Monday, March 31, 2014

Cancer battler keeps smiling

Nelson Mail/Fairfax Media

Stacey Knott talks with Annette Taylor , named this week as Nelson's Most Wonderful Woman.
It's been a rough year for Annette Taylor, but she still has an easy laugh, and a strong air of optimism.
The Nelson College director of boarding and international students was diagnosed with melanoma in April last year. She has cancerous tumours on her liver and spleen.
This week she was named Nelson's Most Wonderful Woman, chosen by Mayor Rachel Reese for her positive attitude through her battle.
Annette worked at Nelson College for Girls at the deputy principal from 2001 until 2008.
A formidable force who demanded respect from her students, she then moved to Nelson College in 2009 where she took on the role of assistant principal, then added director of boarding to her portfolio.
In June 2012 she added director of international students to her list of school roles.
Ambitious and driven, she was meant to be a principal by now, but the cancer changed her plans.
Since she began at the school she has lived on site, in a house near the boarding houses.
Part of her role included travelling abroad on marketing trips, and it was after returning from Thailand in term one last year that she noticed something wasn't quite right. She wondered why she wasn't recovering from the jetlag.
Her skin was also a darker colour than she was used to.
She went to her doctor who ran extensive tests.
"Sadly, investigations were done and it was identified that I had metastatic melanoma in my liver and in my spleen."
This was the second time she'd been hit with cancer.
Back in June 2005, a melanoma was discovered on Annette's scalp while she was teaching at Girl's College. She had it checked out after her fortieth birthday. Her doctor referred her to a general surgeon who removed it.
It was a shock for her when results came back as a high grade melanoma. It was cut out and rigorous tests were done to ensure it had not spread.
"When I returned back to the role, everything was normal. I was keeping out of the sun, was wearing hats and lathering on the sunscreen."
She was tested rigorously for a spread of the cancer and did everything she was asked to do. And she was clear, until this time last year.
An ultrasound revealed Annette had tumours on her liver and spleen. The cancer was back.
"Those cancer cells from my head were sent to my body all those years ago, but were lying dormant."
The darkened, almost aubergine skin tone is melanosis, caused by a hyper pigmentation of the skin, which is a direct relation to the liver.
"I was devastated to find it had come back, but then relieved it wasn't anywhere else on my body. Melanoma is sneaky. Once it's inside you, it can transfer anywhere."
Annette was diagnosed on April 30 last year. On July 11 she was put on a drug trial, as one of 19 patients taking part in in New Zealand.
The trial sees her visit Wellington monthly for scans to see if the cancer is shrinking, or spreading.
At this stage, Annette is happy to report that the tumours are shrinking.
The drugs she is on are a pill form of chemotherapy. She takes two lots of tablets twice a day.
"So far the tumours are shrinking and there are no new tumours, which is good."
The trial will end in July this year, though if everything goes to plan, she understands she will stay on them.
If not, she will be put on intravenous chemotherapy.
"And that's it, really."
The drugs have similar side effects to intravenous chemotherapy, though she has not suffered hair loss.
She suffers fevers, sweats and a burning sensation in her feet.
Her tastes have changed as well. Coffee, which she once loved passionately, is out. So is yoghurt, and she eats minimal cheese and sweets.
She feels the cold, and her body struggles to regulate her temperature.
"For a while there the boys were walking around in singlets and I was wearing a sweatshirt because I felt the cold," she says with a smile.
"I have had a lot of side effects, but in saying that, the treatment outweighed those. You take each day as it comes and you decide ‘let's hope today is a good day'."
While there is no guarantees with the drug, it is currently working for her, and she takes comfort in the fact it may help others in the future.
She's frank about her condition and fairly pragmatic.
"I haven't been given any length on time, if this trial isn't successful then the next step is intravenous chemotherapy.
"I know it's serious because it's in my liver and spleen, I don't want it spreading, often melanoma spreads to your lungs or pancreas. It is serious - it's metastatic but these drugs are working. That's what you have to hold on to really."
By sharing her story, she urges anyone with a slight suspicion of skin cancer to get it checked out early on.
Her other piece of advice is protect your skin.
Growing up in New Zealand, summers by the water were normal for her.
From Ohakune, she would spend summer days at Lake Taupo.
"I was in my togs in the morning and out of my togs at night. As you got older, you wanted to be browned."
Now, she urges anyone who wants a tan to go fake.
"Tanned skin can lead to melanoma."
She also walks around Nelson College dishing out sunscreen.
It was coming back to work this year, after three terms off, that she needed both mentally and physically, she says.
Though it's exhausting, by the end of the day she feels supported by the school staff and students.
"Boarding became a passion for me, so have international students. They are very diverse and multicultural, every day is an interesting day," she says with an easy laugh.
The students have been kind and accepting of her altered appearance and illness.
In her first classes back, she addressed what was going on, right away.
She recalls telling them: ‘I am going to tell you about who I am now.
"Some days I am going to come in and drink copious amounts of water and I am going to have to teach sitting down. Other days I will be perspiring looking really bad but my skin is always going to be this colour.'
"They are incredibly respectful of difference."
Annette is unsure if her skin will return to its normal tone. Doctors had told her they had rarely seen the skin condition she has.
"It's hard to live with the stares I get, particularly in supermarkets or the bank. It doesn't always worry me but some comments I have snapped back at. I'm not usually like that but there's been a couple of times."
"It's people's natural curiosity. Some days I am darker than others it depends how tired I am. It depends on the colours I wear as well."
She avoids white and cream coloured clothing, she jokes.
"People ask me how I am, my usual response is: ‘As good as can be expected,' it's not a flippant answer."
When the cancer has gone, Annette plans on traipsing around France.
"I absolutely adore France. I have French connections with a wonderful family there, so that's what I would like to do."
By then, hopefully her tastebuds will be back to normal to enjoy the nation's brie and creme brulees.