BBC – My Story – Survival – Kiss of Life – Willo

The Long Walk to Myrtle Street

Hurray! My story appeared on the BBC My Story website yesterday – written in the third person. It begins in 1988, two years after my first treatment for anal cancer, its recurrence 18 months later and subsequent surgery – and then me deciding against returning to Zambia where there was no treatment available. Hoping to support myself and two sons I thought I should get re-educated and applied to Liverpool Polytechnic:

The big day had arrived. She was nervous but felt good; four weeks spent with friends in the Spanish sunshine and still slim following her radical surgery, she was now bronzed and perky in her black and white polka-dot skirt. It was smooth and sleek over her hips and belly and lightly gathered about six inches below the waist in a girly feminine way, ending just above the knees, revealing two very suntanned legs. The pure white broderie anglaise camisole top clung to her small breasts, showing just a suggestion of cleavage. She was 43.

It was a warm day and she carried her heavy portfolio from Liverpool Central Station, up past Lewis’s, under the famously ‘bare’ statue, along Renshaw Street, up Leece and Hardman streets and finally into Myrtle Street and the building of Liverpool Polytechnic for her interview.

The sweat glistened on her chest and her cheeks were now pink on brown. Other prospective students had congregated and after a while they were split into two groups, she was in Group A and was directed with the others in the group, to hang their work in the allocated room. The tutor on the selection committee drifted in, lingered by her work and spoke to her. She could tell he liked her work and that she would be accepted onto the course. However, there had been a mistake – she and some others were to go and join Group B.

They discovered that a different group meant a different selection committee, consisting of one tutor and one student representative. The female student was perhaps 19, self-assured and arrogant, the tutor disparaging. She knew she was doomed even before they looked at her portfolio. All her hopes and aspirations were dashed and she couldn’t retrieve the situation. The tutor was scathing of her work, but not nearly as vitriolic as the student who appeared completely intolerant of the older woman – and perhaps women in general.

Neither adjudicator was interested in seeing photographs of her sold artworks or works too heavy to carry, dismissing them as ‘too graphic’ for the painting department – and they clearly rejected outright the possibility of her joining Sculpture, as the only three dimensional work she had experienced was clay modelling and casting, rather than welding, carving or assembled pieces. Unanimously they suggested she reapply to do the foundation course or graphics.

She was astounded; hadn’t she done a preliminary course in the 60s, followed by two years on the Intermediate course, and then worked in graphic design till after she married. Hadn’t she more recently taught art in a girls’ school and illustrated for the Zambian Correspondence College and for eight years been a successful artist in her own right? And they were suggesting she should do a foundation course! Here was a middle-aged woman who had endured recurring cancer; time was not on her side – why were they telling her to do a foundation course or apply next year for graphic design. Wasn’t that notoriously geared up the younger end of the job market?

She left the room totally shattered, the smirking face of the young student imprinted on her mind. Fighting back the tears she decided she hadn’t been spared death by cancer just to go home a broken woman. Hadn’t she proved just how gutsy she was? Some years earlier, whilst out sketching in Zambia, she had been apprehended by the Mine Police who suspected she was spying and instructed her to drive to a township police station for questioning, accompanied by a policewoman. Recalling the rumours of people being incarcerated in Kamfinsa Prison, up to their ankles in faeces and ‘at the president’s pleasure’, she decided to seek help. Accelerating in the opposite direction, away from the irate policemen and the jail, she ostensibly ‘kidnapped’ the yelling officer. It was imperative she found the eminent surgeon, George Adams (he who later diagnosed her cancer) who had asked her to draw images of the town’s hospitals to be etched onto a copper tray; a gift for the retiring Chief Medical Officer.

On another occasion and on a matter of principle she had challenged a bullyboy solder who was exceeding his authority at Ndola Airport and brandishing a rifle at all the excited mums awaiting the arrival of their children from boarding school. That resulted in her being pinned against a wall and staring down the rifle barrel as her son disembarked from the aircraft. The latter she was gratefully unaware of until she heard his gentle but concerned voice in her ear, ‘Mum, what are you up to now?’

Hadn’t she foolishly bathed in rivers notorious for crocodile and hippo – and on another safari, ran back to lead by the hand an older friend who was rigid with fear when they unexpectedly stumbled upon a small herd of elephant standing between them and the camp. This was not a woman who would tremble in the face of adversity or shy away from a challenge. She would go and look at the graphics department, she would find someone to take her, re-educate her and enable her to make a living for herself back in her native land. The gauntlet was thrown and she would pick it up and smack it in the faces of those who scorned her.

Reaching the foot of the stairs she looked up to the notice on the wall, Graphics 2nd Floor. Out of the corner of her left eye she was aware of two figures rounding the first landing and descending the stairs towards her. Anticipating her destination a voice said, ‘You’ll need oxygen by the time you reach the top!’ She turned to look at the two men, one middle-aged, tall and thin and one older, shorter and stocky. Both wore beards and had piercing blue eyes, they were surprisingly smartly dressed for an art school, both with ties and the shorter one wearing a suit.

She fluttered her long eyelashes, flashed a sexy grin at them and replied, ‘Well then, one of you will just have to give me the kiss of life!’ as, like Miss Piggy, she tossed her mane of hair to one side and marched right past them onwards and upwards, predicting the reaction – groans and giggles of teenagers and the feeble reply about the best offer they had had for some time. They were still buzzing as they disappeared around the wall at the bottom and she continued up the stairs, momentarily lifted from her gloom.

Never for one moment did the thought cross her mind that she had just met the love of her life, the man she had been waiting for all those years, the one she never dreamed would come along; all hope abandoned.

It wasn’t to be an easy ride. Yes, she got her place at Liverpool Poly and she worked hard, but the long days at college, the study and caring for her ailing father, all took their toll. Within the first year she was to discover she had now developed cervical cancer, though worse was still to come.

It was the beginning of 1990 and she was feeling unwell, but her doctors were so preoccupied with her cervical cancer they were ignoring her very obvious symptoms. After almost a year of surgery and various tests she finally managed to see the gynaecological consultant. ‘Your doctors are ignoring my other symptoms; I can’t lift my left leg and can hardly walk, they are so engrossed in the gynae stuff and I can’t get back to Christies on account of been referred to you!’ Looking concerned, he helped her onto the bed for an examination.

Disturbed at what he found he immediately phoned Christies and arranged for a scan four days later, which he and her consultant radiotherapist attended. They broke the news that she had developed secondary bone cancer, which had fractured and started to erode her pelvis; she needed to start treatment immediately. However, her elder son was home from Hong Kong for just four days over Christmas. She said she would go into hospital on the 27th after taking him to Manchester Airport.

There followed radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy and with the help of Paul, her new man, she managed get through it. Without him she would have given up and not returned after the second dose of chemo as she was too desperately ill.

The treatments over, her consultant called her and Paul, into his office, his face grave, ‘We’ve done everything we can, but I know you and what you are capable of, your positive attitude during the recurring bowel cancer – it’s up to you now.’ The gauntlet had been thrown once again! Although her final year was spent in pain, discomfort and undergoing treatments, she still graduated on schedule in 1991.

Some years later, when having plastic surgery to the area badly burnt by the earlier radium needle implants, she met the same consultant and only then did he tell her they hadn’t expected her to survive. But survive she did and became a campaigner for various causes, mainly HIV awareness.

Relocation to the Scottish coast was planned, but as Big Ben rang in 2007 her world fell apart; Paul, her lover, mentor and soul mate, suddenly collapsed and died.

It was so difficult editing down to around 1500 words and of course the rest of the story still isn’t written. Maybe one day…..




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Born in Liverpool at the end of WW2, but raised in Skelmersdale. I first studied art in Southport from 1960-63 and worked in graphic design till I married. In December 1969 I moved to Zambia with my husband and two young children. There I taught art in the local girls school, illustrated for the National Correspondence College and did all sorts of other artwork, paid and unpaid. In 1978 I divorced and remarried in the summer of 1980. In 1985 I became ill and the following year cancer was diagnosed. There was no treatment available in Zambia and so I had to go to the UK. After recovering from a radium needle implant I went back to Zambia, but 18 months later the cancer recurred and it was off to the UK again for radical surgery. This time I realised I must stay in the UK where treatment was available, so I never returned to Zambia nor my husband. A few months later I applied for a degree course, but two years later the disease metastasised and I spent most of my final year in and out of hospital. It’s been a long hard road, but I’m still plodding on and it is now 24 years since my last cancer treatment. Because of my experience of cancer and surviving against the odds, I try and help others cope with their devastating diagnosis and prognosis.

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