Overcoming life’s challenges to make every day count
New mother Kathryn Crisell was excited to finally head to university and pursue her dream of writing when a shock cancer diagnosis put everything on hold. After fighting the disease, she graduated from UniSA, raised her son and built a successful career in journalism, until the long-term effects of cancer treatment turned her life upside down once more. Today, Kathryn has gained a new perspective on life and has become a role model for those battling cancer and disability, helping others to overcome adversity and live a life full of possibility.
Tell us about your cervical cancer diagnosis and your journey through treatment and recovery. How did it affect your life?
My diagnosis was out of the blue – I was 33, had always been diligent with my pap smears and assumed I was safe. I had a number of tests that showed something was amiss, but I didn’t really think anything could be wrong, partly because my dad had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma in March that year. In my mind, there was no way I could have cancer at the same time as him. When the doctor told me I had cervical cancer, all I could think of was my baby son, Tom. My only hope was that I would survive to raise him. I had applied to study journalism at UniSA a month before I was diagnosed. When I found out I was accepted, I was ecstatic. It gave me the only positive news I would have for some time.
I had surgery just prior to Christmas, then had six weeks of radiotherapy and four rounds of chemotherapy which made me very ill. Once at the beginning I did ask, “why me?” and then immediately I asked myself, “why not me? Children die from cancer.” That thought is something I often share to give people perspective. After my treatment ended, I spent the rest of the year regaining my strength and looked forward to studying journalism. I knew then that I really wanted to provide a voice for people, to write stories that meant something. I’d always wanted to save the world, but now I knew all I could do was make my own small positive contribution, like so many wonderful people had for me when I was sick. I loved studying and the environment at UniSA. Being enveloped in thought gave me confidence in the abilities I always suspected I had but was unable to express.
You had a brief but very successful career as a journalist; what are your favourite memories and achievements?
Working at the Yorke Peninsula Country Times was supposed to be my short-term step to greater things, but it lasted about six years. I never thought community journalism would cut it for me, but it didn’t take long to fall in love with the job and the people I worked with. I covered everything from giant pumpkins to the clash of fishing rights and marine parks and beyond. I was able to find gold in the stories shared with me; there was inspiration and hope to be found in the most tragic events and I was in awe of the resilience of country people and their communities. Journalism gave me access to an incredible array of subjects, and it gave me insight to personal grief and how people deal with it – stories much bigger than mine and incredibly humbling. It’s the best job in the world and my only regret is that I didn’t get to university earlier.
You had to stop working after becoming disabled in 2013, can you share with us what happened?
Cancer treatment saved my life but did leave a number of side-effects, as radiotherapy was not as targeted twenty years ago as it is now. I’ve struggled to manage a damaged bowel since my treatment and have faced a number of cancer ‘scares’ over the years. In 2011 I joined a team in walking the City to Bay, but my legs didn’t seem to recover as they should’ve. I started to fall over occasionally, and my legs would go numb; I had little pain but developed a limp.
It took a year of scans, tests and neurosurgery before a neurologist diagnosed radiation induced plexopathy – my spine and nerves were affected by my cancer treatment in 1998. I have nerve damage in both hips, legs, ankles and feet and have to walk with a stick or walker for very short distances and use a wheelchair for anything else. I was unable to return to work, a devastating blow to someone who had always loved working. I became very bored and stressed, and finally Tom told me that I wasn’t the same person he once knew. He pushed me to study online, and I’m now completing a Masters in Writing part-time through Open University.
Tell us about your love for the not-for-profit organization Sailability and the opportunities sailing has given you.
Both study and sailing have given me my life back. I’ve met many amazing people through Sailability. Being on the water makes us feel free and happy, peaceful in mild winds and alive when it’s wet and rough. Many sailors of the class of boat used by Sailability have a physical disability, but this has no bearing on sailing ability, so it allows thousands of disabled sailors to compete against able-bodied sailors in competitions across Australia and around the world.
In October this year, Hiroshima will host the 2018 Hansa Class World & International Championships. Up to 60 Australian sailors will attend and I hope to be there with my sailing partner Pip, who had a stroke a few years ago. Competing as a team has given new meaning to our lives and we intend to get to Hiroshima with sponsors helping to raise the $15,000 required to finance our trip.
How has dealing with adversity not once but twice changed you and the direction of your life? How have you grown from it?
Having a child gave me a perspective on life that I never thought possible, but after cancer I realized the urgency of trying to make every day count. I thought more positively about life than I ever had before. Becoming disabled has thrown a lot of new challenges into my life but also enriched it. While I hate that I can’t walk on the beach with my son and my dog I know I was lucky to have ever been able to do it. I want to make a difference by raising awareness of the challenges of disability.
You believe that people facing adversity can contribute to society and put their skills to use in other ways than through business and careers. Can you elaborate on this?
There’s a lot I can’t do anymore, but what I can do, I do well and want to put to good use. Whether working or not, able-bodied or disabled, we all have something to offer. I’ve seen a deaf, non-verbal young man crippled with cerebral palsy pick out a message on his laptop about a boat design change he would like. I’ve seen an autistic lad juggle like the devil and make balloon animals and I’ve seen a blind girl sail solo. These people are contributing by showing what they can achieve and are providing inspiration and humility to the people around them. People with or without professional skills can find so much satisfaction in volunteering, out of helping someone other than yourself.
What advice do you have for others facing their own adversities, whether it be cancer, a disability or something else entirely?
I think talking about adversity is the key to survival. That might mean seeking help for yourself when you’re struggling, pointing someone in the direction of help, or sharing your story so that others don’t feel alone – not trying to outdo them, but letting them know you can relate. I’m not alone in feeling that some good can come out of every awful situation we face; it just takes time to see the bigger picture and find the richness in the detail.
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