I went to a SIDS AND Kids event once. I didn’t want to go. I…
After two long years of the global COVID-19 pandemic, so many of us find ourselves tired and lacking energy for even basic tasks.
Facing a new year does not fill us with the joy of possibility as it may have once have done. Where, then, do we find hope?
In this uplifting summer series, Ginger Gorman talks to six extraordinary women about how they found hope in unexpected places.
All too often, you have no idea a freight train is coming to smash right into the middle of your life.
Three years ago, Elizabeth Pickworth-Kamel, now 34, was working full-time at an advisory firm, studying, and just trying to be a “good mum” to her seven-year-old daughter, Lindy (pictured above with her mum).
“Life was very, very full. We just moved to Canberra from Brisbane a few months beforehand. We were always exercising, always eating well,” she recalls. Along with her Egyptian-born husband, Mohab, the family had settled into the capital beautifully: “I found Canberra just such a lovely warm, community-oriented place to live.”
As a migrant, Mohab had struggled to find work up in Brisbane. But the former photojournalist was determined. He reskilled and found a cybersecurity position in the ACT. Elizabeth also found work. The Pickworth-Kamel family were finally getting on their feet.
Then, one night in November 2018, Elizabeth was woken by severe and unrelenting pain in her chest.
“My husband was working as a casual at the time [and] I didn’t want to wake him up so that he missed work. So, I just sort of laid in bed in pain for quite a few hours.”
That pain was to change their lives in unimaginable ways. Elizabeth was diagnosed with a rare, stage four thymoma that spread from her thymus gland to her left lung, diaphragm and around the sack of her heart.
“It was a shock. I’ll never forget it, because I just burst into tears when they said, ‘We found a mass in your chest.’ And I’m not joking. It was like the size of a football,” she says.
Originally, Elizabeth was told there wasn’t much hope. Doctors believed she only had a few years to live and the most they could do for her was a “debulking surgery”.
But then they sought a second opinion from Dr Manu Mathur from Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.
“He was just remarkable. He said, ‘Look, I’m gonna get rid of all it,’” she recollects.
What followed was three months of chemotherapy at the end of 2018 and into 2019. Then major surgery the day after Elizabeth’s 32nd birthday in Sydney, in May 2019.
“It was 20 hours and most of my left lung was removed, my thymus removed, pericardium removed, and diaphragm removed and replaced with a prosthetic one,” Elizabeth says.
For a while, things were looking up: “I was just living my life and then having my scans every three months. And then they found at the end of last year that my cancer returned.”
Since then, Elizabeth has endured another six months of chemotherapy and another 20-hour operation. When we speak over Zoom, she’s in hospital in Sydney with severe pain. Liz’s voice is croaky due to an autoimmune and neuromuscular condition relating to her cancer.
“I have some permanent muscle and nerve damage. I have four metal rods in my spine where they removed the vertebra and hopefully in time with some exercise physiology, I will be able to move around properly,” she says. More radiotherapy is on the cards.
Despite Elizabeth being “palliative”, she says thinking of the medical staff who operated on her and cared for her—the doctors and nurses—gives her hope.
“I honestly well up in tears when I think of him [Dr Mathur] and the other two surgeons who have saved my life twice in three years.”
“What do you say about someone who has saved your life? I just don’t know if they truly know how wonderful they are. I’m crying again right now thinking of them. Their treatment and encouragement provide me with hope that I’ll be with my family for much longer.”
“My cancer is not curable, but my lead cardiothoracic surgeon said he is prepared to operate when and if the cancer comes back as a means to ‘give me as much life as possible’.…so I can look forward to the future.”
Even so, the hardest thing to think about is her young daughter—and the possibility of missing her growing up.
“I don’t want to think about…” Elizabeth says to me. For obvious reasons emotion overcomes her and we’re unable to continue with that train of conversation; we move back onto the subject of hope.
“I remember when I was first diagnosed, and we had a mountain of debt. I remember thinking and saying to myself, and to my husband that I am better off dead. I thought then that my family are better off without me and collecting my life insurance money so they can just get on with their lives so I’m not a burden to them.”
“To go from helpless to hopeful was a psychological shift for me. I witnessed my late father battle another rare cancer—liposarcoma—for 10 years before his death. I was 24 at the time, and he was a wonderful clinical psychologist who helped many people,” she says.
“Even after surgery after surgery, he would be counselling patients over the phone from his hospital bed. So I learned early on how to be resilient and continue to work and support my family through adversity”.
A note from the author
Please consider donating to Elizabeth’s GoFundMe page. So far, the page has helped Elizabeth’s family with many critical expenses—such as paying for interstate accommodation.
“Without the fund we wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay in Sydney whilst I had the surgery and recovered as an outpatient. We have now exhausted the funds,” says Elizabeth.
Thinking back to 2019, Elizabeth also recalls: “I remember being diagnosed and not having enough money for food at Christmas or being able to send my daughter to school (buying the uniform and book pack) so the fund helped us tremendously.”