EXCLUSIVE: Denise Scott reveals her brave cancer battle

And how she is coming out the other side with support from unexpected sources.
Denise Scott

Denise Scott’s front yard is picture-book pretty. A weeping crabapple tree is decorated with shiny red fruit, pansies bloom in an old metal wheelbarrow, late winter bulbs peek through the cold, brown loam. Denise chatters away cheerily in the kitchen as she brews a restorative pot of tea.
The idyllic scene belies the challenges she has been navigating the past few months.
On the eve of perhaps the greatest role of her career, Denise had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The cameras were about to roll on a boldly reimagined production of the Ruth Cracknell/Garry McDonald classic, Mother and Son, with Denise in the lead. Yet her doctors had advised she begin chemotherapy right away.

A few months ago – with the production in the can and the chemo complete, during a short break before surgery – we were told Denise was ready to speak with The Weekly about this formidable year.

It had all begun with an angry, red rash. “Originally, the GP said it could be mastitis,” Denise explains as we sit at her long wooden dining table on a grey Melbourne morning.

“The night I noticed the rash, I thought, ‘this is breast cancer’. Then, when the GP said mastitis, there was a momentary sigh of relief. But she also said, ‘You’ve got to have a mammogram as soon as possible.’ And then I think I knew.

“I learnt the result on a phone consult, and after that, everything went so fast. I’m told I’ve got cancer and it’s HER2-positive. I’ve never heard of HER2-positive. It means that this particular cancer has a protein [human epidermal growth factor receptor 2] that makes it more aggressive. So that’s why you start with chemo. And as well as chemo, you have this other drug, called Herceptin – an injection in a very long needle – that targets the protein.”

Then there’s the prospect of surgery and after that, radiation.

“It was all just a shock,” she admits. “I didn’t know where to put my concerns. I saw a surgeon and I said, ‘I can’t do any of this. I’m going to Sydney to film.’”

It had been a Herculean task even to get permission from Mother and Son’s original creator, Geoffrey Atherden, to tinker with his masterwork. But Matthew Okine – who conceived this new adaptation and who plays Denise’s son – had won his trust.

It had been two years in pre-production and now looked as if it could be the role of Denise’s career. It would be her first television lead, and she loved her character, Maggie, a free spirit, facing the autumn of her life with a glorious mix of pathos, mischief, wilfulness and delight.

“This production meant a lot to me,” she says, “but the doctors were making it clear: ‘You have to start chemotherapy within days.’ I don’t know who first suggested I try to do both, which in hindsight was insane. I think it was me. I was thinking, I don’t want to shut this whole production down, and I was also thinking, I want to live!”

So Denise and her partner of 43 years, John Lane (also a performer), packed up their lives (including his ukelele and trombone and juggling balls), and with their two little dogs, Lambkins and Yoga (who they adopted last year on the reality TV show, The Dog House Australia), made the move to Sydney.

“No one knew how this would turn out – me doing chemo and working,” says Denise. “But the medical team and the showbiz team were both incredible.”

Denise needed to take time off for chemotherapy, blood tests and recovery, so on the days she was on set, she worked 12-hour shifts or more. The fatigue and the physical pain were sometimes overwhelming.

The production company provided a body double who stood in for Denise whenever the cameras weren’t rolling. “Tracy – I would not have been able to do it without her,” Denise says.

There was also a “a young man called Mark, with ambition for a film career, who was assigned to me for the whole shoot. He picked me up every morning, took me home every night, and he would shadow me – I mean shadow me. He had an umbrella, a water bottle and a chair. When I had to go to the toilet, he would follow and stand at a tactful distance.”

One day, Denise emerged from the pathologist in tears, and he was ready to march back in there, furious about the way she’d been treated, and deck someone.

“He was brilliant,” she says. “And I think he learnt more than he ever imagined.”

Between takes, as she sat in her chair, watching the action on set ebb and flow, Denise thought about friends and family, the people she loved, and “drew on the strength” of those who had weathered storms like this before her.

“For some reason,” she explains, “I’ve been thinking about my dad. He died suddenly when I was 26 or 27, and I didn’t really think about him a lot after he died, but I have now, and how much I liked him, and what a fun guy he was …

“On set, there was so much fear of the unknown and feeling sick and thinking, ‘I’m not going to get through this next hour’. And my dad and Lynda Gibson, who was my best friend [a comedian and actress who died from ovarian cancer in 2004], would appear. I’m not saying they appeared out of nowhere. I would conjure them up. I didn’t ever tell anyone. I didn’t even mention it to John. Now I’m telling a magazine!”

After pausing to laugh, Denise continues; “But I felt I could draw on them. I felt they were there and saying, ‘You can do this’. I’d see Lynda. She was even in a costume she used to wear. And I found real strength in them both.”

The set was bustling with unseen influences. Everyone was conscious of Ruth Cracknell’s presence.

Denise never met the grande dame of Australian theatre in person but, she says, “one day we were in a car going from location to location, and there was this beeping. The driver said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just the middle seatbelt in the back. It’s sensing somebody sitting there.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s Ruth Cracknell. She’s with us.’” And she laughs uproariously, and admits that the thought they were in some sense carrying on Ruth’s distinguished legacy did curb a little of the blue humour on set.

“I’d try not to,” she adds, “but occasionally I’d wonder, ‘What would Ruth think?’”

Ruth Cracknell was no prude, mind you. She caused quite a stir, in her day, when she filmed a nude scene in a bath with the young actor, Simon Bossell, for the film Spider and Rose. She was 69, just a year older than Denise is now. History does not record whether Ruth requested a body double. But Denise did have a ‘bottom double’ for her nude scene in Mother and Son.

“I was prepared to do the nude scene from the front, where I’m holding a bag of groceries,” she chuckles, “but not the bottom. They asked Tracy, but she wasn’t willing either, so we had a third person come in for the bottom scene. I tried to be subtle, but I couldn’t wait to check out her bottom. She had a very nice one.”

Denise’s character in Mother and Son puts paid to myriad stereotypes of older women. She’s of a generation that broke barriers all through their lives, and continue to in older age. When she was younger, Maggie married a man from Ghana which, in the ‘60s or ‘70s, would have required boundless courage. And Maggie’s buoyant optimism hints that her 20-year-old self remains, barely concealed, beneath her slightly faltering frame.

“With Maggie, often I went to this place of childlike joy,” Denise says. “It’s where I go if I want to write about a sad event, but write it in a funny way. That’s what I did with this character, because the story is funny, but it’s also poignant.”

Denise found a lot in Maggie to relate to. “I was part of that era,” she says. “Going off to a protest – I loved it. There were anti-war and anti-uranium mining protests. I was old enough for that stuff. Loving music and going to concerts and smoking a joint – being a bit bohemian. I’m old enough to have lived through those things, and Maggie is that. She’s also fun. In the last episode, she reunites with her old nursing friend, Heather, who is played by Jean Kitson, and we have a great time getting up to mischief.”

It was in what she called her “hippy days” that Denise met the love of her life, John. “I’d been living in a house in Darwin,” she remembers with self-deprecating amusement (her specialty). “It was called the Commune. There were 14 of us and we slept under wooden pyramids. I was there during a nude phase when it was cool to walk around the house with no clothes on. I was slimmer then so I could get away with it. And Darwin was hot. People would pop on a sarong to have dinner.”

In 1981, Denise moved south to Albury Wodonga to join a clown ensemble. She’d never clowned before, but community theatre was taking off like wildfire and there was funding for clowns in the regions.

On day one, she spied John, one of four fellow members of the troupe, “wearing a shirt without buttons” and she thought, “oh, he’s just so handsome”. Later, she also fell for his “generosity of spirit and his sense of fun”.

John was similarly stopped in his tracks. “She had very short, spiky, orange-dyed hair,” he remembers, “and she was wearing a tight-fitting, multi-coloured, one-piece jumpsuit. She was an incredibly vibrant personality. She had a great laugh – I’ve always found her laugh very sexy – and I was captivated by her eyes. I still think she has the most beautiful eyes, and during her cancer journey, people have been remarking on them. Perhaps because she’s been wearing a beanie, there’s even more emphasis on her beautiful eyes.”

On that first day, the two young clowns had lunch together and within three weeks, they were an item. John knew almost instantly that Scotty, as he calls her, was a keeper.

“We were both 25,” he says, “and I think we were both ready to find someone to start a family with. I felt like her heart, her emotional depth, the way she wore her heart on her sleeve – I was really attracted to all that – and I thought, this is the person I want to have children with.”

They did indeed go on to have children – Jordie, now a musician who lives in the USA (and with girlfriend Claire composed the music for Mother and Son), and Bonnie, an artist and mother of Denise and John’s two-year-old grandchild, Lenny.

It wasn’t easy to tell Bonnie and Jordie about Denise’s diagnosis.

“I just rang them and told both kids on the phone,” Denise says. “Bonnie burst into tears. Bonnie and Lenny came to Sydney to see us, and Jordie came to Sydney and spent some time on set.”

While HER-2 is an aggressive cancer, it’s one that has been treated successfully in the past, and so far Denise’s treatment is going to plan.

“The prognosis has continued to be good, so I’m lucky in that way,” she says. “There’s a lot of hope.” That said, she admits, “it’s been very humbling in that I thought I would be a terrific person in my own health crisis. I thought I would be one of those people who is upbeat, positive, taking it on the chin, never complains. Oh no. I complained to John all the time.”

In other ways too, this last year or so has brought her face to face with mortality in ways that have been both heartbreaking and confronting.

“Our niece died about a year and a half ago, at 17, of an aggressive cancer,” she says quietly. “It was Easter when she was diagnosed and she died in November. Every step of the way was awful news. It was an awful illness. I think of her a lot. In comparison, I’ve been getting positive news, which seems unfair. I do console myself that at least I’ve lived a full life that I’m happy with. But, oh, I don’t want to go yet. There are things I want to do.”

Denise kept a journal through much of her treatment and the filming of Mother and Son. “It feels too early,” she says, “to try to make it funny. Also, I feel like I need to know, well … if I’m going to stay alive … But that’s the way I earn my living – by writing about whatever’s happening in my world – so look out!

“I feel good that I’ve stuck with my work through this. Some people go, ‘Oh, I’ve spent my life working and I wish I’d had more fun.’ But I feel that’s all combined for me – my work and having fun.”

In July, Denise’s work was honoured with an Order of Australia. She was delighted (perhaps it even pipped her Helpmann Award and Melbourne Comedy Festival awards) and doubly so that Judith Lucy, her partner in so much stand-up, also received a gong.

“It was great that she received that award,” says John, and his voice cracks with emotion. “It gave her a boost at a time when she was feeling a bit fatigued and fed up and queasy. And she’s been having great fun with it, telling everyone she demands curtsey wherever she goes. She’s never lost her sense of humour through any of this. I’ve always loved her laugh, and the way she makes me laugh, and makes everyone in Australia laugh. I’m looking forward to her getting her mojo back.”

We’ve been sitting here for hours now, at the table. There have been two pots of tea, and as we’ve chatted, the sun has come out and the garden is now decked in tiny drops of silver rain.

Towards the end of the year, Denise thinks she might have the energy to get back to work with real relish – and that will hopefully include her column in our magazine!

“In the meantime,” she says, and then pauses … “I’ve realised that my work has been who I am. Work makes me feel normal. It’s the reason I get out of bed. And that’s made me think that perhaps I’ve been ignoring other parts of life for quite a long time now. So, I want to rectify that a little. I want to see more of my grandson. I want to do some gardening. I want to travel. I want to keep doing comedy and writing too of course. But first, I want to get well.”

Mother and Son premieres on August 23 at 8:30pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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