Australian artist Delta Goodrem was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a malignant form of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system. Below is her story from 2004. She has inspired many and continues to bring joy to the world and her fans through her music. Dear Life – Im a survivor! is one of her latest tracks.
Delta’s Darkest Hour
“I saw the Grim Reaper.”
“My arms were constantly aching from the chemotherapy.”
“I so desperately want to be better.”
A sincere and beautiful optimist, read how at 18 years of age one of Australia’s pop icons battled with the derailing news of living with cancer and her inspiring journey to recovery.
Delta Goodrem’s fingers danced across the piano keys as she sought solace and refuge in her music. As she played, she was conscious of the lump at the base of her throat. Yet she was trying not to think about that or the traumatic needle biopsies, blood samples and CAT scans she’d had the day before. Instead, she gave herself over to melody and song.
It was Tuesday, July 8, 2003 and the emotional cocoon that Delta was building around herself was just about to come crashing down. She heard the doors of the North Sydney studio open and looked up to see her mother, Lea, and brother, Trent. The shock and sadness in their eyes said more than any words.
“Suddenly, I felt my heart beating and the blood pounding in my ears,” recalls Delta. “I looked at them and then at Vince Pizzinga, my songwriting partner. There were tears rolling down his face. When I looked back Trent was crying. And I started to cry.
“Everything started to swirl. Mum put her arms around me. I could hear Vince saying, ‘It’s okay, sweetheart. Everything will be all right.’ Mum said, ‘Delta we need to go to the hospital.’ I remember feeling numb. And I remember my hands starting to shake. I said, ‘Tell me. Tell me what it is.’ Then Mum said, ‘They think you have lymphatic cancer.’ ”
Just the day before, Delta Goodrem’s life had reached a satisfying crescendo. Her debut album Innocent Eyes was number one in Australia and number two in the UK. By the end of the week she was due in New York to start her campaign to conquer the US. The beautiful 18-year-old from the Sydney suburb of Glenhaven had the world at her feet.
Now that fairytale had been swept away by shock and uncertainty. And the talented, confident pop princess was left a frightened, vulnerable girl.
“The enormity of the moment, hearing those words form Mum, was overwhelming. In a matter of a few seconds, my whole world was turned upside down.
“I was suddenly very cold. I couldn’t stop shaking. I felt like a little animal that had been backed into a corner. I kept thinking, “My god, I am only 18. I am only 18, this is not supposed to happen.” I remember Mum was walking with me to the car. She had her arm around me and I was sobbing. All the way to the hospital, I was shaking and it didn’t stop for the next 24 hours.”
Ten months later, Delta, now 19, is no longer a shaking frightened girl. Today she is strong, far stronger than she ever thought possible. She has endured doubt and fear. She has faced and accepted her illness, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a malignant form of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system.
She has endured the shock of surgery and the discovery that she had not one tumour, but many.
Then there was the distressing side effects of her treatment: the loss of her beautiful hair, the need for braces to stop her teeth moving, the unavoidable risk to her vocal cords and the gaping void of uncertainty that can often haunt cancer sufferers as their treatment ends.
Delta, here with her family pet, Maverick, began to lose her luxurious mane of hair after
her second session of chemotherapy. Her brother, Trent, took this beautiful photograph.
The ordeal has transformed her. Delta is still sweet, caring and talented, but she has shed some of her innocence. In its place is a new-found maturity and a profound understanding about the power of love and faith. She has discovered that love can spring from the most unexpected places – giving rise to her relationship with tennis star Mark Philippoussis – and learned some harsh facts about life and those she needs beside her and those she doesn’t.
“I have this idea that people look at me and think that, aside from the short hair, I am the same person, the same Delta,” she says. “It’s as though they are just waiting for my hair to grow back and I will be the same again, as though nothing has happened. But you can’t go through something like this and be the same person at the end. It’s simply not possible.”
Delta’s learning curve has been sharp and painful. And it began long before the tumultuous week in July when she was finally diagnosed. Her body was giving warning signals long before either she or her doctors realised what was happening.
In 2002, Delta was pushing herself hard. She was working on the TV series Neighbours, often starting at 5:30am, and in her spare time, writing and recording songs until the early hours. One evening, Delta noticed a rash that quickly spread over her entire body.
“It started on my arms, but then I was covered from head to toe. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was my immune system breaking down. I thought I was completely run down. I was prescribed some tablets and it slowly went away.”
However, the demands on her time and endurance did not. Her first single, Born To Try, was released in November that year. An instant hit, it was quickly followed by Lost Without Youand then Innocent Eyes, the title song from her debut album. Suddenly, the TV star was a pop idol, too.
“All of a sudden I would go to the UK for the weekend to do a record launch, then be back in Australia on the Monday to do Neighbours. I was running around in the middle of a whirlwind,” Delta recalls.
She started a health regimen to counter the extraordinary hours that she was working. Then, at the gym early last year, she made a worrying discovery.
“I was doing some sit-ups, when I felt something pop in my neck. I reached down and felt a small lump at the base of my throat. It wasn’t sore, it wasn’t visible, but I could feel it.” The lump began to grow and, in early February, Delta recalls that “it started to get bigger. It was about the size of a 10-cent coin. The doctor said that it was a swollen gland.”
A month later the lump was still there, but as “there was nothing else going on that might be linked to it except that I was getting very tired, I just put that down to my schedule. I went to the doctor and she suggested that I come back in four weeks to get it checked.”
A month passed, then another. Delta was busier than ever. “Then in March , I began to lose weight. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a lather. I’d talk to people not knowing what was happening. I was vague, trying to keep up a front. Behind the scenes, I was saying to myself: ‘I’m sick. There’s something wrong.’ I wanted to get myself checked, but there was always something else that took priority.”
By July last year, Delta was exhausted. On Thursday, July 3, she went out for dinner with friends in Melbourne. She was due on the Neighbours set at 5:30am the next day. At 12:30am, she went to bed and awoke precisely at 3:31am, drenched in sweat.
“I woke up completely soaked and I’d had a bad dream,” she recalls. “All I saw was the Grim Reaper. It was so prominent in my mind, so vivid. All I remembered was this dark face and – I know this sounds awful – a grave. I froze.
“Mum was in Sydney and I was alone. I couldn’t move. I was lying there and I thought, ‘My god, there is a bad spirit in the house.’ Or someone was in the house, or the building was about to collapse, something terrible was going to happen. It was a premonition. It terrified me.”
She called her mother, Lea, and they spoke until 4:30am. Then Delta called her friend, Jude Bolton, a Sydney Swans AFL footballer. They talked until five. Delta went to work and, later, took an afternoon flight to Sydney.
“By the time I got home, I was exhausted. I fell into Mum’s arms,” she says. “She took one look at me and knew I had to see a doctor. She finally found a specialist who would see me on Monday.”
That appointment proved traumatic, recalls Lea, 49. “The specialist knew straight away that she was seriously ill. When Delta explained about the night sweats, the tiredness and the weight loss – all symptoms of cancer – he knew. He looked across at me, and I knew, too. It was a difficult moment, but we had to find out for sure.”
The doctor took three needle biopsies from the lump, blood tests and a CAT scan. Next day, he rang Lea to tell her the results. She told Trent and Delta’s father, Denis, then took Trent with her to the studio to break the news to Delta and take her to St Vincent’s Hospital.
“It was such a shock. I was crying my eyes out,” Delta says. “I had been on a treadmill for so long and now, suddenly, everything stopped. I just wanted my mum. As long as I could smell her hair and know she was near, then I felt protected. She was what I needed most.
“All the while, I kept thinking, ‘So, this is the next challenge. How am I going to meet this?’ ” Yet more shocks were to come. Delta had to undergo an emergency operation the next morning.
“We spent hours with the doctors that day,” she says. “They explained what they had found in the biopsies and the blood tests, and told me I had multiple tumours around my throat. They had to remove the tumours as quickly as possible.”
Lea says that waiting for the operation was terrible. “Until that moment, I had held up pretty well. I was trying to be strong for Delta. I had called the people at Neighbours, at Channel Ten, at Sony (Delta’s record company) and called her manager to let them know what was happening. I was just doing what needed to be done, so Delta wouldn’t worry. But, as we were waiting to go to the operating theatre, I lost it.
“You can’t imagine what it is like to be sending your daughter into surgery, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
In that moment, Delta found some of her own untapped strength. “I looked at Mum and something just kicked in. I knew it was my turn to be the strong one, to help her, my dad and my brother through. I kept telling them that everything would be okay.”
The operation took three hours, as the medical team removed the tumours they had identified and searched for others. They found even more tumours, mostly around Delta’s throat.
“We were lucky that the lump came up when it did,” explains Lea. “Otherwise we might never have known until it was too late. The lump started people asking the right questions. Till then, nobody had asked about night sweats. We just put it all down to her being too tired, not having enough sleep, working too long and not eating the right things.”
The next few days were filled with explanations about chemotherapy and radiation, and their side effects. Delta had to come to terms with her own mortality and the reality of her situation. There was a good chance that she would survive, but there was also a chance she would not. It was made more worrying by the fact that Delta’s Aunt Sandra, the closest of family friends, had died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma two years before.
“I saw Aunt Sandra go through her treatment and that was heart-wrenching,” says Delta. “But I didn’t want to think about death. I also had a feeling that she was looking over me.”
Delta says she has always believed in God and that prayer gave her comfort.
“I believe in faith. I believe in angels. I believe that perhaps God sent me this challenge for a reason so I can help other people,” she explains.
In July, Delta began chemotherapy. The drugs were administered by drip and by injection, in sessions that lasted up to eight hours. “The smell and the taste of the drugs is awful … like petrol. Any time I walk into the hospital and I get a whiff of that smell, it makes me sick. Even talking about it is difficult. I could never tell when I would be sick.
“The taste and smell is the strangest thing. And so strong, like liquid metal. I don’t wish it upon anybody. The feeling is like something is sucking out your soul, like there is nothing left of you inside.
“It’s poison and I had to keep telling myself that I had to go through this, as bad as it was, to get rid of the cancer in my body. I had to tell myself, this is a wonderful thing, that these are the good guys coming in to get all the bad guys.”
The after-effects of the treatment were devastating. Despite vast doses of anti-nausea drugs, Delta’s body rebelled, making her suffer prolonged and violent bouts of sickness that left her depleted. Recovery took several days, and often she would just be feeling well when it was time for another session.
Delta began to lose her hair after the second chemotherapy session. “I always really loved my hair and it was so much a part of me but, to be honest, I didn’t mind that much at the start. I told myself, ‘Hair is hair. It grows back.’ Then it started to fall out more and more, and I wasn’t prepared for that. There was hair everywhere and that was probably most difficult for my family to cope with. Trent tried to make it all seem normal and kept saying things like, ‘Everyone loses lots of hair, look at my pillow.’
“I would trim it and it would look all right for a while. I didn’t want to take it all off. I guess I wanted to hang on to what I had for as long as I could. I would wake up and the pillow would be covered in hair. The drain would be clogged with it after a shower. I’d run my hands through it and clumps would come away in my fingers. Finally, it was almost all gone, except for a little tuft at the front. It looked like I had a comb-over at 18.”
Delta and her family were buoyed by thousands of messages of support. “I was so appreciative that people were being so supportive and it was really special to see that and to feel it, too. People from so many walks of life took the time to send me letters that were truly beautiful.
“I can never repay them enough for their beautiful words,” says Delta. “And the hospital staff were fantastic, too.”
There were also messages from actress Belinda Emmett, who is fighting a battle with bone cancer, and her partner Rove McManus. “They were wonderful and a true inspiration for me,” says Delta.
Early in her treatment, Delta received a phone call from Elton John. “He called out of the blue and said, ‘On behalf of Great Britain, I would just like to wish you all the best.’
“He had the most amazing timing. Just when I was letting it all get on top of me, he’d send a little basket of goodies to cheer me up,” she says.
There was also a letter of support from Olivia Newton-John, whom Delta has met several times. “It was a very personal letter just to help me keep my spirits up and [tell me] that I should run my own race. It was lovely.”
Even so, the side effects were grueling. Delta’s veins collapsed from constant intravenous infusions and she came to dread needles so much that she would faint. Steroids caused her to become bloated. Her self-confidence plummeted.
The only bright spot on her horizon was the ARIA awards in October 2003, at which she was nominated for a record 10 awards. Delta was determined to be at the ceremony, so her doctors suspended the chemotherapy for a week.
“The ARIAs was a light at the end of the tunnel, because I had something to look forward to,” Delta says. “So much preparation went into getting me there. I thought about going without my hair, but then I thought about what effect that might have on little kids and I decided to go with a wig, which they glued to my head. It took hours to get off.”
Delta took out seven awards. “I really wanted to thank all of the people who had helped me and I was able to do that. It was such a special night.”
Much was made in the press of Delta’s brief thanks to manager Glenn Wheatley. By the time of the ARIAs ceremony, Delta had already made the decision to end their association. “When a girl is 18 and she has something like this happen to her, she very quickly sorts out who she wants by her side and who she doesn’t,” she says.
“My relationship with Glenn had not been good for some time before I got the cancer. When that came along, it put everything else in my life in perspective, sharp perspective. In the end, it was an easy decision.”
Delta completed her chemotherapy in early November and began her radiation therapy. It was the start of a daily trek to the hospital that was both time-consuming and exhausting. “I started to go downhill mentally and emotionally. I kept thinking, ‘Is it working? Did it have any benefit at all?’ In hindsight, the doubt that started to creep in was probably because the radiation really sapped my energy. It made me so tired.”
Doctors made a full body mask to shield the parts of her body which were not to be radiated. Even so, Delta’s teeth began to move and her gums to bleed.
Her medical team decided she needed braces to preserve her teeth and her smile. “I love to smile. It’s an essential part of me,” she says.
Much of the radiation in Delta’s case was concentrated around her throat, where the bulk of her tumours were. The radiation threatened her vocal cords and the future quality of her voice.
“That was the scariest thing. We were told very early that this was a possibility and it was a terrible shock. I was saying, ‘Please don’t, this is my life.’ It was an awful dilemma, because I needed the radiation to have a life, but there was a risk that it might take away the one thing that made my life the way it is.
“The doctors made sure as much as possible was protected, but they couldn’t give me a guarantee that it wouldn’t affect my voice.”
Delta was plagued by self doubt and depression. “I have never had depression before. Everything seemed to be weighing me down,” she recalls. “I was wondering if the treatment was working, about how I looked, with my fluctuating weight and my hair gone. My arms were constantly aching from the after-effects of chemotherapy.”
In the midst of this confusion, Delta received a get-well message from tennis star Mark Philippoussis, 27.
“Mark was in Melbourne for the Davis Cup and he was in a record store when he came across my album,” says Delta. “He picked it up and turned to his friend and asked, ‘Who’s Delta Goodrem?’ His friend said I’d been on top of the charts here for a while, but I’d recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the same disease that Mark’s father, Nick, had beaten three times.
“He arranged to send me some flowers and a get-well message. His management rang my management and they sent the flowers to Melbourne, but I was in Sydney, so I never got the flowers. I did eventually get the card and I thought it was very sweet.”
Delta began returning calls to her well-wishers in early December. Mark was one of them. At the time, she was still shy and sensitive about her appearance.
“It took me a long time but, when I was feeling a little better, I called him and said thank you for the flowers and the card and the sentiment,” she says. “So I did and we had a chat, and then, a little while later, he called back and said, ‘Why don’t you come to the tennis?’ ”
Delta accepted Mark’s invitation and cheered him on during his matches at the Adidas International in January this year, in Sydney. A few days later, they met for lunch in Bondi, and the relationship blossomed during the Australian Open that month, when Mark even wore the Greek letter Delta on a bandage around one of his fingers because it reminded him of her strength.
“Mark is a very caring young man,” says Lea. “And he came along at just the right time for Delta. Whoever was sprinkling stardust around at the time, I thank them, because Mark has made such a difference. He came into her life when, emotionally, she was at her lowest and she wasn’t feeling physically attractive – there wasn’t a lot of hair under that cap – and he didn’t see any of that.
“He didn’t even notice it. He made her take her hat off all the time. She would wear wigs and he would ask her what she was doing.”
Such intimacy made it all the more painful when Mark came under fire from his former coach, Pat Cash, who insinuated that Mark’s poor showing at the Australian Open was because of his relationship and “late nights” with Delta.
“I was hurt by that,” she says. “Pat Cash doesn’t know anything about me, nor does he have a right to make comments about me or my life. Sure, I know he has been Mark’s coach, but he knows nothing about me.
“His comments hurt because I was just getting back to feeling good about myself and about Mark, and then that was splashed all over the papers.
“For him to say that put a really bad slant on something that was lovely, something that came out of nowhere and was wonderful. It was disrespectful.”
Delta is coy about her feelings. “This is the part where I’m supposed to go all girly, right?” she says, blushing. She avoids the question of love, but says, “Mark is a wonderful man and we are very happy together. He is very special to me.”
When Delta completed her radiation treatment, almost immediately she and Lea left for a holiday in the United States. “I really needed to get away. I didn’t want to wear a hat, I just wanted to be able to walk out of the house and be me. I just needed a break from all the attention.”
She met Mark in Los Angeles. They also took the opportunity to act like any other young couple – going out to lunch, attending a Sting concert and enjoying a little time to themselves. Delta and Lea even visited Mark and his father, Nick, at Mark’s Florida home in Delray, where they stayed for a few days.
“Nick and I sat and had a chat about his lymphoma, about his experiences and my experiences, and what it means to us,” says Delta. “He has been told three times that he won’t survive, but he’s still here. That’s pretty inspiring.”
During her time overseas, Delta’s hair began to grow back. At first it came in as a series of coarse grey tufts. “I wasn’t expecting that. Even my eyebrows were grey. But when it came back a second time, it was darker and curly. It took a while to get used to it, but now I’m happy with the way it looks. I’ve put some highlights in it and it’s not so bad.”
Delta is aware of the future implications of her condition. “When I was first told about the lymphoma, I read everything I could about how it might affect me.
“So I know that there are a number of increased risks – of the lymphoma returning, of breast cancer, skin cancer, of infertility. These are all things that I have thought deeply about. And I think that those are bridges that I have to cross when I come to them.
“The treatment that I had was the best possible treatment. For me, there was no alternative because I so desperately want to be better, for this to be gone from my life. So what lies in the future in terms of my health is something I can’t allow myself to worry about. I’ve had enough to think about in the present.
“I can’t say yet that I am out of the woods. I still have a lot of tests to do. But there is a lot of hope.”
Delta needs cancer checks every few months, but the medical prognosis is good and her vitality is increasing each day. She’s had her braces removed “and that’s fantastic. I feel like part of me has been set free again.
“There are so many people out there who are coping with situations so much tougher than anything I’ve had to face,” she says. “They have incredible challenges and they are my inspiration. I can honestly say I never asked ‘why me?’. If you can be chosen to be successful, then you can be chosen to be sick. It made me realise anything can happen to anyone.”
She is already back at work. She’s making a movie, Hating Alison Ashley, in which she plays the title character; she’s also discussing plans to sing at Olympic functions at the Athens Games in August; and, in a few months, she will be back in the studio working on a new album which reflects her recent experiences.
“My voice is not quite ready for performances yet, but it is getting better,” she says.
Delta is frustrated that she can’t yet sing publicly. “I love to perform and to not be able to is awful. My voice is building up again. I need to stretch my voice little by little. It will take time before I am at that level again, but it’s going well.”
When and if she is well enough, Delta plans to resume her push to launch her career in the US, but right now that is a long way off.
“At the moment, I just want to enjoy life. I have to focus on putting this behind me. When I was on Neighbours, I was always so busy that I never had the time to speak to my brother or find out what was happening in his life.
“Now, I just make the time, because my family is the most important thing in my life.
“It’s amazing how I have learned to say no. The world is not going to collapse if I say no. I know that now. But there is something inside that tells me I still have so much to give to people.”
The Australian Women’s Weekly – May 2004