Living the rest of life to the fullest
It’s September 2017, and Jill Emberson is in John Hunter Hospital recovering from emergency brain surgery when she proposes to her partner of seven years, Dr Ken Lambert.
He says no.
Jill had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer 21 months earlier. She had to leave her job as a radio presenter in Newcastle and enter “Planet Cancer”, as she calls it. She had surgery to remove the cancers, and was given a 50 per cent chance of survival.
“My initial surgeon was Dr Geoff Otton, and I have also been treated by Dr Janine Lombard, mainly through Newcastle Private Hospital,” Jill says.
“When I learnt that I was being managed by a multi-disciplinary team of all of these people through Newcastle Private and Hunter New England Health, I felt incredibly cared for and supported.”
Despite the best efforts of the many clinicians and teams across the Hunter, her health took a massive, but sadly predictable, turn for the worse.
“I had emergency brain surgery at John Hunter Hospital on 27 September last year with Dr Ferch,” Jill says. “My cancer had spread, and I was rushed into neurosurgery to remove a small egg-size tumour from the front right lobe of my brain.”
To rewind, in February 2016 Jill Emberson was living her best life, freshly in love and stimulated at work. After 18 years of being a single mum, pulling a career together around school runs, life was good.
By December 2016 she was being told her cancer was terminal and she’d be lucky to be alive in five years. Three weeks after she left hospital, in September last year, Jill proposed to Ken again. This time he accepts.
Like Jill, for most of the 1,600 Australian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, they will find out they have the disease when it has already spread beyond their ovaries. It has the lowest survival rate of all women-specific cancers and is characterised around the world by lack of awareness of
symptoms and late stage diagnosis.
Dubbed the ‘silent killer’, some 60 per cent of the women who get ovarian cancer each year will die.
“This shocking death rate hasn’t shifted in decades, nor has the treatment,” Jill says.
“Women like me get 30 year-old treatment: massive surgery, followed by heavy chemotherapy. Most of us relapse within 18 months and die within five years.”
Many people would know Jill, or at least her voice, gracing the airwaves for years as a presenter on ABC Newcastle’s Mornings program. She’s also presented for Quantum, hosted Triple J Mornings, and was a Walkley finalist for her 2012 series ‘Hooked on Heroin’.
Now, in the midst of a losing battle with ovarian cancer, she has focused her considerable talents on a more important, deeply personal, body of work.
In October she will release a podcast about her journey. It was for this reason she recently returned to John Hunter Hospital, to record a scene about her failed proposal to Ken.
“I went back to the neurosurgery ward to re-enact my proposal to Ken. I proposed on the morning after the surgery,” she recalls.
“Why? He saved my life. Being his partner just did not seem enough.”
It’s a typical take from Jill – Honest. Raw. Articulate, but direct. It’s a theme played out across the podcast.
The second chapter of the podcast, “Mummy’s got cancer” is heartbreaking. It details the point where Jill had to call her daughter, Malia – who was studying overseas – to tell her the shocking news. Malia and Jill recall that conversation in the podcast, and the emergency trip home.
Then, in the saddest and darkest chapter, nine months after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Jill was told her cancer is back.
“That makes it terminal,” Jill says, “this is when I really had to face death, and started researching ovarian cancer and my prospects with that death in sight.”
“By early 2018, I was back in chemotherapy, but this time it was palliative. The family visits, the wedding plans were in full swing, and preparations were underway for an overseas trip.
“It’s all planned around a healthy window that will be created if the chemo is a success,” Jill adds. “It’s functional denial, and living life to the fullest.”
Jill and Ken’s wedding in September is two months after finishing her last bout of palliative chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. The podcast, called ‘Still Jill’, is due for release on October 9.
Jill hopes the intimate five-part series will inspire an audience to care about and reflect on their own lives and bodies. They will learn why the outcomes for reproductive cancers are so poor and where the answers might lie.
“In the podcast we learn some medical things, like how ovarian cancers turn up in your brain, about how we get ovarian cancer in the first place, about why it kills nice girls like me,” Jill explains.
“We explore the balance between denial and honesty, the danger of false hope and the inevitable anxiety that comes with a terminal illness.”
“It’s also about scratching to stay alive long enough to get onto a drug trial for the incredible wave of new treatment, the immunotherapy drugs that are being hailed as a cure for melanoma.”
Jill says they are hoping to do podcast launch parties around the country to raise money for ovarian cancer research. It’s an area that is understandably very important to Jill, even if she may not realise its benefits herself.
“I have developed a lovely relationship with Dr Nikola Bowden at Hunter Medical Research Institute and have a really fun picture of me and Nikola in a fighting stance...fighting off ovarian cancer,” she says.
“We turn up at lots of fundraisers and I spoke at the National Press Club this year, mentioning Nikola’s work. Ovarian Cancer Australia raised at least $25,000 as a result of the Press Club talk – I am thrilled about that. +
“As it turns out, Nikola may have a drug trial for ovarian cancer next year that could be perfect for me. Fingers crossed,” Jill adds.
But Jill isn’t only fighting to prolong her own life, she is campaigning for reproductive cancers to be better understood by women, health practitioners and funding bodies. She has spoken as a consumer advocate to the Senate Inquiry into Rare and Less Common Cancers. She was a popular guest on Richard Fidler’s Conversations program.
She has featured in a global awareness campaign run by the World Ovarian Cancer Coalition. And she is part of a Survivors Teaching Students program to expose medical and nursing students around Australia to first-hand accounts of the disease. Locally, it kicked off at the University of Newcastle on August 29.
“Every time I speak publicly I’m overwhelmed by the response. Women and their families are desperate for more information and hungry to hear other women’s stories. I believe these women will become passionate followers who will spread the word about this podcast.”
Jill says that 20 years ago it was the personal stories of women with breast cancer that helped mobilise the army of advocates underpinning its phenomenal 90 per cent survival rate.
“Tragically, women with ovarian cancer simply don’t live long enough to form such an army of advocates,” Jill says.
“This is a profoundly sad story – I’m going to die well before my time – but I can bring in moments of humour with anecdotes of unusual and funny things that have happened since I slipped out of mainstream life and into the land of terminal disease,” she adds.
“While I’m well enough I need to tell this story. It could save lives.”
‘Still Jill’ will be released 9 October 2018 on the
ABC Listen App, iTunes, and many other podcast platforms.