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Angelina, Auntie Joyce and me

Angelina Jolie and me – our bodies have a lot in common. Okay, hers is taller, thinner, more symmetrical and generally more pleasant to look at, but down at a cellular level, we’re both carrying genetic material that has caused all manner of problems. Because Angelina is famous, and people were intrigued to discover she had voluntarily had her beautiful breasts removed, people have become aware of the BRCA1 gene. Because it’s associated with breast and ovarian cancer, people think it’s an evil gene. In fact, it’s the opposite. Apparently, we all have bits of code that tell cells to go forth and multiply. Go on, cells, take over the world! Then, to balance that out, we have a bit of genetic code that says, Hey, not so fast! You’re not helping! These “not so fast” bits of code are anti-tumour genes, and BRCA1 is one of them. The plot thickens when genes mutate. On a big-picture level, genetic mutation is a wonderful thing. It’s how we got out of the primordial slime to live a comfy life on land. But at an individual level, it can have disappointing results.


Okay, I just spent the last 15 minutes Googling evolution and the BRCA1 gene. Because the onset of cancers is usually at over age 40, women through the ages have been living long enough to have children, but dying before they could become grandmothers. If evolution is about survival of the fittest, how could that have been useful? In my thorough 15-minute scholarly study, I’ve found two possible evolutionary advantages that counteract the disadvantages: the mutation has also been associated with increased fertility and increased lactation. So, lots of babies combined with early death combines to create a nice bit of evolutionary equilibrium. Great.

Joyce with Sandra (baby) and SharonGoing back to the experience of individuals – I think of all those female ancestors on my father’s side, going back through the generations, who would have suffered and died as a result of this unwelcome inheritance. And what psychological effect did this have on their families, to be losing mothers and grandmothers in their 40s and 50s? This is a picture of my Aunty Joyce and her children, my cousins Sandra and Sharon. All three inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation. Sharon died of ovarian cancer in her early 40s; the other two have survived breast cancer. Sandra’s daughter Becky has the gene mutation and Becky’s daughter Maddie doesn’t know yet, because she only a small child. It would appear the mutation came down the line to me like this: from Francis William Sorensen to his children Brian (my Dad) and Joyce (aunt). From Dad to both his daughters, Deb and me. Deb has had breast cancer (all clear now) and I’m working my way through treatment for primary peritoneal cancer, the lucky door-prize variant of ovarian cancer that you can still get even if you no longer have ovaries (because you’ve had them removed to avoid ovarian cancer).

Saint Angelina art work in progressAnyway, back to Angelina. As discussed in earlier posts, I’m working on a Waste to Art exhibition entry in which I pulp and recycle old journals, creating new stories from the raw material of the old. I’ve been working on a page called Saint Angelina, a riff on Saint Agatha, who was tortured by having her breasts pinched off with a set of tongs. Agatha is traditionally pictured holding her severed breasts on a plate. I overlaid images of Angelina and St Agatha in Photoshop, printed out the composite image, traced it using a Hobbytex transfer pencil, and ironed it on to my recycled paper. I couldn’t really be bothered with the intricacy of the medieval border (and my paintbrush was annoyingly splayed) so it’s a bit of a mess. Will keep working on it. I was going to stick to ordinary old blue, black and red biros (to reference the way my original journal was written) but my friend Karen Golland encouraged me to load on the colour and this is much more enjoyable.

Good causes news flash
My dear friend Julia Manning is going to ride from Sydney to Surfers Paradise to raise money for Youth Off the Streets organised by the Rotary Club of Engadine. You can sponsor her at this link. Click through using the following path: Make a Donation – Give a One Off Donation – Enter your Amount – Don’t use My Giving – Donation in your name – Donation is made in support of cyclist Julia Manning.


I have hair all over my front, as if I’ve been holding a very long-haired cat. Yes, the great hairfall has begun. I know it grows back, but I’m facing months of baldness and I don’t like it one bit. It’s funny, you can be facing a monumental threat to your life but you can still be angsting about the hairs on your head, the most dispensable bits of your anatomy. Liver, stomach, lungs, heart, brain … these are the real engine-rooms of life, not hair. But hair is all about the face in the mirror, the face in the street, the face at the supermarket checkout. The absence of hair is a public marker. My hair is falling and I’m slowly falling, falling down the rabbit hole.

But as I lose hair, I gain scarves and hats. My friend Helen has brought around a big bag of them. My sister Deb has a wig (from the days of her own chemo for breast cancer) that is apparently a bit Chrissy Amphlett and she didn’t like wearing it, but it’s sounding good to me. Looking forward to trying it on.

Now, Medicare. I just want to take a moment to sing the praises of universal health care. There’s a lot that doesn’t work, that I don’t like, about our society, but Medicare is something I do like. Fervently support, never take for granted, fear for. As we know, the Abbott government is eyeing it off, saying we can’t afford it. It’s true that this health system is, compared to that available to most people in the world, extraordinary, and extraordinarily expensive. When I go in for surgery in April or May, I’m going to have a gynaecological oncologist at one end of the operating table and an upper gastrointestinal tract specialist at the other. I may even have a colo-rectal specialist on standby. Three specialists, among the best there is, all working their diaries so they can be there at the same time to slice out my tumours. There’s a great big pile of money right there. And yet there’s not a whisper of the expense. It’s all taken care of. This care is, in principle, equally available to anyone who shows up with similar problems. Nobody looks up from the computer and says, well, how much money do you have in the bank? Can you mortgage your house? Do you have rich relatives? Reading through cancer blogs written in the United States is heart-breaking. These are real questions in that country. Serious illness can bankrupt people, force them to sell houses, make them decide they can’t afford to be treated. Barack Obama has been trying to change this, but he’s had to fight the lunatic right raving about the threat of socialism – communism! – contained in universal health care. (And yet they’re quite happy to let taxpayers fund their universal military “care”.)

I remember back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher saying there was no such thing as society. Just individuals and their families. Society shouldn’t be asked to look after you; you and your family will have to see to that. As I lay in hospital a few weeks ago, I watched the nurses coming and going, making beds, checking blood pressure and temperature, helping elderly people go to the toilet. That is society. As simple as that. Here in Australia we don’t have to be well off, or anything special, to be looked after in hospital. Long may it continue.

On the other hand, there’s hospital food … okay, I’ll leave that for another post.

The Company You Keep

I’m sorting through my hard copy inbox (it’s a vintage wooden inbox) as opposed to my email inbox. Here’s a ticket to The Company You Keep, the latest Robert Redford film. I went and saw it with Steve on Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 6:20pm in Manuka, Canberra. (The day of Dawn’s wedding to Peter. Peter II.)

I kept the ticket because I wanted to write about the film. It’s nearly a month ago, now. Dawn is on her honeymoon. What did I want to say? I could throw the ticket in the bin and relieve myself of yet another of these endless “duties”.

Oh, that’s right. The plastic surgery. It actually accentuated the oldness of Robert Redford and Julie Christie. They both moved stiffly, like old people, but they had these propped-up faces. Very distracting. Earlier in the week, I’d seen Amour, about two old people played by frankly old actors who had never done anything with their faces. Their faces were soft and real.

Then, of course, I’m someone with plastic of my own. My whole front is now made of silicone (see more about this here). It’s a hard pair of lumps; it’s like I’m always wearing a firm bra. It’s not comfortable. I can never forget it. But I wasn’t quite up to the “honesty” of just two angry stripes across my chest.

Anyway, this will do. Now I can put the movie ticket in the bin. I had a lot of thoughts in the wake of The Company You Keep and Amour but let’s just let them walk on by.