Janice Nelson

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Janice Nelson

Janice with great-granddaughters Montanna and Jacey, and grandson Robbie

When I left Telopea in 1967 I gave up my Commonwealth scholarship to get married - how crazy is that? Richard Whitelaw told me I was making a mistake, and Mr McPherson said I'd be back. I wasn't. There were many reasons behind my leaving school, leaving home, getting married, having babies, but all of them were immature 17-year-old non-thinking ones.

My first child, David, was born in 1968. He now lives in Brisbane and works in the music industry. My second child, Danielle, lives in Canberra and is a happy mother of five (almost six!) and grandmother of two little girls, making me a great-grandmother! My parents, siblings and their families almost all live in Queensland or northern NSW.

I didn't go back to school, but I did go back to studies - first the Metropolitan Business College to study bookkeeping and typing (good at bookkeeping, hopeless typist!); and later to Canberra TAFE for accountancy, business studies, advanced English. Most of my jobs at this time were in office management.

In 1972 my dear brother Eric, whom many of you will remember as rebellious (and good-looking!) died from melanoma at the age of 23 - a terrible time for our family, I still think of him every day.

Inevitably my divorce came in the mid-seventies. I met Alek, the love of my life, in 1977, we married in 1978, and in 1979 I followed him on posting to Ankara, Turkey. After living in Turkey for a couple of years we moved on to Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon, where our son Peter (now called Pierre) was born. This was a really interesting period of our lives, as you can imagine.

From Syria we went to Hong Kong, where our son Paul (now called Daniel) was born. We spent three years in Hong Kong, returned home to Canberra for about a year and were then posted to Brussels.

Somewhere in all of this I went to the University of Canberra to study linguistics and Spanish, with the aim of teaching English whilst on posting. I completed a TEFL diploma with the British Council in Brussels, and also a three year diploma in French. After attempting to learn German (at school), Spanish, cut short because of postings; Turkish, which I loved; Arabic, beautiful but difficult; Cantonese, with no success; French seemed a breeze! In Brussels I also taught English to business people and to schoolchildren.

Unlike any of the other Australian families with the embassy, our children attended the local French-speaking school in Waterloo (yes, the same one where Napoleon met his!). Within a year the children were fluent French-speakers. I was always inspired by the Yarralumla Primary and Telopea Park High students who learned English with such ease; and also by the Borthwick family who 'went native' while on posting. It seemed a pity not to take in all that culture - the other Australian children went to the International school or to boarding school, and came away from three-year postings without a skerrick of the local language.

After Belgium we returned home for three years, and I worked for the Canadian High Commission. Translating from French to English was OK, but how I wish I'd done French at school and been able to translate from English to French!

During this time, a great shock - in 1990, at 39, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went through all the treatment, heaps of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone treatment, etc. I was amazed to discover that there were virtually no support services and not much awareness, especially if you were relatively young. Although Australia recognised AIDS Day, there was no Breast Cancer Day, despite the fact that 10 times as many people died annually from breast cancer than from AIDS. My prognosis at the time was that I was unlikely to live five more years, so I decided not to waste any more time and set about getting ABCD (Australia's Breast Cancer Day) onto Australia's calendar. Wrote to politicians, letters to the editor, to cancer organisations, spoke on the radio, made a general nuisance of myself ....

We were posted to Dublin in 1992, and shortly afterwards Paul Keating made his 'coming home' trip to Ireland. Alek was ringmaster of the circus, Paul and Annita had quite an entourage and I seem to remember 26 journalists that I was running around after, many of whom were less than polite. One of the women from the Australian High Commission in London, who'd come to help out in Dublin, had also been diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age. Together we approached Annita with our stories, and two weeks after the circus had returned to Oz, we heard that ABCD was on the calendar, with Annita Keating as Patron!

As you will now be aware, ABCD has turned into a whole month of pink - not quite what we intended, but awareness, and public spending, has increased substantially.

Telopea BoardAfter returning from the Dublin posting (where I found all the Irish convicts in the family) I started working with the European Union, and I'm still there today. Thinking of retiring, but not quite making the decision ... Alek is the same, he went from DFAT to Health, to Environment, to Climate Change, and every day talks about retirement.

Returning to the Telopea connection, our two youngest sons went to Telopea in Primary and High School, and our youngest, Daniel (Paul), was Dux of the French stream in 1998.

In 2004, another shock, my niece Kylee, aged 31, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was at this time that I realised we may have some family history, even though all my female relatives died in their 80s and 90s, and never from cancer. I went through genetic testing, which revealed nothing at the time. Kylee died in 2005, leaving five small children. It was, and is, terribly sad.

In 2008, the science had moved ahead and further research showed that we have the BRCA2 gene fault. Further research of the family tree showed that my maternal grandfather was the likely carrier of the gene fault. We knew nothing about this side of the family as my mother's dad died (not from cancer) when Mum was only 2 months old and her mother remarried and lost contact. Mum, who also carries the gene fault, is now 80 and lives in Cooloola Cove, Queensland.

In July 2010, my next brother, Barry, died from pancreatic cancer. Barry was Kylee's father. All three cancers, the melanoma, the pancreatic cancer, and the breast cancer, are caused by BCRA2, which although named a breast cancer gene, causes many other cancers in both males and females.

Barry didn't want any fuss, so doesn't even have a gravestone. However, if you are ever in the National Botanic Gardens, visit the Nelson Bench, near the Telopeas. I had this installed so family and friends would have a place for quiet contemplation in a beautiful spot.

Barry's bench

Telopeas National Botanic Gardens

I've become involved in quite a few cancer organisations over the years, notably Dragons Abreast Australia (dragon boating for breast cancer survivors) in recent times. Apart from netball at school, and a bit of swimming and cycling, I'd never been into sports. Now I'm in training for the Australian Dragon Boat Championships! Who knew in 1968 which way life would turn?

February 2011

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