Our People: Lyn Preston

By Jill Nicholas

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HEALTHY: Lyn Preston works out "religiously" in her home gym. STEPHEN PARKER 250714sp1.JPG
HEALTHY: Lyn Preston works out "religiously" in her home gym. STEPHEN PARKER 250714sp1.JPG

If Lyn Preston isn't one of Rotorua's fittest 50-somethings we'll double her age in press-ups as penance for making such a misleading statement.

Lyn wasn't always super fit, at 19 she was given six months tops to live. Hodgkins Lymphoma was diagnosed, then its survival rate was classified 'nil'.

What was believed to be a tongue ulcer turned out to be a cancerous tumour that was treated with radiotherapy so severe it burned her face. Surgery to remove any remaining "lumps and bumps" stretched from her neck to her shoulder blade and was so invasive she was left lopsided.

These were the days before chemotherapy and the only place the "Koutu kid" could be given the radical treatment required was Christchurch Hospital. Lyn defied the dire predictions her days were numbered and for this she gives thanks to fitness.

Returning home she immediately joined a gym "to straighten myself up".

The day an aerobics instructor didn't turn up she took over, remaining in front of classes until a year or so ago.

But there's been no let up of the physical demands she makes of herself, becoming an exponent of Rip 60, a strap workout, "religiously" undertaken in her home gym.

As for that lymphoma, it's long gone and Lyn walks as upright as any deportment instructor could command.

This is a potted version of Lyn Preston's brush with her mortality and it's a story she's not previously shared publicly. We had an inkling of it but it took a lot of cajoling before Lyn agreed to re-live the traumatic time that spun her latter teenage years into turmoil.

What swayed her to open up was this column's recent telling of her good mate, Jon Olphert, giving cancer the brush-off .

His battle's been a lot more recent than Lyn's, all the more reason, we suggest, for her to share her experience of 37 years ago and prove to others the word 'terminal' isn't always as the dictionary defines it.

Lyn was a "newbie" clerk with the Land & Survey Department when she began to feel unwell. Her mother, a nurse, insisted she see the family's GP.

"He gave me some stuff for the ulcer on the side of my tongue, when it didn't get better he sent me to a skin specialist, he said to keep on with the medication."

The ulcer still refused to budge and she was referred to an ear, nose and throat surgeon.

"He said it was an abscess and cut around it, it turned out to be a cancerous growth."

Lyn uses Elvis Presley's death to pinpoint the year as 1977.

In Christchurch she was asked if she'd had any dental work done. "I had, and remembered the drill nicked my mouth, when I had the biopsy they found a little piece of mercury used to fill teeth, doctors said it could have caused the tumour."

Lyn's gruelling treatment began: "Eight weeks of intensive radiotherapy in a decompression chamber, the kind divers with the bends go into. I was bolted to a table so I couldn't get out - I can still smell the oxygen, I got severe radiation burns, my face blistered and burned so badly treatment had to stop for a while."

While waiting for her face to heal Lyn went to work at the Christchurch Lands & Survey office, returning to her hospital bed at night. " I wasn't sick, just burnt, a bit freakish-looking but the department was absolutely great to me."

When radiotherapy finished Lyn had the radical neck dissection that turned her into a human Leaning Tower of Pisa. "I came home after that and was back at work when the final biopsy results came. It was clear, they were very surprised to find no more active cells.

"That was good but I hated being so lopsided, no one suggested physiotherapy which they would today, so I joined the gym, going two or three times a day, I was in my own space there telling myself I didn't have a disability, just a funny neck."

Her clash with cancer didn't put the handbrake on her career. Over the next 25 years she worked for the Public Service, moving from Land & Survey to Internal Affairs as manager of Rotorua's Passport and Citizenship Office.

All went swimmingly until she applied for the assistant regional manager's job, sending male chauvinism into overdrive.

"A man got it because he was viewed as a breadwinner, I wasn't."

She appealed, putting herself back on the personal battlefield cancer introduced her to.

"I didn't have the $15,000 for the legal bill, I borrowed it from the PSIS, won, got a $6000 pay rise and paid every cent back."

Since the Public Service's demise as a regional entity Lyn's popped up in a number of Rotorua workplaces, firstly as manager of Tikitere Sport and Spa, (formerly Kiwi Ranch), when it folded she took over as human resources manager at the then Grand Tiara Hotel before taking on a similar slot with the Owhata Group's taverns and bars.

For the past six years she's been First Sovereign Trust's grants manager "a wonderful job working with community groups".

There's been another personal challenge Lyn Preston has confronted head-on. Like her cancer it's one she's not previously talked about openly, but does so with remarkable candour.

"Five years ago I realised I'd developed too much of an interest in wine, I went cold turkey, broke the cycle and have been dry since. I've taken off about 6kg, that's been a real bonus."

Born: Rotorua, 1957
Education: Western Heights and St Michael's primaries, Sunset and Kaitao Intermediates (foundation pupil at latter), Western Heights High
Family: Father the late Jim Preston, Mother Win, five sisters, one brother, "heaps" of nieces and nephews
Interests: Fitness, reading fitness books "to keep up with trends", shopping, travel
On her illness: "An interesting experience, it taught me what life means."
Personal Philosophy: "Treat people as you'd like to be treated."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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