Enter Shaline Das-Fitzgibbon’s home and there is an immediate sense of peace. Her positive attitude is echoed around the walls of her home. A picture of a young Buddhist monk meditating sits above the kitchen sink. In the lounge a single wall is covered in words of inspiriation, love, live, laughs, imagine, dream, create, relax; all hand-painted by Shaline’s husband, Daniel. The kitchen is full of fresh organic foods and flowers cover the dining room table.
The positive energy throughout Shaline’s home is not something that might be expected when entering a house of a woman who has been told she has two or three years to live. But Shaline is not any woman. Since her diagnosis of stage four ovarian cancer in March last year, Shaline’s life has transformed.
At the time of the diagnosis Shaline, who was 37, was in the peak of her career and her and her husband were celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary that weekend. The pair had planned a visit to Europe and were hoping to have another child one day. However, all their plans were lost in an instant and some lost forever, as Shaline had to have a full hysterctomoy to remove to cancer.
Yet almost two years on and it is this devastating disease that Shaline thanks for her life’s turnaround. The sudden suffering Shaline felt when diagnosed now invokes a sense of desperation, but not for herself as would be expected, but for others suffering from the disease.
This prompted her to commit her time to helping others through the painful journey of gynaecological cancers.
In New Zealand around one woman dies of gynaecological cancer every 24 hours and 80 per cent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer die within five years. One reason for this is the lack of symptoms, particularly in ovarian cancer, resulting in it being called the silent cancer. Making it even harder to detect is that there is no screening test. Shaline’s cancer went into full remission after her first series of chemo-therapy, which was remarkable according to her doctor. But the cancer returned in her lung this year and she finished her second series of chemo-therapy in September.
Shaline cannot place exactly when her mindset changed from defeat to determination. All she knows is that all of a sudden she felt she could beat the odds through being positive, and completely believes she will survive through her aggressive cancer. “People have to beat the statistics and I just believe that I am going to,” says Shaline. “I am going to help others to believe they can beat it too.”
Her positive attitude is echoed by her husband, who makes sure Shaline has done something relaxing and enjoyable every day. He is a constant support, says Shaline, and he reminds her that it is her body that created this so it is her body that will defeat it.
Shaline first began her mission to help women with gynaecological cancers by working with cancer charities such as The Silver Ribbon Foundation. This is where she met Karen Carter. Karen was the chairperson of the UK Gynaecological Cancer Research Fund.
Karen became involved with gynaecological cancer support through nursing, but she says when she met Shaline she was encouraged by her positive attitude and the pair decided that they wanted to do more to help women with the disease.
“Shaline’s strength and positive mental attitude are inspirational, the way that she doesn’t let it become all consuming; she gets on with the best of her life. Cancer is mentally very difficult to deal with and yet she is still able to go out there and want to help other people and I think that is truly amazing.”
In March this year the pair decided to start fundraising to provide emotional support for women with gynaecological cancers. They have raised $5000 which they intend to distribute next month in the hope to help in the led up to Christmas. They are offering gifts such as grocery vouchers, facials and motivational books. The women have been working with gynaecological oncologists to make sure the benefits will go towards patients in need.
“You know, it’s such a stressful, horrible journey. We just want to be able to provide a little bit of joy for the patients, because cancer comes with a whole lot of bad things but it gives you gifts as well. And just to be a little gift of making someone’s day, even just for that one day, if we can make the journey a little bit easier,” says Shaline.
Shaline’s commitment to fundraising has not gone unrecognised and on Friday September 19, she was announced a winner of the Max Foundation grants for amazing kiwi women. The grant was set up to support individuals whose actions enhance and inspire the wellbeing and advancement of New Zealand women. Shaline received $4500 to go towards an afternoon tea to raise awareness of gynaecological cancers.
The other main gynaecological cancers which are ovarian, vulva, and uterine, but Shaline also wants to talk to women about being more aware of their bodies, as she believes she was not.
“Women tend to look after their families and their jobs and everything and put themselves last, and I was like that. So if telling people my story just makes one person go the doctor, you know if they think ‘oh my gosh remember that girl, maybe I should just go and get checked out’, that would be great because it could save some lives,” says Shaline.
Shaline and Karen intend to make the fundraising ongoing and hope to get further support so the gynaecological cancers can become better publicised and to help more women through the emotional struggle that is cancer.
Shaline’s complete commitment to fundraising is something her close friend of 15 years, Kate Donley, says she never thought Shaline or anyone diagnosed with a terminal illness, was capable of.
“I think I never realised how strong a person Sha is before this. She was always a very career focussed person and there has been a fundamental change in her. Now she just makes you realise how precious life is and how we should all be living it to the fullest.
“It’s amazing how she has turned something so terrible around into helping other people, you know a lot of people internalise in these situations but she has improved other’s lives and her own and it’s just incredible,” says Kate. However Shaline’s positive focus in life has not just been recognised by friends and family. She was runner up for Kiwi Families mother-of-the-year last year, as she has fought to keep her five-year-olds son’s life as joyful and normal as possible.
“Zach doesn’t completely comprehend the situation. He just knows Mummy’s losing her hair, but he helps to make me get up each day and be positive because I know I have to be fine for him.”
While Shaline says she thinks about the future almost every day she believes despite her prognosis that hers will be a bright one.
And as she says, “When it comes down to it, life is what you want to make it.”