Nude modelling, crowd surfing and cage diving: How one Aussie nurse is making the most of her ‘last chapter’
When Australian nurse Eleanor McCleave received her world-shattering cancer diagnosis, she went through the usual stages of grief.
Denial that it could not be true, anger at the cards she had been dealt, depression at what it meant for the rest of her life and, eventually, acceptance.
It also sparked the realisation she had to make the most of the “borrowed time” she was living on.
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“When I got sick I became one of those people who took everything spontaneously,” she told 7NEWS.com.au.
And with that, her bucket list was born.
From posing as a nude model to crowd surfing at a concert, the 26-year-old is choosing to embrace her “last chapter” and create memories with her loved ones outside the walls of a hospital.
‘I lit up like a Christmas tree’
Eleanor’s world changed forever in November 2020, when the Perth nurse had a seizure at home and was rushed to hospital.
“I went to the emergency department and they discovered I had some brain tumours and everything went really quickly from there,” she said.
Doctors diagnosed her with three high-grade neuroepithelial tumours with BCOR alteration – fast growing brain tumours with a rare genetic disposition.
Surgery and whole-head radiation knocked them back and allowed Eleanor to spend a month soaking up the summer sun in her home town of Esperance.
But in February 2021, she realised something was not right.
“The day we had to drive back up to Perth I was feeling unwell, I thought it was a stomach bug or something,” she said.
A trip to the ED soon revealed another grisly discovery – she had six tumours in her bowel.
“They basically rushed me in for emergency bowel surgery, did scans and discovered metastatic tumours throughout my whole body, down my limbs … I lit up like a Christmas tree,” Eleanor said.
More intensive chemotherapy treatments managed to beat the cancer again – but not without devastating side effects, including losing 20 per cent of her hearing.
Come Christmas, Eleanor was recovering in Esperance when she knew “something was back in my brain” – three new tumours.
She beat the cancer again but could not catch a break and by Easter realised her heart was not beating correctly.
“I had an ultrasound done and they found a tumour inside my heart,” she said.
“We raced up to Perth, me and my Dad drove up in the middle of the night for life-saving heart surgery.
“After I recovered, a scan showed it was starting to grow back.”
An unimaginable decision
With that came the most difficult decision of her life – what to do next.
Eleanor says she had three options: continue with the previous drugs, which were not guaranteed to work due given the body naturally builds up a tolerance; trial new drugs that would make her “extremely sick”; or do nothing.
“Because of my nursing background, I knew (the condition) was super rare, unlucky and hard to treat,” Eleanor said.
“There were a few options but there were no guarantees. The only thing that was guaranteed was that they’d make me really sick and they were risky.”
She said all possible treatments were likely to only reduce her quality of life and her ability to enjoy the time she had left.
“I knew it was endgame – they could give me more time but they could never eradicate this disease,” she said.
She started mulling the option of not doing anything, other than continuing oral chemotherapy, to focus on “enjoying what I’ve got left”.
It is a dilemma not many people could fathom – whether to take a risk to try extend your life, or embrace enjoying your final days.
A decision did not come easy, Eleanor says.
It was a conversation with a friend who had lost his aunty to cancer a month earlier that changed things.
“He said he really appreciated those months with her when she had stopped treatment and wanted to do things with them – that made up my mind too,” Eleanor said.
“I decided I was going to choose life over lying in a hospital bed.
“When I made that decision and after that first conversation with my parents, it was like a weight was lifted.”
A list to remember
With a newfound lightness, Eleanor started making a list of the whacky, wonderful and even mundane adventures she wanted to accomplish.
“The bucket list has always kind of been there with the things I’ve always wanted to do in life,” she said.
“I went through the whole grieving and angry progress when I was first diagnosed.
“It’s a really unfair disease but, after I had the bowel surgery and found it was all through my body and we managed to kick it back – that was a bit of a miracle in itself, no one knew it would work – I felt I’ve been on borrowed time.
“From a bit of knowledge on this tumour, there’s not many people who have survived it. I’m in the mode of ‘What am I going to do with the time I’ve got?’.”
So far, Eleanor has ticked off crowd surfing at a concert, riding a two-wheel motorbike, driving her car up Wylie Bay Rock, joining the AFL crowd at Optus Stadium and even nude modelling.
“A girl down in Esperance runs an art class and asked if I wanted to do a nude model and I said ‘Yeah, why not?’ The old me never would have said yes,” she said.
Her thrill-seeking has now taken her on a global adventure. Last week she jetted off to visit Europe with her parents and ticked “visit the Gardens By The Bay in Singapore” off the bucket list in the process.
The rest of the list varies from nail-biting experiences such as cage diving with white sharks to the more mundane but meaningful such as road-tripping to Broome with her sister.
Eleanor’s bucket list includes:
- Drink a butterbeer at Harry Potter studios in London
- See orcas in Bremer Canyon
- Ride The Jacobite train in Scotland
- Visit the Isle of Skye, Scotland
- Sleep a night in a Scottish castle
- A London pub crawl with a real local (my dad)
- Eat pasta and gelato in Rome
- See a sunset in Greece
- Sail a boat on the Mediterranean
- Visit the Great Barrier Reef
- Scenic flight of Lake Hillier, Esperance
Her friends started a GoFundMe to help her tick off the list, with the remaining funds to be donated to cancer research.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who hasn’t been touched by a cancer in a way – it definitely reaches a lot of people,” Eleanor said.
“Whatever’s left over (from the fund) is going to Cure Cancer Australia, so the next person who gets diagnosed doesn’t have to make the decision I’ve had to.”
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