Cabinet minister Kiritapu Allan returns to work today after intensive treatment for cervical cancer which she says has changed her life.
“It was a huge opportunity – one you perhaps might not have wanted but nevertheless got – to reflect on every aspect of life and to really confront pain,” she told the Herald.
Her fresh start at work coincides with a move to a new house in Wellington two days ago which her parents, David and Gail, are helping to renovate.
They and Allan’s friends kept vigil throughout the treatment at Wellington public hospital which lasted in total for nine weeks.
She would have chemo on day one and that was usually an eight to 10-hour procedure and then five days of external radiation, a part which lasted for about five weeks.
“That was the regime every single day … and never was I alone.
“I don’t think I knew how much love I had in my life until that point,” said Allan.
“We probably don’t tell each other enough how much we love and appreciate each other. So I had that opportunity to have my mates and have my family hold me for that duration because I certainly could not have done it myself.”
The country was as shocked as her Cabinet colleagues when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Allan’s illness and leave of absence on April 6.
She was not only Cabinet’s youngest member but she one of its most energetic in dealing with disasters as Emergency Management Minister, including floods and the widespread tsunami warning in early March.
But in the final days of work before taking leave, Allan said the pain had been so great that at times she couldn’t stand up.
“I was incredibly scared at stages,” she said.
“I’ve got a 4-year-old daughter. Often my thoughts were thinking about her and what life might be like without her mum-mum in it, or what I wanted to fight for in terms of seeing her 21st birthday or her get married or who knows what she wants to do or see her performing kapa haka on the stage.
“So I found myself feel incredibly fearful that I might not see those key milestones.
“But at the same time. I had this opportunity to reflect and find a lot of joy in my life that I have, probably that I didn’t take a lot of time to be really grateful for.”
During her recovery period, she had slowed right down and took time to go to the ocean and the bush.
“I feel incredibly blessed to live where I do, to have the people I’ve got in my life. If you’re not happy, change it, but I feel like I have a really full life and I feel bloody privileged.”
Asked how it had changed her, Allan said she wanted to make the most of the gift of life.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean go hard, go fast, go hard, go fast.
“It might mean slow down and enjoy some of the quieter moments.
“Find your joy, whatever that is.
“For me, I feel I was born to live a life of service, so live by that, breathe it, give yourself wholly to that and really live life.”
Allan says her radiation oncologist was very pleased at the reduction in the size of the tumour.
For the next five years she will be tested every six months to see if it has increased or decreased and decisions will be made at that juncture.
“But the medical team feel like it has been incredibly successful,” she said.
“The best gauge of how I’m doing is how I’m feeling and I’m feeling exceptionally good.”
Allan posted on Facebook regularly and through the ordeal in a bid to get other people to do what she hadn’t done, which was to have regular check-ups and to seek help as soon as something appeared to be wrong.
“When I first went public, it did encourage a wave of folks to get tested which was fantastic,” she said.
When people’s test came back abnormal, she would get a lot of messages as well from people who were a bit scared and she could recommend online support groups.
“Just being a mate you can hold your hand across the cyber because you know exactly how scary it is.
“Once you fall into this world you never want to be a part of, you get to know it pretty quickly and navigate it.”
She kept up with politics by listening to Question Time, keeping up with political podcasts and the Economist and was sent her own copy of the Budget by Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson.
When she needed some relaxing music, Maisey Rika was a go-to favourite.
“She almost became my companion in my ear. Very soothing. If I was wanting a little more excitement, it might be L.A.B or Six60 or Ladi6 maybe. I love New Zealand music. “
Allan said she could not thank enough the people in the health system, whether it was the doctors, the other health practitioners, the volunteers at the Cancer Society, the receptionist, the cleaners or the tea lady.
“We’d come in in different states of fear and I felt incredibly wrapped up from the day there was a hint something was a little bit wrong.
“We were just wrapped up by their love and their care and they do that every single day for so many people.”
Allan said she had always been active but had lost a lot of muscle during her treatment. She started back walking about 1km a day and is now up to 3km.
“A big change for my own personal life is just this additional desire to really chase health,” she said.
She wants to get back to a place “where I feel like me and my body are aligned and I can trust it again”.
At present, she is taking part in alcohol-free Dry July, for the first time, and has raised just over $4000 so far for charities.
And she is planning to take part in the IronMāori event later in the year in Hawkes Bay which will involve a 20km run. The name of the team will be “Smear Your Mea”, after the campaign by the late Talei Morrison encouraging women to have cervical smears, before cervical cancer claimed her life.
It will be a gradual build-up, as will the return to work, which she missed.
“I am probably admittedly a workaholic. I love working. I come from a hard-working family. That’s how I know myself best, through my work.”
Allan did not lose all her ministerial warrants when she took leave. She kept Associate Environment and has been receiving a bag of papers each week on Resource Management Act reforms, which Environment Minister David Parker has been leading.
Jacinda Ardern forbade Allan from attending meetings but allowed her to give written feedback.
And when she gets her ministerial warrants back today, it won’t include Emergency Management. Kris Faafoi will hold on to that for another eight weeks, when it will be reassessed.
But she will get back Conservation and Associate Arts Culture and Heritage.
As part of the Arts, Culture and Heritage responsibilities, she will be shepherding the bill allowing for the Matariki public holiday through Parliament, all the more poignant because her daughter, Hiwaiterangi, is named after the newest star of the Matariki constellation, the rise of which marks the Māori new year.
The two big pieces of work in Conservation are the Jobs for nature programme, for which $400 million has been budgeted from the Covid-19 response; and the Biodiversity Strategy, and how to implement it.
“Little-known fact is that a lot know about how significant the impacts of climate change are on us as a country, particularly as a little coastal country but what’s a lesser-known fact is that the crisis facing our biodiversity is at a really critical stage – as critical many would say as the climate change crisis is in terms of all of humanity’s wellbeing.”
Allan has resumed duties in her electorate, East Coast, which was serviced by Ikaroa Rawhiti MP Meka Whaitiri and list MP Tamati Coffey in her absence, and a stream of visits from Labour colleagues in the 2020 and 2017 intake.
She is grateful for the support she received from across the House, including visits from Opposition MPs – whom she won’t name.
“They might get into trouble,” she jokes.
Allan arrived back in Wellington on Saturday from her electorate, East Coast, to spend the first night in the house in Khandallah which she shares with her partner, broadcaster Mani Dunlop.
“Hopefully soon we’ll have a bathroom,” said Allan.
“I’ve got my dad and my uncles and everybody here bashing a few walls down and making sure it is fit for purpose.”
It was also the start of Matariki.
“So Matariki, going back to work, in the new house, and for us I think it is probably an incredible time just to be grounded in our new place, be reflective on the year that has been, and also think about what the year ahead will be for us as a family. “
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