Sparks convinced a third doctor to order an ultrasound.

"It was instinct telling me something was wrong, and I'm glad I followed my instincts," Ms Sparks said.

The ultrasound found a tumour in her breast and two biopsies confirmed it was cancer.

"I got very scared," Ms Sparks said.

"It makes you face your own mortality and I think I'm a bit young to die, so I chose to fight."

That meant putting herself through intense treatment, involving chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. Ms Sparks has changed her diet and her lifestyle to help keep her immune system strong she is now teetotal, meditates, does yoga and exercises regularly.

Ms Sparks has also joined the fight to have stage two of the Lismore Base Hospital redevelopment, an integrated cancer care and radiotherapy unit, fast-tracked.

The surgery and chemotherapy were rough. Chemo sent her into menopause and turned her hair curly once it regrew. "I lost every bit of hair I had, except on my legs, where you'd want to lose it," Ms Sparks laughed.

"You lose your eyebrows and have this permanently startled expression.

"I remember trying to put on mascara one day and finding I didn't have any eyelashes left."

When the decision to go for radiotherapy came, Ms Sparks was faced with the choice of Brisbane, where she knew no one, and Sydney, where her sister had offered to let her stay.

So she left her partner and son on the Northern Rivers and went south for what was supposed to be a six-week treatment. She was there at least four months.

"I wouldn't go down there again," she said.

"It's very isolating and lengthy. My sister went to work every day and I was stuck at home. I'd go to radiotherapy and just wait for it to finish and then come home again."

Ms Sparks said she was the only member of the group of radiotherapy patients going through treatment at that time who was not from Sydney and her tentative efforts to form social networks with her fellow patients were blandly rebuffed with the line 'no thanks, I have plenty of support'.

In the end, Ms Sparks felt so isolated she fell into depression and ended up on medication for that as well.

She was forced to sell her house in Lismore to pay for the travel and treatment and now lives in a unit in Ballina.

And her plans to start a child-care centre in Lismore were scuttled by expense and exhaustion.

"I'd been making inquiries and had bought a property. But after the treatment I was so much in debt I had to sell both (the house and the property), because I was just too ill to work," she said.

Had there been a radiotherapy unit in Lismore, everything might have been different.

I wouldn't have got depressed; I wouldn't have been lonely; I would have been able to continue with my usual activities, instead of being up-rooted and put in a place foreign to me," she said.

"I feel very disappointed it (the Lismore radiotherapy unit) is not there. The impact it's had on me has been immense.

(Because it's not there) it's taken me longer to recover and get my life back to normal," Ms Sparks said.

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