When a breast cancer diagnosis struck, Elenor Tedenborg felt lost and disconnected. But in her fight she found her voice and a renewed faith in herself and her identity
Death held a perverse beauty. In water salt-dusted by tears slipping from her cheeks, in the numbing trauma inflicted by cancer, in her ailing newborn son rushed away.
He too might die. She might never get to be with her boy, born not long after that day she vomited then fainted, punched drunk by a diagnosis she sensed.
If not for death, Elenor Tedenborg would not have found a far better kind of life. Before then she had her soul mate in Simon, their little boy Charlie, soon a baby in the house, too. But still she was miserable.
Love comes and love goes, no one can decipher its laws. But I want to follow you, during winter and spring and all the days of my life
She’s this Swede on the Border overcoming enormous adversity, who after a shy, self-conscious childhood, though bursting with “I knew I had more within me”, wanted to sort-out her struggling English by possibly travelling to Canada. Instead, she chose Australia, landing when she was 20 and staying for six months. She reveled in the joy of the place. On her return, at 23, it got her studying photography (turned into photojournalism in Sydney, years later with The Border Mail) though initially caught in a bad relationship with a Swedish lad.
“I’d lost myself. He was physical, he was putting other people down, including me. I knew where that came from, though it didn’t make it right, doesn’t justify it.” They parted.
“Not really a wild girl at home” she began meeting boys in Sydney and “I honestly wasted 10 years of my life. I had a ball, but looking back at it I would have liked to have learned more.”
But until death threatened she would never have shaken what had become a hushed, slow plunge into the abyss. Rendered “so out of whack”.
“I wasn’t the way I was suppose to be. We’ve all got to wake up, to do those things that we really want to do. It might be fearful … but if you don’t get challenged you don’t grow.” She was looking for a way to sort out the mess, its spidery marks trailing across her life.
From understanding the hurt in having to wait 30 years for approval from her “extremely eccentric”, rigidly religious father, Bertil, his own unresolved sadness stemming from growing up in a small Swedish village with eight siblings, yet who sang and loved music and “brought so much joy to our family.” He was “just very, very proud of what you have achieved”, he relented, then at 65 he was dead.
From settling into silence after her intelligent, well-read older brother Patrick ricocheted off his “never fitting in”, indulging in drugs, the wrong company, then wrecked by mental illness and psychosis. “I knew Mum and Dad were struggling. I sat quiet, I didn’t speak, and then my brother committed suicide. I spoke to my friends because I needed to heal. I was 14 at that time.”
My heart is yours, your heart is mine and I never leave it again
This was her reckoning and her deliverance. Stage three breast cancer it was, having choked seven of nine lymph nodes taken during major surgery. Her surgeon wanted to remove one breast. Elenor though had found her way. She wanted both gone.
If death was still to come, so be it, but she needed an inner guarantee, however flimsy, for Simon and her two boys, Eli made a four-week premature bub after Mum’s diagnosis on November 27, 2016, when Elenor was 34 weeks’ pregnant, just four days into her maternity leave. A six-week round of chemotherapy came before the mastectomy on March 14, 2017.
She told her surgeon of her wish and his learned reply was “no, we’re not doing that”. And so when she arrived that day, full of nerves, having dropped Charlie off with a family friend, she had another try. “I understand they were extremely challenged because it was a big operation as it was.”
In pre-surgery with the anaesthetist she asked again if the surgeon would do both, but it was a “no, once his mind is made-up you can’t”. “So I said ‘what’s his weakest point?’ and he looked at me and said ‘his daughters’.”
Elenor went into the room next to the operating theatre, ready for surgery, and spoke to him again. “I said ‘if I was your daughter and I asked you take both breasts so I could see my boys growing up, will you do it?’. And he said ‘oh look, no, you can’t do that to me’.” He stood there for a while, nothing told, nothing known, writing on one and then a second piece of paper, offering only a parting “just sign here”.
When she woke, her first utterance, to a nurse, was “did you take them both?”. “The nurse looked at me and said ‘yes, he did’.”
My happiness is yours, your happiness is mine and my tears are mine when you cry
The cancer arrived with an itch on her breast. She’d had some mastitis with Charlie but still thought it wise to ask Simon as to “what do you think this is?”. A few days later her obstetrician had a look, deducing that because she’d had mastitis “it might be a cyst”, that “your breasts are growing obviously because of the hormones”.
Soon after, on a Monday, Elenor went for an ultrasound. She was “mucking about” with the nurse “but she wasn’t amused so I thought ‘this not looking good’”. A doctor arrived, making it three or four people trying to do a biopsy. Elenor was sick, she fainted, then a while later, as she sat outside, burst into tears. “And I’m thinking ‘oh my God, is this real?’.”
On the Thursday she tried to keep everything normal. A swim first at the Albury pool then coffee with a friend. She was about to dive in when her mobile rang. The doctor wanted her to come in as soon as possible, but Elenor’s thinking was clear. “I said ‘skip the rubbish, just tell me, you’ve got to tell me now’. And she said ‘yeah, you’ve got breast cancer’.”
It was still a shock. She rang Simon, then her best friend. She could have fled and hidden away at home, but wanted to do her laps. There were 1.2 kilometres to knock off. “I remember tears going down my face as I swam, which didn’t really matter because I was in the pool anyway.” And one driving thought kept pace with every stroke. It has rarely left her alone. “This is not going to get me. I’m here to do something bigger.”
Love is so marvelously strong, enslaved by nought in the world. Roses hit out hard ground as sun over dark yard
Fresh tears spill as she tucks elbows into her belly, arms slightly apart, palms facing up, hands cupped and leaving space for something precious. She’s holding a baby that isn’t there, facing towards her so they each can lock gaze and connect in that unsaid way so crucial as life begins. But there isn’t a wriggling little soul before her, just like when Eli was born.
The soft, early winter, early morning sunshine has her front living room bathed in a warm, serene glow, but Elenor is briefly distraught, on her smart couch in her smartly decorated, modest house, at the memory.
When the cancer diagnosis came, Eli had to be brought into the world as soon as possible. Lungs floundering, the newborn was whisked away. “And then Annie the midwife came back and she sat down and she held Eli like this,” she says, fashioning her arms into mother’s cradle. “She looked at me and I looked at her – and it gets me really emotional – as she said ‘sorry Elenor, I can’t give him to you’ and she ran out the door.” Elenor bellowed “No!” and worried “I might not even be able to hold this child”.
Eli was born at 8.45am and his mum didn’t get to hold him until 2.30 that afternoon because of his struggle to survive. For two weeks, Elenor got to stay in the hospital special care ward to be with Eli. She got to sleep when tired, didn’t have to go home and “be Mum or the partner”. Two days after returning home, chemotherapy began.
The bodily trauma has been cruel, though further chemotherapy has spared her much of the sickness many cancer patients experience. And without Simon looking after the kids, plus her mum, Marianne, and sister Carola (there’s another brother, Thomas) doing the same, the step-by-step in healing would have been far more difficult. “But when you get cancer it’s not you who gets it, the whole house gets cancer. We get a lot of support but the partner often gets left out, being a strength but having to deal with their grief, the fact that he might one day be the sole parent of these two boys.”
My heart is yours, your heart is mine and I never leave it again
Hiding behind a camera gave her confidence, but without it Elenor often was left wondering how to rethink things. Her job as a photographer was wearing her down and the stress of that and being away from her young son is what she reckons triggered her cancer.
“I honestly mean it, that cancer’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says. “You can be taken away tomorrow and there might not anything left. And then it’s ‘what’s the legacy I want to leave behind?’”
When the community found out about this mum diagnosed with breast cancer who as a result had to have her second baby early, the help flooded in. It played a key role in the reassessment and reorganising of her life. “I was taken aback by the support of this community. I don’t even know them and they’re around me like I’m their sister.”
Death could still turn up uninvited, she says, but everything else is the focus – meditation, eating and living healthily and, through that, working as a wellness coach for women and developing a business selling granola. “I love it here because people are looking for new things, they’re inventive, they’re not just doing exactly what they’re supposed to do in society,” she says.
“You know it can be gone tomorrow, but don’t concentrate on that, concentrate on what you can get done until that happens. Have a conversation and acknowledge other human beings, be kind and loving. I often think negativity and anger comes from your own hurt.”
Eli’s recovery confirms her belief in the strength inherent in making life connections. All the medication intervention thrown at him wasn’t making an impact, so she was told “we have to get you skin-to-skin because he’s not going to make it otherwise”.
“As soon as he was on my chest,” Elenor says, more tears breaking, “all the levels went normal. It’s just so powerful.”
And so she sang Kärleken kommer och kärleken går to her boy as he nuzzled. Drawn on I folkvise ton by the late Swedish poet Nils Ferlin, the song’s title translates to Love comes and love goes.
“I just sang to him and he got better and better. But eventually it kicked in and I realised ‘no hang on here, I’ve also got to fight for me, I can’t just fight for the kids’. And whatever it took I meant to do just that.”
My happiness is yours, your happiness is mine and the tears are mine when you cry.
- “Love comes and love goes”