Cabinet Minister and East Coast Member of Parliament Kiri Allan is set to return to work after treatment for Stage 3 cervical cancer. Gisborne Herald reporter Matai O'Connor talked to her about her journey, confronting her mortality and what she hopes to accomplish moving forward . . .
Kiri Allan feels blessed to have made it through treatment for Stage 3 cervical cancer.
“It was an incredibly hard journey,” she said.
“It has been three-and-a-half months since I got the diagnosis. I'm now in my fourth week of post-treatment and I feel grateful this has gone really well.”
That has not always been the case.
“It was a real battle some days. I had to be lifted up by friends and family and physically helped to get to the hospital for treatment. To come out the other side, I feel incredibly blessed.”
Being surrounded by people who loved and supported her throughout the ordeal was a privilege.
“The overwhelming outpouring of support from our community here in Te Tairawhiti was one of the biggest surprises — constantly getting messages from home, people telling me to keep my chin up and that they are there with me.”
Ms Allan was discharged from hospital at 9am on June 5, the weekend of the Ngati Porou East Coast Rugby Union centennial celebrations.
“I told the doctor I needed to be discharged by 9am so I could see the match.”
Her health was “as good as it can be”.
She went through radical chemotherapy and radiation internal and external therapy.
“It's pretty much a bang or bust treatment. It will either work or it won't.
“The last checks I had, the doctors were overwhelmed with the reduction of the tumour and how effective the treatment had been. That was fantastic. We rejoiced. I now have to be checked every six months.
“I was told the recovery would be a hard journey so I braced for that . . . fortunately my body has responded really well.”
Physically she is feeling good. Spiritually she is grounded. And mentally she has switched into work mode.
During her post-treatment period she travelled up the Coast to see the damage of flooding in Tokomaru Bay and Waipiro Bay.
“As soon as I got back to the East Coast, it was a really interesting experience. Everyone has a story of somebody contracting cancer in their family or wider whanau.
“The fact I shared mine meant people were able to relate. I feel the difference consistently now. They see me like a niece, aunty, or somebody close to them. It's not just my politics people see anymore.”
Ms Allan is grateful for the support from the community.
“I feel very privileged to have the job I do but particularly to be in service to the people here. That was reaffirmed to the utmost degree being up the Coast seeing the impact of the storm a couple weeks ago. We have an incredible community here.”
During her treatment she had many visits from Tairawhiti people.
“It was awesome. I was incredibly well supported through the whole time.”
She relied heavily on her spirituality.
“It was important to be grounded, break bread and be in communion with people during that time.
“I had many of my good friends from Te Tairawhiti down in Wellington to hold my hand and sit by me during therapy, which was great.”
She received many gifts.
“I came back from hospital with a Poverty Bay (rugby) cap and an East Coast jumper which was given to me by Api Rangihuna (former Poverty Bay rugby representative), one of the fellas going through treatment. We would sit there and talk about East Coast and the rugby. I never felt far from home.
“Getting that diagnosis was a big shock. You don't expect to be diagnosed with that when you're young,” the 37-year-old said.
“You are confronted with your mortality so you have to readjust your priorities, what is really important to you.
“I am a child of the sea and having my feet firmly planted on the whenua (land) — having a clear why for doing what you're doing and how you're doing it.
“It was a three-and-a-half-month period of looking inwards at yourself. It was almost a gift, a cursed gift. You don't wish that experience on anyone so you try to take the learnings from it.
“One at the top of my mind is to take that little bit of time out to keep your feet grounded . . . make sure you're doing OK physically. Take time to get your checks done.
“If you're wanting to be strong to serve your community, you have to be a little bit selfish. If that means getting smear tests, or prostate checked, whatever it is, you need to make sure you're looking after your vehicle. Your family deserve that from you.”
Ms Allan shared her story on Facebook and it inspired thousands of people around New Zealand to get checked by a doctor.
People contacted her when they received abnormal results and again when they were diagnosed with cancer. They asked her about what types of treatment she was going through.
“I had a sort of pseudo role — going through treatment and being in a privileged position to hold people's hands by meeting them through the internet.
“I decided if I could assist others in any way shape or form, I would use my platforms to do that. I would try to be there as much as I could for those reaching out because I know I would have wanted that.”
Ms Allan retained her Associate Minister for Environment portfolio throughout her treatment.
“I have been working on a whole range of things like the Resource Management Act reforms.
“I am looking forward to cracking back into it. You will see me popping up around the electorate. Soon you will see me back in Parliament. We are looking at timeframes.
“These things are a wake-up call. I have to be really strict on how I manage my time. I have always thrown myself into work. I won't ever take my foot of the pace completely. I really enjoy my role and I feel it's a real privilege to do this job. I wake up and I want to go to work. I want to put my boots on and get into it.
“I'm working on the RMA reforms as that has huge consequences and implications for us here in Te Tairawhiti, particularly with the housing challenges. It's a major barrier for us in terms of land use to be able to continue building the things we need to. It is a major piece of work.”
As Conservation Minister, she hopes to make some “cool announcements” about goings-on in Tairawhiti.
“The focus is about getting people into mahi (work), good mahi — jobs that nurture the whenua and our people. And, of course, there is a range of stuff going on in the oceans that are of deep concern to me.”
Not to mention the ever-present Covid-19 situation and the health and economic offshoots of the pandemic.
“I need to make sure our community feels our economy is tracking well and that it's doing what it should be. I feel my job is constantly touching base with folks to make sure the numbers are being reflected in reality with people's experiences.
“In large, we seem to be doing pretty OK.
“Our big challenge is housing.”
Last week she visited Toihoukura school of Maori visual arts students who have an upcoming exhibition in the Beehive.
“They spoke about challenges of accessing mental health services and housing. They also raised political issues associated with the environment and the climate.”
Ms Allan thanked every single healthcare professional she dealt with during her treatment.
“It was incredible the care I received . . . second to none. That extends to all the people who would bring me lunch, or clean the rooms, anyone that helped me through it. I got to know everyone pretty well as I was meeting a lot of people going through hard things like the treatment I was.
“The families of the people receiving treatment will always be close to my heart. It was an intimate part of our lives. I heard from one gentleman that his son had passed away. That is a part of the journey. Each story sticks with you.
“I want to thank all the friends and whanau who gave up their time and the workplaces that supported them to be around me.”
“I'm really grateful for those who have given a lot of time to help me get to this point and here we are, ready to get running.”