Nicky Park: Helena McAlpine - 'I just don't want to die before I've got everything done'

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Helena McAlpine has been told she has between one and three years left to live.Photo / Ellen Robertson of Robertson Design
Helena McAlpine has been told she has between one and three years left to live.Photo / Ellen Robertson of Robertson Design

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Helena McAlpine doesn't want to be remembered as the girl who died from cancer.

She wants to be remembered as the "good-time party girl who's a highly irresponsible adult - with a heart of gold though".

"I don't ever want to thought of as being a bad human being. I want to be thought of as being a good neighbour and a good friend and a loving, caring, parent."

I had a feeling Helena and I would get along well. I could hear her outspoken enthusiasm over the phone. I knew her honesty would be endearing. We've both got a wacky idea for a children's book, are expats who fell in love with NZ, have lost the odd shoe during a night out and live to thrive.

When we finally got to meet for a latte, our interview turned into banter between girlfriends. I wondered what the diners around us at the Ponsonby cafe were thinking as we talked about periods, boobs, bucket lists, boyfriends and dying.

"I don't care, f**k 'em," Helena says, reaching down her strapless dress to adjust her breasts, removed then reconstructed when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer.

Helena is a gorgeous "hot mess" - wearing a prissy navy dress, sky high heels, with pink random feathers in her hair and multi-colour nails polish chipping off her fingers.

She moved to New Zealand at 22 after marrying a Kiwi guy she met in Europe. She spent a decade developing an accidental career in the media world. But after a year hosting a music show on C4 everything came crashing down. In 2009 she was made redundant, her relationship ended, her dog died and she lost a lot of money in a "bad investment". Helena became depressed, locked herself inside her Ponsonby flat for weeks, drank heaps of alcohol and took packets of painkillers.

"It was a very depressing time," she says.

"I was so empty inside. If it wasn't for my friends coming around to make sure I wasn't choking on a pool of my own vomit then I would have had a lot more bitterness going on."

In August that year Helena managed to drag herself out of that state. The following month she turned 31 and, weeks later, found out she had breast cancer.

"I was at work and went down and took the call and the lovely girl said, 'Honey, are you sitting down?' and I was like well you don't need to say anything else now.

"I had a bit of a cry, but I didn't feel like it was the end of days."

When she told her daughter, Shannon, that "mummy had cancer" the then nine-year-old asked: "Are you going to die?"

"I was like, 'no, I'm not going to die! I'm your mother, I'm a super-f***ing-hero! I don't die!'.

"She went, 'oh, ok, what's for dinner?' and I said 'burritos', [she asked]'can I have extra cheese?'

"And that was the end of the conversation."

But this year cancer spread. It migrated out of her lymph nodes because she didn't take her medication properly. She can't explain why she wasn't more vigilant, and it's the only time I see a hint of sadness on her warm face.

"I honestly thought I was invincible. F**k it, I've done it, I've past all the tests, I've had all the operations, I've had the medicine. I'm done."

The cancer has now lodged itself in her liver, returned to her breast and most recently starting taking over her bones. It aches in her side, and sometimes it spikes (like a bad stitch you get when you exercise). She gets really sleepy. In January she was told she had months to live. So she got her ovaries removed, took the huge lump out of her breast and she's dosed up on strong meds. Helena has since been told she has between one and three years left of living, but she "just kind of knows" she has decades.

"I'm not going to deny I'm scared, I don't want to die ... I just don't want to die before I've got everything done."

She's started preparing things for when she does have to leave her daughter. She's allocated different roles to her friends ("a bunch of munters") - someone to talk to the teen when she learns to drive, when she starts uni, when she gets married. Helena writes notes in books for her daughter to read and is crafting bunting out of various bits of sentimental fabric.

Helena wants to "keep doing stuff". She shows me her action-packed bucket list - catch a huge fish, shoot a big gun with her daughter, become a marriage celebrant, swim with sharks, appear as an extra on Shortland Street, see a honey badger and blow-up a building.

But right now, it's time to chill out. She's moving to Gisborne next month to live with her best friend's parents - they treat her like a daughter, and she needs to be nurtured.

"Being left to my own devices I think we've established through the craziness that I've done over the last few years that I need boundaries and I need guidance and I need an older person to give me direction. I need a mum and a dad.

"I'm just not disciplined or grown-up enough to be the best version of myself."

* Follow Life & Style Editor Nicky Park on Twitter.

Nicky Park

Editor of Life & Style.

Nicky lives to wine, dine and thrive. As Life & Style Editor at the New Zealand Herald online, she feels lucky she can call this work. Nicky crafted her writing skills as a cadet for an Australian news wire. Amongst the coverage of sport, news, finance and courts she found a favourite in features. A stint as a foreign correspondent sent this chipper Aussie across the Tasman, covering the big issues of the Pacific Islands. Every single day Nicky relishes the opportunities she has to mix and mingle with interesting people, feast on delicious food, visit new places and write all about it. Nicky wants everyone to make the most of their minutes, learn lots and live their best life.

Read more by Nicky Park

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