Any task involving someone’s personal history and emotions is a difficult assignment to undertake where one must strike the perfect balance of empathy as well as still drawing out their emotions.
The concerns that I initially had before going in to the interview was the fact that Ashleigh and I went to school together. Whilst being acquaintances for many years, I thought that it would be uncomfortable as I did not want her to feel as if I was just getting a story. Whilst that was the prominent reason, the interview flowed and dipped between questioning and all the juicy gossip and general life and this put us both at ease. But definitely what set the initial tone was when my pen rolled off my knee and I bashed the microphone into her teeth. We’ll just call it a rookie mistake and never mention it again!
Ashleigh was diagnosed with Metastatic Ewing’s Sarcoma when she was only just 17 years old. I was preparing for my HSC exams and Ashleigh was preparing for her imminent death. This was something that I was prepared to ask her, but I was not ready for how easily she recalled her darkest, scariest days of staring death in the face. I assumed she would recall that time in a sober, highly emotional way; rather, she recounted that experience as if telling me what she did last week. At this stage, I was stumped as to where to take the interview as the follow-up questions were essentially the same but with slight variations. But I quickly thought to ask her about things that she would not be asked on an everyday basis and this is where Ashleigh truly opened up and her vulnerability was exposed.
Ashleigh has done many interviews about living with cancer and how it has affected her and her family as her community has supported her from day one and is interested in her progress. For the majority of our interview, she was bubbly, confident and engaged. However, when I asked her “what has it been like to watch your friends move on?” she quickly withdrew and her vulnerability was portrayed as she – I suppose – had not prepared to be asked those questions. She recalled sitting in a hospital bed – after undergoing a 9 hour operation where the left side of her pelvis was removed and radiated – and scrolling through Facebook and seeing her friends’ 18th birthday parties, all in their dresses, a myriad of friends around them, ready to go out. This was when I changed my story’s angle dramatically as I realised, this is what the story needs to be about – not a young person living with cancer but a a teenager who was missing out on milestones.
Overall, Ashleigh was an amazing person to interview as she presented challenges for me in her responses along with her wit and humour keeping me on my toes. But the part that still stuns me was the fact that Ashleigh thanked me at the end of our interview, for helping her to portray a different side to her cancer story. And this significantly altered my approach to telling her story.