Cancer is just a word

Jessy Terry from Mokau in the Taranaki region (age 76) has been a Sweet Louise member for 12 years. She brings an incredible warmth and generosity and to the member meetings – leaving a deep impression on those she meets.

Our Support Coordinator Nicki, says there is something very special and spiritual about Jessy. We hope her story here conveys some of this.

Meet Jessy

Jessy has lived with advanced breast cancer for 12 yearsAbout 12 years ago I found a lump and went to see my doctor. It took two months to get the biopsy and even more time to get the results. So by the time I saw the oncologist, I already knew in my heart what they were going to say. I had started thinking about how I was going to approach this.

I was told the breast cancer was metastatic. I was told that I would need a double mastectomy and medication for the rest of my life. I like and respect my doctor, but I needed to work out what was going to work best for me.

I’d already watched my son and husband suffer through chemo and radiation and I decided that wasn’t for me. I didn’t want surgery either.

At the time my family weren’t that happy with my decision – they thought I wasn’t doing enough to stay alive. Now I just look at them and smile!

I’ve had some hormone therapy and tried treatments like ozone therapy and oral vitamin C, but these were expensive so I let them go. I’ve had lots of massages and I get plenty of exercise.

I decided to put my focus on my spiritual and emotional needs. I really believe there is power in this. I wanted to find the strength to live well with cancer.

I thought about my emotional needs and realised that being disconnected from Māori language and tikanga (culture and values) had affected my sense of self. So I decided to address this – and it was a real turning point in my life.

Embracing my tikanga Māori

My parents are Tainui and our Iwi is Ngāti Maniapoto. I’m one of 19 siblings!

I got married and had five children. I also fostered over 30 kids at various times. My siblings all had much bigger families – even up to 17 children! They teased me and said I was a disgrace to the Terry name for only having five kids. But I’d tell them it’s quality not quantity.

My mother was illiterate and was a very traditional Māori woman. She was terrified of Pākehā! My father was educated though and he always wanted his kids to embrace the Pākehā world. To him that was the path to success.

My parents spoke Māori to each other at home but they refused to teach us kids. They couldn’t see it had a place in society.

I adored my father. But now I realise that not being taught to speak Te Reo and embrace my tikanga was a huge loss – a missing part of my life and my sense of self.

Dealing with grief and finding peace

Over the years, I have lost my husband and three of my children. I lost a baby at five months, my son when he was eight years old, and my daughter two years ago. My husband and son both died of cancer.

The grief of losing my children and my husband was horrendous. Yet it also made me stronger. The loss will always be with me – but not the overwhelming grief.

After my son died, I thought more about what I needed and what was missing in my life. I realised that I wanted to learn more about my culture and to learn to speak Te Reo. So that’s what I did – and it’s so important to me now.

After my cancer diagnosis I decided to move back to Mokau to a kaumatua house on the marae land. I love being there!

I am now a Kuia (female elder) for the marae and am sometimes called upon to karanga or call the visitors onto the marae for the pōwhiri. It’s such an honour – and I love teaching Māori culture to whānau and visitors.

When a Māori person dies, we believe they do not really go. There is only a veil separating the living and dead. It’s normal to talk to and feel connected to a loved one that has passed.

The urupa (cemetery) is my favourite place in Mokau. I can sit and feel close to, and talk to my loved ones. It is so peaceful.

Confronting fear

I think we must confront our fears and it’s important to find a way to deal with repressed feelings. Only you know what is going on for you. You need to find a way to be OK with yourself.

Sometimes I even watch sad movies and then use those feelings and that emotion to give time to my own thoughts and just let things go.

I accept the cancer I have. I take responsibility for it. I can’t blame anyone else for what has happened.

People connect the word of cancer with death and if you start dwelling on that, it can really harm you. I say – it is just a word.

I also choose not to be afraid of death. We are all like a flax bush. The little babies are in the middle, surrounding them are two young fronds for the parents, then surrounding them are four fronds for the grandparents. It keeps on going. The cycle of birth, life and death are normal. We can’t stop it. We have no choice.

Sweet Louise – my comrades in arms!

When I was told about Sweet Louise, at first wasn’t sure whether it was for me – I’ve never been one for sitting around in a group. But I was curious and wondered what the people would be like. So I went along to a Sweet Louise meeting with an open mind and really enjoyed connecting with the group and with others living with cancer.

In this world there is so much superficiality, but in our Sweet Louise group we talk so honestly and it is real. Lots of the time we share joy and laughter. We get so many gems of wisdom. We are comrades in arms!

I feel very grateful to Sweet Louise. Nicki my Support Coordinator is welcoming and caring and makes me feel great. She is so easy to talk to.

The vouchers have also made such a difference. Some things can be hard to afford and I always liked having my hair done nicely. It seems a small thing, but being able to get my hair cut and styled means so much to me.

Sometimes I think about Louise. I try to picture her and her husband who loved her enough to start Sweet Louise. I am so grateful to them.

I would also like to thank all the people who support Sweet Louise. Thank you for the joy and happiness it brings to so many people. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’d like to send you all a hug from Jessy!

Celebrate and sing

I am lucky that I gain my physical sustenance from the Pākehā world and my spiritual sustenance from the Māori world – I’m lucky that I can live in both worlds. I think the New Zealand would be so strong if we took the best of the Pākehā world and the best of the Māori world and merged them.

One day, when my time comes. I have told my whānau, don’t be sad. I will be up there smiling. I tell my whānau to celebrate my life and sing. I tell them: you know I love to hear you sing.

Finally, I would like to share with everyone my favourite whakatauki (Māori proverb):

May the calm be widespread
May the sea glisten like the greenstone
And may the shimmer of summer forever dance across your pathway