Sunday 26th June 2022

Women of Courage Series. #62 Juliette O’Brien. 83/2021.

In July 2021 The Women of Courage posts will be connected in some way to World Head and Neck Cancer Month (July) and the #WHNCD Day on 27 July 2021. Those who have followed my blog since 2017 know I was diagnosed with a rare Head and Neck Cancer in my upper gums and under the top lip. More here. And below, as I introduce Woman of Courage, Juliette, I will expand more on our connection.

Women of Courage Series #62 Juliette O’Brien. 83/2021.

Two years ago….around this time of year, I tentatively courageously launched Women of Courage series on my blog and here was what I said then:

I got this idea from attending the Newcastle Writers Festival in April 2019 and hearing the wonderful Jane Caro speak about her book Accidental Feminists. IF you ever get a chance to listen to or read Jane’s works they are very good.

What I considered after that day and in the days to come is how we women have a tendency to underplay our achievements and whatever else we are doing in our lives. I know this is changing.

This third series of blog posts on Denyse Whelan Blogs to be found here will continue to be published each Thursday.

Here is the introduction to the series.

Courage is strength in the face of pain or grief. It’s doing something that frightens you. We face situations that demand courage every day. These situations provide us with choices, and the way we respond to those choices determines our future. Dayne Shuda

I was honoured and delighted when Juliette O’Brien, aged 37 agreed to share her story as a woman of courage. We have yet to meet in person, but we have connected on social media (where she is @juliette_io on twitter) and one day, we will catch up over coffee at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. Now, if that name seems familiar, then you might be correct in making the connection that Juliette is the late Professor Chris O’Brien AO’s  daughter.

I feel so privileged and glad to have been referred to my head and neck surgeon, Professor Jonathan Clark AM that day back in May 2017. He learned much in his training days from the Head and Neck surgeon we all knew from the long-running show about a Sydney Teaching Hospital,  R.P.A. on Channel 9, Dr Chris O’Brien.

Thank you to Juliette so very much for this. You are a gifted woman in so many ways and a quiet but steady achiever too.


What have you faced in your life where you have had to be courageous?

I lost my dad and elder brother to separate unexpected illnesses when I was in my 20s. I did – and continue to do – my best to support my mum and younger brother, to honour my dad’s and brother’s memories, and to continue to find joy and meaning in the world.

I don’t think any of this is courageous, but it has taken effort and perseverance.


How did this change you in any way?

These losses changed me profoundly.

They drove me to question our most common assumptions about what it means to live a ‘good life’, especially external signals like attaining status, hoarding wealth and meeting social expectations.

Living in way that subordinates these to your own principles means pushing through discomfort, fear and disapproval.

I suppose this takes ‘courage’ that I doubt I would have had otherwise.


Is there something you learned from this that you could recommend to help others who need courage?


Sometimes we use the adjective ‘courageous’ as though it is a constant state of being or personality trait.

In fact, I think courage, or at least the possibility of it, presents itself moment to moment through the countless decisions we make, and requires renewed interrogation and commitment every day.


Is there any message you would give to others facing a situation where courage could be needed?


I would like to share a poem by the wonderful John O’Donohue (poet, philosopher, former priest).

It is called ‘For Courage’.

I especially love these phrases: “this darkness has purpose”; and “Close your eyes, Gather all the kindling, About your heart, To create one spark …”.


When the light around lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,

When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,

When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,

Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.

Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,

Know that you are not alone,
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes,
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.

Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.

Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.

A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!

Thank you so much Juliette. Not only for your story but for the added words of John O’Donohue.

His words, narrated before his death, are part of a series of his that I listened to a great deal as I struggled with some challenges in my life’s transitions before cancer.

I cannot and will not compare one person’s story to another, however to know that we can share resources of hope, love, wisdom and courage is to be connected. We need to stay connected.

Looking forward to “that coffee” as soon as Covid is settling!


Note About Head and Neck Cancer Support on-line.

IF a family member or someone you know does have a diagnosis of a head and neck cancer or that person is a carer, the value of a good facebook group cannot be over-done. The friendly space that IS this group for eligible people to request membership is a good one. There are people from all over the world but the group is not huge so personal connections can be made. It is mainly made up of New Zealanders, and Aussies too…along with those from the U.S. There are questions to be answered to join and it IS strictly for those with a head and neck cancer. Link is here.

This is a link to Head and Neck Cancer Australia too. This is where I found information initially after my 2017 diagnosis and where I am now an Ambassador.


Joining with Natalie here for Weekend Coffee Share.

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  1. A great post, Juliette. Suffering can bring us those moments of truth and a surge of something that can be called courage. I guess we have to be “there” for it and accept it. So sorry you lost your father and brother. I am sure they would be very proud of you.

  2. That was a beautiful poem she shared with us.

  3. Thank you, Juliette, for sharing your story and the beautiful poem. I’m sorry that you lost your father and brother. It takes strength and courage to continue living a fulfilling life after such painful losses. Thank you Denyse for introducing Juliette to us and for linking with #weekendcoffeeshare.

    • Yes I can say from current knowledge, Juliette is working and living a life that would make her Dad and brother proud.

      Today, as I write, she is doing live updates about the statistics of the latest Covid19 cases and trends here in Sydney and the areas affected by the recent jump in cases.

      Thank you Natalie,


  4. This is a great post and it’s lovely to hear Juliette’s story. It’s always tough when we are faced with death early in life. We see a lot of young people in similar situations in our service too. I loved her wise words and am so grateful for the poem!

    • Thank you so much Sanch. I have great admiration for her and it’s testament to her courage alright that she can integrate grief as she does into her life now.

      She is one busy woman now though…follow her on twitter (@juliette_io) if you want to “latest” Covid stats. I find them reassuring in some ways more than some of the other ways we get updated re Covid.

      I know lockdown and the weather must be testing you right now…sending my love.


  5. This was another great post in your series Denyse. Juliette is a very special person and speaks a lot of sense. I love that poem and hadn’t heard it before. I am sorry for the losses you have suffered and your words are indeed wise. Thank you.

    • I agree Deb.

      Those significant deaths of both her Dad, then her brother are so sad.

      For such a busy woman in her life right now, doing much to keep people abreast of Covid Numbers on twitter, to share this with us was a privilege.

      We never quite know who we may connect with in our lives and I certainly did not ever consider, as I entered Chris O’Brien Lifehouse that I would end up meeting Gail O’Brien and now befriending Juliette even though we are yet to meet. We will! One day!!


  6. I like the poem of encouragement to face our dark hours.

    • It is a good one for sure.

      I love much of the works by John O’Donohue too.

      Thank you Deborah for visiting and commenting.


  7. Loss is always difficult, but it can shape you in a positive way – or clarify your perspective, I guess. Good post. Great find wth the poem too.

    • Juliette is one clever person alright, Lydia, and I was so pleased when she said she would contribute.

      Yes, the poem and the some of the works of John O’Donohue did a lot to help me through my awful times of stress and grief leaving family and Sydney back in 2016.

      @juliette_io is where you can find her on twitter each day with her graphs and figures re Covid via Covid Data and she does an awesome job with that.