Ebor resident Lisa Hardman was diagnosed with breast cancer in March. The diagnosis is worrying enough in the best of years - and even more so in a time of drought and fire.
The Hardmans' 700 acre property 'Pipeclay Ridge' was drying up; by the end of 2019, they would face two frightening bush fires. Then there were two children to look after, and cattle to feed.
Getting through cancer was paramount; anything else, Lisa said, was secondary.
Lisa had surgery in Tamworth, 190 km from the property; chemotherapy in Armidale every three weeks, 80 km away; and four weeks of radiotherapy in Coffs Harbour, 110 km distant.
"It's much more difficult for people in the bush to access treatment, and places more stress on a family to have Mum and Dad travel," Lisa said. "Families have to find a way to deal with it in the bush that doesn't really happen in the city."
Breast care nurse Rachael Stevens was invaluable. "She facilitated a lot of things, really, and was somebody I could just talk to," Lisa said.
The McGrath Foundation nurse, based at the Armidale Hospital oncology unit, rang in March to offer physical, emotional, and mental support to Lisa and her family.
"It's not just the patient themselves; it's everyone concerned," Nurse Stevens said.
The nurse showed her worth early on when Lisa thought of stopping chemo.
"My first dose was really unpleasant, and I wasn't prepared to go ahead with it," Lisa remembered. While she had a blood test, her husband spoke to Nurse Stevens. "Lisa is going to pull out of this; we need to make sure she doesn't do that," he told her.
"[Rachael] was there for him as well," Lisa said.
The nurse accompanied Lisa to her meetings with specialists. ("You often miss stuff," Lisa said; "you're already in a state of shock.") She explained procedures and pathology reports; sorted out when treatment would happen; ordered chemo drugs; and ensured Lisa had enough prescriptions.
Lisa concentrated on the brighter side of life: small pleasures like growing winter veggies, celebrating birthdays, and spending time with children.
But the farm struggled in the drought. Part of 'Pipeclay Ridge' falls into the Ebor gorge and the Guy Fawkes River. "We always felt really privileged to own a piece of land in that beautiful area," Lisa said. "To see it slowly turn brown from no rain, and watch the creeks dry up, and then turn around and have a fire through it, is just awful."
She had stopped following weather reports. "It was too hard to have coped with the breast cancer and the treatment, and then listen to the fact that there's no rain this week, or next week, or the week after."
In September, the Bees Nest Fire came right behind their property - the week Lisa finished chemo.
She took the children to Armidale. "I wasn't really capable of staying if the fire came ... given what chemo does to your body."
The wind changed, and blew the fire away from the property - but back through to Hernani and out through Armidale Road, where it burned for months.
Lisa finished radiation in November, and visited hospital for the last time three days later.
"We thought: OK, we're at the end of all of this; we can relax and focus on some new things."
The family headed home - and saw a plume of smoke rising over Cathedral Rock Park. The next day, the fire sparked into the gorge, and burned everything.
"Anything that was treed is devastated. We had fern trees and stag horns. And that's all gone. It's been burnt to nothing. Nothing on the ground; just ash. And it's devastating to see that every day."
Lisa has largely recovered from her ordeal. Her joints still ache a bit; it will take time to recover from the treatment; but she says she feels well. "Hopefully by August next year, I'll be fit as a fiddle."
Now the Hardmans must consider what to do with their property. Their plans for this year? "Pray for rain."
Lisa and her husband will probably look for casual work, and do what they can for what they have left.
They have already sold most of their cattle, keeping only 'mums and bubs'. They plan to sell the stock they have left, and then let the property rest until sufficient rain comes.
"The old-timers say it'll be better than before; it'll come back, and you won't believe it. But we certainly need the rain to make that happen," Lisa said.
Have you been checked for breast cancer?
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, the McGrath Foundation states.
One in seven women will develop it in their lifetime; 53 people are diagnosed with it every day; and more than 19,000 women and 164 men are diagnosed with it every year. 90 per cent have no family history.
The McGrath Foundation funds specialist breast care nurses free of charge across Australia.
New England residents with breast cancer can refer themselves to Rachael Stevens or colleague Helen Goodall. Contact Rachael.email@example.com or phone 6776 9761.
Nurse Stevens covers Armidale and the Northern Tablelands sector (Inverell, Glen Innes, and Tenterfield) to the Queensland border.
"She's very special in our area," Lisa said. "We're remote, but we're not even the most remote people. She meets, sees, and calls plenty of others who are further away."
The best part of her job, Nurse Stevens said, is making a difference to people's lives.
Women over 50 should be checked for breast cancer at least every two years, she recommends.
You can book a mammogram now with BreastScreen NSW. Phone 13 20 50 or book.breastscreen.nsw.gov.au.
"A mammogram every two years takes just 20 minutes, and it could save your life," Sunbo Olalere, Director BreastScreen Hunter New England NSW, said.
"Detecting breast cancer early increases your chance of survival while reducing the likelihood of invasive treatment, such as mastectomy or chemotherapy."
Nurse Stevens recommends cancer patients should have regular follow-ups, even after they finish their treatment.