A psychologist to oncology patients, Warrnambool’s Jodie Fleming had helped dozens of patients with their cancer fight but then it happened to her.
Jodie was diagnosed with breast cancer twice within the space of as many months.
After having cared for her husband through testicular cancer eight years earlier, she now faced her own rollercoaster ride of doctors’ appointments, tests, treatments and surgeries.
Jodie suddenly found herself the patient, not the doctor.
And it all came a month after her marriage had ended.
Many of the patients she had treated were young women with breast cancer like her, but now she found herself on the other side of the desk.
Having had many conversations with dozens of patients about their cancer stories, now she had one of her own and has turned it into a new book called A Hole in My Genes.
“It’s a true story. This is my story. Even I find it unbelievable when I say it out loud,” she said.
Jodie begins her book with a confronting conversation she had with an eight-year-old cancer patient about death.
While the book doesn’t say, for the record that little boy just turned 18.
Throughout her whole ordeal, Jodie kept a journal in which she wrote letters to her Nan who had passed away in 2006, four years before her diagnosis.
Jodie and her Nan were close.
“I’d always be sitting at her feet and watching Collingwood on the TV,” she said.
To remember her, Jodie had her Nan’s signature tattooed on her wrist, something that would bring her comfort when she would touch it during her cancer treatment.
Jodie used the journal as the basis for her book, and some of the letters to her Nan are included in the book.
“During one of the hardest months of my life I found a breast lump, my marriage ended and I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said.
“With a one-month window to relocate to Warrnambool for chemotherapy I found myself immersed in appointments in a hurried attempt to preserve my fertility which unfortunately simply wasn’t meant to be.”
Losing my hair was harder than losing my breastsJodie Fleming
Despite having counselled many women just like her, when Jodie was told she had cancer in her left breast she said it was like being a “deer in the headlights”.
Faced with her own cancer diagnosis, Jodie had to rediscover what worked and what didn’t.
“I describe a lot of my coping tools in the book,” she said.
“There was so much going on with moving towns, jobs, commencing treatment that I ended up finding my own psychologist to help me through it all.”
The first cancer was estrogen and progesterone receptor positive while the second cancer was triple negative.
The same chemotherapy treated both.
The dual diagnosis, along with her age, meant Jodie’s cancer likely had a genetic link.
Tests showed she had a mutated BRCA1 gene.
After recovering from chemotherapy, Jodie elected to have bilateral mastectomies and immediate reconstructive surgery.
She also had to consider a preventative hysterectomy at age 38.
Jodie said she had a lot of grieving to do both during her treatment and after.
“There were so many losses, so many changes all at once,” she said.
But she said time, facing death and getting to be alive, gave you a different perspective.
“I get to be alive now and that’s almost enough. Your whole perspective shifts, thank God,” she said.
“Colours seem brighter, foods taste richer and I don’t sweat the small stuff as much.”
Jodie struggled terribly with chemotherapy and the unrelenting nausea.
“Losing my hair was harder than losing my breasts,” she said.
“About halfway through treatment it occurred to me: ‘I’m a psychologist, I’ve worked with cancer patients before, maybe there’s some strategies that I could try that might help here’.”
She said she discovered she had a “stack of tools in her tool kit” that were really effective in helping her through those dark days while also realising the futility of other ones that weren’t as useful.
It’s been nine years since her cancer battle and Jodie is determined to make the most of her life.
“I do things that I didn’t do before, I run further and I swim further than I used to,” she said.
Turning a true story into a memoir about real people can be tricky, Jodie said.
Before publishing the book, Jodie let those who are mentioned in it read it.
“Not one single person asked for their name to be changed or anything,” she said.
Even her ex-husband Dave gave his blessing.
“He’s always been supportive. He realises it’s my story as much as his,” Jodie said.
“There was one horrendous car ride from here to Melbourne when we were going to a concert together where I read word for word the first 100 pages of the book out loud to him.
“We were both crying and laughing and reminiscing.”
After spending much of 2012 to 2015 writing the book, an agent shopped it around the big publishing houses.
The feedback was positive, but it was around the same time that Connie and Sam Johnson’s book Love Your Sister came out. The timing just wasn’t right, she said. So for three years, A Hole In My Genes lay dormant.
In the meantime, she started a website and Facebook page called The Psychology of It, to fill the writing void.
On them, the clinical and health psychologist shares information with what she affectionately calls her “Village” of 3500 followers.
But while on a retreat in Vietnam in May last year she decided to give it another shot and found a publisher who “couldn’t put it down”.
When the scheduled book launch in Warrnambool sold out within days, it had to be moved to the 550-seat Lighthouse Theatre to cater for the 350 who had already booked.
The book launch will be held on Monday, February 4 from 6pm and Jodie’s oncologist Dr Terri Hayes will join her for an intimate conversation on the couch. To register go to Eventbrite.
While the book will be released on February 5, a limited number of pre-release copies are available at Collins Bookstore.
Having worked with many breast cancer patients, Jodie said she was always hyper vigilant about checking her breasts.
But after years of doctors telling her that she was too young and there was no family history, she almost didn’t mention the lump to her doctor that day she went to get her fractured foot checked.
“Lucky I did,” she said.