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Discovering she was pregnant just four weeks after the diagnosis of a life-threatening cancer was a bitter sweet pill to swallow for celebrity fashion journalist, Elle Halliwell. In unchartered territory, Elle made the brave, life-threatening decision to delay the most effective form of treatment available to give her pregnancy the best chance of going full term and save the life of her unborn.

Elle’s health is her top priority. This is apparent at the onset, when our first interview is postponed due to her low immunity and need for rest. When we finally chat, she is as warm and generous as her media profile projects. She radiates an enigmatic charm offering authentic and raw accounts of her cancer experience and the pathway to surviving her illness for the sake of her unborn baby and the ongoing management of her incurable cancer.

“I don’t have the health that I used to, and I just want to get back to ‘normal’”, Elle says, “These last two weeks I was really sick, so I can’t push.”

Suffering chronic anxiety throughout her twenties, and at the prime of her career, Elle had missed the warning signs that her health was in decline.

Suffering chronic anxiety throughout her twenties, and at the prime of her career, Elle had missed the warning signs that her health was in decline, “with it reaching a crescendo that was almost like I was being tickled with a leaf and then all of sudden the tree fell,” she recalls.

In the May of 2016, having only just informed her family of her Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (C.M.L.) diagnosis, Elle chose not to share the news of her pregnancy to give her time to research the prognosis of her baby and his chance of survival. What followed was a whirlwind few weeks consulting specialists and attempting, with no luck, to find similar cases around the world with a diagnosis so early in pregnancy.

Elle explains, “With C.M.L. there is a translocation of two chromosomes. Chromosome nine and twenty-two have broken off and switched, resulting in the production of cancer cells that can lie dormant.”

While this decision did not take long to make, Elle still feels guilt-ridden with the idea she even contemplated termination.

Elle’s passion and interest in fashion was a saviour of sorts throughout her harrowing health journey. At her first biopsy at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Elle cinched her gown to add some shape. “Fashion in its most simple terms is a way to express yourself, wearing things to make you happy,” Elle says, deciding if she was going to take on cancer, she wasn’t going to do it looking “like a dag”.

Elle’s family were a great support throughout the pregnancy with her mum particularly “stoic”. Elle later realised this was a façade for her benefit, as her mother really “wasn’t coping well with my health tragedy,” she reflects.

Healthy and beautiful, bouncing baby boy Tor was born on December 17, 2016, four weeks premature. Elle’s good health five weeks postpartum was another blessing, enabling her to delay treatment to breastfeed Tor and pump sufficient milk supplies for nourishment in his early days.

Elle says, “I pumped like a dairy cow to store milk for Tor. I completely filled up the freezer on a mission. It was exhausting but really wonderful giving him that nourishment.”

“Psychologically, this time was wonderful, allowing me to experience motherhood before having to deal with commencing the treatment.”

When he is old enough, Elle plans to tell Tor about their triumphant journey to, “normalise the illness and so that he knows having cancer is not a death sentence.

“I am living proof there are some amazing developments in cancer research,” she says.

Not certain of what her future health journey holds Elle says, “Telling Tor will probably be a good thing because if something happens, it is a good way to prepare him.”

As she continues to battle her incurable illness, Elle has struggled at times with a dissonance between the superficiality of fashion and this raw and life-threatening experience.

Elle reflects, “There is so much more to life than fashion.”

“Psychologically, this time was wonderful, allowing me to experience motherhood before having to deal with commencing the treatment.”

As a means of processing and coping with this unimaginable predicament, a friend suggested Elle document her unique journey. Her journal and letters to her unborn baby scaffold her recently released book, A Mother’s Choice, which documents her journey to save her unborn child developing in her “sick body”.

Writing the book provided Elle and her loved ones with a difficult yet cathartic opportunity to work through their experiences and “offload their emotions”.

Elle still battles with the side effects of her treatment which, “aren’t fun but manageable”.

She is trying to empower herself by providing her family with the, “best shot at a healthy life” by focussing on self-care.

“Conventional medicine is so cut and dry. I want to give myself the knowledge to take my health destiny into my own hands. I really don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all for how bodies work,” reflects Elle who has just graduated as a Health Coach and is currently studying an Advanced Diploma of Naturopathy.

Elle’s health regime includes a good diet, meditation, baths, massages, steams, acupuncture and yoga to battle fatigue, low immunity, skin rashes and, when her phosphorous is low, “wacky blood”.

“Conventional medicine is so cut and dry. I want to give myself the knowledge to take my health destiny into my own hands. I really don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all for how bodies work.”

While Elle feels she may have “outgrown fashion”, she has recently developed a “renewed interest and excitement” in the industry, focussing instead on ethical brands which are making a real difference in the world. Those with transparent supply chains and “celebrating themes that really benefit the world,” she says.

Elle truly is a remarkable and inspirational woman, her tenacity and strength is unwavering. She selflessly chooses life, enduring the ups and downs of her incurable illness and the side effects of her life sustaining treatment, to live her life to the fullest for Tor and her family.

 

Irreverently passionate writer, singer, comedian and “former” radio host, Em Rusciano talks renovation, rage and who should bring in the bloody washing.

Em Rusciano will never work in breakfast radio again and she wants it in print as a reminder that Sydney’s 2DayFM hosting role that she resigned from in September 2018 is permanently behind her.

“It’s been good, I’ve been very grateful for my time but I will never step back in that arena, never,” Rusciano says from the renovation site of her Melbourne home. Because, renovating “is what you should do when you’re heavily pregnant,” she jokes; and explains she is always biting off more than she can chew, just to see what happens.

Rusciano’s renovation is but one of her projects. She is currently writing her first fiction novel with Harper Collins, working on a stage show which includes a musical collaboration with Kate Miller Heidke and expecting her third child, a son in January, with husband Scott, whom she has two daughters Marchella, 17 and Odette, 11. This workload is Rusciano’s version of paring back and having some downtime, which she says is helped by being true to her creative self.

“Well it is all relative,” she explains, “I’ve only got the few projects and that’s me being sensible. I really am so happy at the moment, I get up every day and I write my book and then I go and work on my show with my team.

“I’ve got a line of merchandise that I’m working on and I get to pick my girls up from school, and every day I’m thinking to myself, ‘you’re so lucky that you’re able to pursue the things that are really in your heart.’ I think that’s when you make your best stuff and you’re at your most creative. I’m just a happier, more fulfilled person. I was angry, I was really angry for a while and I couldn’t figure out why and then I realised I’d strayed too far from my creative essence.”

“I was angry, I was really angry for a while and I couldn’t figure out why and then I realised I’d strayed too far from my creative essence.”

It was Rusciano’s creative needs both as a mother and artist that was the driving force behind her decision to get out of radio. Her second child was born while she continued working on Perth’s 92.9 Breakfast Show, Em, Sam and Wippa, so, on discovering her pregnancy this time she knew she was going to do things differently. “With Odette, I went back to work five weeks after a caesarean and I was still breastfeeding every couple of hours. It was a nightmare, so I was determined when I found out I was pregnant this time that there was no way I was going to try and tackle that again, it nearly killed me.”

After leaving Perth radio and working on her own projects she was lured back to breakfast radio at 2DayFM.

“I felt I had some unfinished business [in radio] and I love broadcasting, but I quickly realised once I was back that while I was grateful for the opportunity it was probably not the best place for me creatively. I did my very best and sometimes that was a good thing and sometimes I was smashed in the media.

“Definitely, everything happens for a reason and getting pregnant has given me an opportunity to step away in a really nice way; a lot people get sacked from breakfast radio, I got to leave on my terms.”

Having her career on her own terms is something that Rusciano is quite suited to and familiar with, having spent the best part of a decade creating her own brand of celebrity/artistry. She put together her own team and developed a series of stand-up/ cabaret style concerts full of her raw, unapologetic humour, polished musical production and the voice which earned her the fame she has doggedly capitalised on since becoming a finalist as Marcia Hines’ pet on the second season of Australian Idol.

Rusciano is a go-getter and recognising she is not a conventionally marketable personality she has gone out and created her own brand and pursued her own audience. She has a successful social media presence with a healthy following for her blog, emrusciano.com, which is popular with mums. She’s published a memoir called Try Hard, Tales from the Life of a Needy Over Achiever and sold out the Sydney Opera House this year with her cabaret show Evil Queen, which toured nationally.

Rusciano’s new stage show, which she plans to tour later next year, will be about embracing feminine rage, an emotion Rusciano became consumed by during the gruelling hours of breakfast radio and is now inspired to channel in more positive and transformative ways.

“I spent six months of this year angry and I couldn’t understand why, and it started showing up in weird ways,” she reveals. “I’m reading a book at the moment called Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly. It’s incredible and I encourage every woman to read it.

“My stand-up stage show next year is about embracing female rage and how everyone is so terrified of women expressing that they’re unhappy, not realising that’s just making them more unhappy. We hide [our rage], we don’t acknowledge it and it weakens us.

“I came out of radio feeling so much rage, there’s this rising tide of women going, ‘Why do I feel so itchy and cross all the time?’ We’re all becoming more awakened to the little inadequacies and little inequalities toward women and if you’ve got daughters, I’m especially conscious of the little things that work against my kids just because they have vaginas and oh my god, it makes me so mad and it makes me mad for my daughters. So, you know, what do you do with that rage? You can’t stew on it, you can’t form a lynch mob, you’ve got to channel it.”

“I’m especially conscious of the little things that work against my kids just because they have vaginas and oh my god, it makes me so mad and it makes me mad for my daughters.”

Rusciano is doing what she does best and what makes her most happy, channelling her experiences into creative projects and hoping it’s of value to her audience.

“I’ve just become so aware of so many things over the past couple of years and it’s going to come out in this book and in this stage show, and I hope that it helps other women navigate their lives and feel a little less angry and a little less ripped off and be better communicators.

“I really love doing that kind of thing, I want to be able to help women. Because I have been helpless and angry and crying and not really knowing which direction to turn and I’d like to be someone people can look to and say, ‘Okay, well how did she do it?’ And, maybe they could adopt some of the stuff that I did too. That’s the primary reason for it all.”

Rusciano’s adaptations include shifting the enduring trend of women doing the greater percentage of the domestic work load in the home and she believes this is harming relationships.

“Especially if women allow themselves to do a hundred percent of the domestic loading and I think that’s a real problem, and I think that’s on us, we need to put the boundaries in and we need to say to our husbands ‘I’m not just at home with the kids doing nothing, I’m with our kids’.

“When our husband does the washing, you don’t thank him for helping you, that’s not helping, he’s doing his job as your partner and as the father of the children. Father’s don’t babysit their kids, that is their job in life but they get thanked, you don’t get thanked every day for the loads of washing you do.

“This whole notion of, if a dad helps, then he gets thanked and if a mum does the same thing then that’s just her job. I just think it’s bullshit and I think that’s where there is a lot of problems in marriages, when a woman just feels so taken advantage of and so over worked and bogged down with crap and the husband’s just like ‘Well, oh well I’ll help you out’ and I’m like ‘no fucker!’

“I just think it’s bullshit and I think that’s where there is a lot of problems in marriages, when a woman just feels so taken advantage of and so over worked and bogged down with crap and the husband’s just like ‘Well, oh well I’ll help you out’.”

“Even last week [Scott] said to me, ‘Oh that washing needs to come in, it’s gonna rain’. I checked him, and I said, ‘Hey fucker, feel free, pointing it out doesn’t make it so’. All the men that I know that are in happy relationships do a division of the domestic labour and it’s a fucking happy relationship.”

A happy relationship is something that Rusciano, 39, and her husband Scott, who she met when she was 19, have worked very hard to create. She explains, it hasn’t come easy, having separated on two previous occasions, they have now reached a happy, less volatile place in their relationship.

“We’re a team, we’re a genuine team and we work so fucking hard at being a team. I can’t even think how hard we’ve worked on our marriage, so much work has been put in, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of, my relationship with Scott.”

“I can’t even think how hard we’ve worked on our marriage, so much work has been put in, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of, my relationship with Scott.”

“And, it’s not perfect and we still clash but we’re much better at handling the situation at hand rather than piling it all up and making it a huge thing and ‘oh everything’s terrible’.

“For me, it’s finding that middle place rather than trying to be right, that has solved most of our problems and really listening. You’ve got to really respect what they’re passionate about and you can’t shit on it.

“It’s so easy inside a marriage to get bogged down and it just becomes about surviving and functioning rather than growing and it’s really hard when you’ve got young kids, especially when that’s the time where you’ve gotta band together and not go into corners and throw shit at each other. That’s what generally tends to happen and what certainly happened to us.”

With a totally renovated relationship and on the precipice of turning 40, Rusciano quickly refutes the need to reshape next year’s goals in the event her new baby happens to be a non-sleeping barnacle.

“Nuh, No! Why? No! I am a better mother and a better human when I am doing that shit. I am a better mother when I’m working on stuff I love so, I am a person first and a mother second and I’m a good mother because that’s my ethos.

“I am a better mother when I’m working on stuff I love so, I am a person first and a mother second and I’m a good mother because that’s my ethos.”

“I think if you let being a mother consume you then you end up a bit unhappy, and then a lesser person, and then you know, not as good a mother as you can be. I always encourage women to interpret who they were before children and nourish that person and then they’re going to be a fucking excellent mother and more fulfilled. And never give up, my daughters see me doing that every day, I’ll never stop.”

And, what of birth plans?

“My birth plan is to give birth, fucking birth plan, I think if you want to have a birth plan then, fool you, if you try to plan anything in life like that. I just want my baby out and healthy and my obstetrician is the most incredible man, I trust him wholeheartedly, so, nah, I just want the baby here and I don’t care how I have it.”

“And never give up, my daughters see me doing that every day, I’ll never stop.”

Writer, educator and mother Polly Dunning shares her insights on remaining true to values of feminism in the roles of marriage and motherhood which are perceived to have embedded sexism and misogyny.

My mother always said to me ‘There’s nothing like marriage and motherhood to radicalise women’. She was speaking, of course, about the noticeable absence of feminism in young women who have not yet come up hard against the structural discrimination that still permeates our world. I thought she meant other women. I was already a feminist. I come from a proud line of feminists going back at least three generations. I was already radicalised. I already had my eyes open to the sexism and misogyny embedded in the roles of wife and mother that I one day wanted to inhabit. I was prepared.

Or so I thought.

I already had my eyes open to the sexism and misogyny embedded in the roles of wife and mother that I one day wanted to inhabit.

It started with marriage. It was not that my relationship with my husband changed. It didn’t really, except that our commitment felt more formalised. It was other people’s reaction towards me that changed. I knew theoretically that it might, but somehow the reality made my blood boil. Seeing my surname erased and replaced by ‘Mrs …’ (I kept my own name) on letters and seating charts, even in jest, felt like a real blow. It was the first time sexism hit me in the face quite so blatantly and hard. How dare I not give up my name for my husbands? The ‘joke’ seemed a way of saying ‘get back in your box, girly.’

But didn’t I know this was coming? Of course, but the visceral experience of it was different. Suddenly my feminism wasn’t just academic. It also wasn’t just about the shadows of lower pay for traditionally female professions (like mine) or working harder to be thought of as ‘good’, while blokes doing half the job were bloody marvellous. This message was clear and no one was even trying to disguise it: you are a married woman, you should change your identity to become part of your husband’s.

The ‘joke’ seemed a way of saying ‘get back in your box, girly.’

This was a minor inconvenience, yes, but it signified something more. That as a woman I am not supposed to determine my identity for myself. I am public property. This sense was exacerbated by pregnancy. Suddenly people I’d never met felt they had the right to touch me, give me diet and medical advice, and tell me how I should be feeling. The reality was that, although I was ecstatic to be expecting a child, I hated being pregnant, but this didn’t seem to be acceptable to say. I’m a woman, and was soon to be a mother, so I had to be ‘enjoying every moment’ of pregnancy and feeling privileged to be unable to walk more than a few hundred metres, unable to sleep yet constantly exhausted, nauseated, and heavy.

…as a woman I am not supposed to determine my identity for myself. I am public property. This sense was exacerbated by pregnancy.

When my son arrived this sense that everything I did was up for public scrutiny intensified. It feels as if mothers work for society as a whole and so every member feels they have the right to give us a performance review at any given moment. Suddenly everything from what (and how) my son ate, when he slept and what he wore, to what I ate and how often I exercised became open to discussion and debate from total strangers. How to be a mother seems even more publicly determined than how to be a woman. But here’s the rub: you’re always doing it wrong.

But your husband is always doing it right. The fact that my husband researched and purchased the pram for our son, and knows the difference between a 000, 00 and 0 clothing size makes him father of the bloody year. I hear women talk about how amazing their husband is for changing a nappy, or fixing a bottle, or ‘helping with the baby’ (I think the word they’re looking for is ‘parenting’). I’ve lost count of the number of women who think it’s perfectly fine for them to do all the night settling and feeding because their husband has to go to work the next day. I do wonder what they think they do all day, because I don’t think they get their nails done and play tennis. I don’t even think they go to the toilet alone or drink a cup of coffee hot.

Here’s the rub: you’re always doing it wrong. But your husband is always doing it right.

And this makes me furious. Childrearing and mothering is so undervalued that we truly think that a man needs sleep so he can go to work and marginally improve the company’s bottom line more than a woman needs sleep so she can raise the citizens of the future. Both mothers and fathers need a whole lot more sleep than they’re getting, but neither needs it more than the other. Why is what traditionally (and usually) mothers do considered to hold such little value?

Yes, I always knew this would happen. But the sexist reality of marriage and motherhood has hit me hard, maybe because I thought I was so ready for it. Now I am well and truly radicalised, just like all those women before me, and that is a great thing. I no longer remain politely passive in the face of casual sexism. I’m not worried about how my feminism will make others feel. Why? Because they already unconsciously dismiss me as ‘just a mum’ anyway, so who cares if I make them uncomfortable? I’m done with only pointing out sexism at appropriate times and events. If you can’t handle the truth about what it’s like to be a wife and mother, don’t invite me for dinner because I am too bloody tired to pretend anymore.

Now I am well and truly radicalised, just like all those women before me, and that is a great thing.

Polly Dunning is a writer, educator, student, wife and mum. She writes on the subjects of feminism, parenting, and education, and has been published in various media including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Daily Life, SBS Life, Women’s Agenda, Essential Kids, and the Mum Life Project, and contributed to the book ‘Unbreakable’ edited by Jane Caro. She is an experienced high school teacher and is currently enjoying the thrills and spills (oh, the spills) of maternity leave with her two young children.