On 30th August 2023, 61-year-old Kathleen Siemionow received a clean bill of health. For the Leeton resident, who has endured several cancer diagnoses over the years, her most recent experience with melanoma was made more bearable with the care and support of her local Can Assist branch, who she had been reluctant to ask for help.

“There is always someone worse off … I hadn’t wanted to ask. But, as a pensioner with two child dependents, I bit the bullet and called. Mary from the Leeton branch came out to see me in my home, she was really beautiful with me — made me feel so at ease,” says Kathleen, or Kathy, as she is better known. 

“Can Assist has helped me out with doctors bills, pharmacy accounts and accommodation out-of-pockets. I was just stunned. What these people do is amazing!”

Over the course of her five months of treatment, Kathy made bi-monthly visits to Sydney, which involved one to two days of appointments each time, and a six-hour drive one way. As the primary carer for two of her grandchildren, aged nine and 16 (pictured), the distance and time away was a heavy burden for her.

“I had to get home as soon as I could, my granddaughter would really fret when I was not with her … there were a lot more logistics to consider since I was no longer living in Sydney,” she says. 

Kathy with her beloved granddaughters while undergoing cancer treatment.

Formerly from Liverpool in Sydney, Kathy is grateful to have had long-time friend, Kaz, to lean on during her treatment for melanoma: “Kaz was such a rock for me, she was so very kind to me and the girls — I don’t know what I would have done without her.”

Kathy (right) and Kaz (left), her ‘rock’ during cancer treatment.

Reflecting on her experience, Kathy recalls it all started with a visit to her GP because she was in a lot of pain. After a series of scans in Griffith, she was eventually diagnosed with Stage 3 Melanoma in her lymph nodes, requiring two separate rounds of immunotherapy in Sydney followed by an operation in mid-July this year. 

Kathy says she was able to use every bit of strength to keep up the fight thanks to Can Assist: “I don’t know how cancer patients from the country manage without Can Assist.”

In March 2022, Allan wasn’t feeling like himself: “You know your body and you know when something’s not right. I would have probably ignored the symptoms for a while, but my wife just made a GP appointment, and I did as I was told.”

Based in Orange, in the Central Tablelands of NSW, Allan underwent a series of tests locally, and was formally diagnosed with prostate cancer in April 2022. He was referred to Canberra for a PET scan to rule out any spread. Allan local GP noted:

“Your wife just saved your life!”

Allan and Sue

Allan with his wife, Sue, who live in Orange NSW.

In August 2022, Allan started 20 rounds of radiotherapy in his hometown, when he was prescribed a drug that was not listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Worryingly, it was going to cost Allan $84,000 over two years. Allan paid for the first month wondering how he was going to come up with the rest of the payments.

After consultation with his medical oncologist, it was determined the dose could be quartered and retain effectiveness, which meant the drug would now cost Allan $21,000 over two years — a welcome relief, but “that sort of money really bites”.

It was a social worker who approached Can Assist Orange for support, and helpfully funded the next four months of medication and agreed to fund a further four months in year two, which proved to be a relief for Allan:

“I was really gob smacked by the generosity of Can Assist and am so grateful. To know there are people in the community looking out for others who they don’t even know … that makes me think about what the volunteers do and how much they give,” he says.

Thankfully, the cancer drugs had no side effects for Allan — only the steroids he was also required to take generated minor effects. In fact, the drug has been so effective that Allan will now cease taking it after just 18 months, with a good prognosis.

Now, he’s looking forward to living a long and healthy life alongside his wife Sue, their daughters Melinda, Kylie and Tegan, and eight grandchildren.

Darroll is a proud octogenarian, who is now cancer free. Describing himself as a “survivor”, he’s living his best life with wife, Patty, three children and six grandchildren, enjoying every precious moment and some awe-inspiring life experiences, like skydiving! For Darroll, his extended cancer journey has given him a new lease on life.

Darroll

Darroll from near Tumbarumba in south-west NSW

Back in 2010, Darroll, who lives 20 kilometres from Tumbarumba in south-west NSW, was experiencing intense pain. His local GP sent him to Wagga Wagga, where a tumour, the size of a “little-kid football”, was picked up on a CT scan. Following an emergency trip to Sydney, he was formally diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

What transpired was a harrowing time for Darroll and his close-knit family, which included weekly trips to Wagga Wagga for eight rounds of R-CHOP or chemoimmunotherapy. However, after round seven, Darroll developed a lung infection, requiring 32 different antibiotics and four blood transfusions. He lost 15 kilograms.

Facing the prospect of 20 rounds of radiotherapy, and daily return travel between home and Wagga Wagga, he and Patty were bearing the weight of a huge emotional, physical and financial strain, made even more traumatic when a kidney stent became blocked and Darroll ended up with blood poisoning and his kidneys ultimately collapsed.

Thankfully, Darroll recovered. He thought it was the last of the illness.

In 2019, seven years later, Darroll was diagnosed with prostate cancer — and an all-too-familiar 20 rounds of radiotherapy began. This time, Darroll and Patty stayed at Lilier Lodge in Wagga Wagga, a warm and  supportive home-away-from-home for cancer patients travelling long distances for treatment, like Darroll.

“Lilier Lodge is a marvelous place to stay at while having treatment. It’s like one big, happy family who were there for you at all times making it easier to cope, says Darroll.

“It really made a difference being around people who understood each other, not just for me, but also for Patty who had other carers to lean on. We talked, we listened, shared our stories and had each other’s back.”

Darroll would like to thank Can Assist Tumbarumba branch:

“Without the help of the branch, things would have been a lot harder for me. They assisted me during my cancer treatments, paying many accounts, including medical out-of-pocket expenses and travelling costs. Plus, the members had talked to me about what I was going through and if they could help in other ways,” he says.

“What a wonderful organisation we have here in Tumbarumba, with exceptional and kind workers. A lot of stress and worries were avoided so I could concentrate on getting better. Thanks a lot for everything. Let’s hope it’s there forever to keep on helping all those in need. I give them 100 out of 100 for their assistance.”

In March 2018, not even a year after the birth of her 4th daughter, 27-year-old Laura was diagnosed cancer. She was given half a days’ notice to be in Sydney some 470km away.

Her initial surgery was brutal “they had to cut through my back, all the way across to my left breast. My ribs were cracked, and my lungs deflated… after 6 weeks in hospital in Sydney it took another 6 months recovery at home before I could walk again.” Laura Grabbo

Not getting the results they wanted, doctors administered some three different types of chemotherapy over the following three years. Each round was delivered in Sydney, meaning Laura had to travel and accommodate in Sydney every couple of months for several nights at a time.

Laura’s from Boggabri, a small town in north-east NSW

After a year off treatment in order to regain some strength, Laura re commenced oral chemotherapy from home this year. Her side effects have been extreme; nausea, memory loss, vertigo, blurred vision, migraines and sores that don’t heal. Laura’s feet are red raw with multiple blisters.

Not surprisingly, her husband Codie stopped work some time ago – not only to look after their four children (now 11, 9, 7 and 6) but also his wife. Laura’s mum is not far away in Gunnedah and she has been “a constant help… mum goes without so much for my sake.” Laura Grabbo

It was Laura’s mum who first told her about Can Assist all those years ago. “Can Assist has been there since the beginning … Chris Pullman, Client Liaison Officer, Can Assist Gunnedah is such a support to me …someone I can talk to, she calls in and we have coffee together, she is my rock.”

Can Assist has helped Laura’s family with a range of expenses including new tyres, car registrations, Coles vouchers, washing and dryer machine repairs, and out of pocket specialist consults.

As with all our clients – we remain a support until the cancer is beat.

“Laura is a kind and courageous woman and I am so grateful for the friendship we have developed. Had it not been for Can Assist, I never would have had the privilege of knowing her.” Chris Pullman, Client Liaison Officer, Can Assist Gunnedah

At just 41 years of age Bernie, father of 4 children under 10 and husband of Samantha, was diagnosed with brain cancer.

It all started back in 2017 with bad headaches. After multiple trips to Griffith Base Hospital (70km one way), it was the local doctor who ordered the cat scan that identified an urgent need for further investigation. – Additional scans conducted at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital (170km one way) revealed a brain tumor, so Bernie was rushed to Sydney (630km one way) via air ambulance. Surgery took place the next day.

The rollercoaster continued; 8 weeks of radiotherapy, followed by regular trips back to Sydney; initially every month, then every 2 months, and then tapering off to twice annually. A second tumor was identified at the end of 2021 and a third tumor at the end of 2022. Another surgery, another two sets of radiotherapy – all conducted in Sydney, almost 7 hours away from his hometown.

Bernie receiving treatment at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.

 

With the exception of the two surgeries Bernie needed to source non-hospital accommodation in Sydney on every trip.

Distance from treatment magnifies the impact of cancer on every level – financially, physically and psychologically.

“Sam (Bernie’s wife) and Izzy (youngest daughter) stayed with me in Sydney over my first surgery…but by the time of my second surgery all the kids were at school and, with my income being so unpredictable Sam needed to go back to work. It was just so daunting; I didn’t know what to ask the doctors and I didn’t remember all the details, especially when it came to the side effects. The costs were piling up – huge out of pockets with radiotherapy, scans costing near $1,000 each time, then travel and accommodation.

“Can Assist have been supporting me from the early days and they took away that initial financial burden …they were the first to help, took away those pain points early, it just meant so much to me. Having the support of my community through Can Assist goes way beyond the dollars …it was like they were in it with me” Bernie Star, Coleambally

Can Assist continues to support Bernie. “Cancer isn’t a one stop fix and nor are we …. we continue to support our clients for as long as they need usSue Hardy, President and Patient Liaison Officer, Can Assist Coleambally

Bernie and his family today, still smiling, but it’s been a long road.

Just two days before his 6th birthday Alex was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia.

It all started with a sore knee.  Incorrect diagnoses and consequent ineffective treatments saw Alex awake one morning screaming in pain. Alex and his family were at his grandma’s house in Tumbarumba that morning from where he was taken by ambulance to the nearest regional hospital in Wagga Wagga (113 km away).

Alex's Story

Alex being transferred from Tumbarumba Hospital to Wagga Wagga Base Hospital. December 2021

After an initial 6 week stay at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital treating a suspected bone infection, Alex was transferred to the Sydney Children’s Hospital (280km from home). Some 2 months later a biopsy revealed Alex was suffering from Leukemia. It was nearly 12 months since his initial symptoms.

Alex commenced what would be his first of 4 chemo rounds 3 days later.

First insertion of the chemotherapy port, March 2022

It would take about another 10 months to complete the intravenous course of chemotherapy, which was punctuated by pneumonia, long COVID, a serious fungal infection, neutropenia, vomiting and diarrhoea. Alex would finally return home 4 days before Christmas.

May 2022. Alex had not long completed his first round of chemo and steroid treatment. He needed help breathing since his oxygen levels were too low.

August 2022.  Alex has completed his 3rd chemo round. Whilst he was supposed to go home for 10 days after this, 4 hours after arriving in Bungendore he was admitted to Canberra Hospital and promptly flown back to Sydney.

September 2022. Back in Sydney. Alex’s fungal infection was spreading; to his pelvis, liver, lungs and spleen; high temperatures and night sweats.

Alex makes it home Christmas Eve to be with his little sister Maddie. December 2022.

Alex is now receiving oral chemotherapy which he can take at home in Bungendore. The many trips continue back and forth to hospital – but for now that’s only a 40km trip. “Any temp above 38 degrees and we are right back at hospital, but taking the distance out of the picture makes it all so much easier to handle, apart from taking the extra costs off the table it allows all of us to be near our support networks which brings just a little bit of normality back into our lives” Brittany Melhuish, Alex’s Mum.

“Cancer takes its toll on everyone. Maddy was only 3 years old when Alex was diagnosed, there was a 3 month stretch over COVID when she couldn’t see Alex at all. Mum, Maddy and I all lived in a 1-bedroom apartment in Sydney over the course of Alex’s treatment. Since I had to stop work Alastair (Alex’s Dad) had to keep working. He drove back and forth every weekend to be with us. In the earlier months, I was able to draw on my holiday leave but when that dried up the extra expenses became very difficult to manage; there were the accommodation out of pockets (over IPTAAS), everyday expenses, the petrol for all those trips…. even the parking was $30 a day. Another charity referred me to Can Assist – who I had never heard of before.”

“On calling Can Assist, the person I spoke to could help me almost straight away, Ann was so lovely, warm and comforting and put me immediately at ease. I felt very supported by Can Assist, right from the beginning. To have their help with my accommodation out of pockets and some every day expenses was just amazing.”

February 2023. Alex smiles through it all. His first day back at school, with no appetite at all he is nourished via a feeding tube.

April 2023.  Easter weekend. Alex doing well, feeding tube gone and a big smile from Mum, Dad and little sister.

By March 2024, Alex will no longer be considered immune suppressed. He will turn 8 that month. Monitoring will continue for another 6 months or so – but the finish line is in view.

Can Assist remains available to help …cancer is a journey, and we walk alongside you until – the finish line is crossed.

After experiencing symptoms that resembled low blood sugar, Jon from Cootamundra suffered a seizure and was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Over the course of the next 18 months, Jon endured 2 separate surgeries (both in Sydney which is around 800km return), 2 separate bouts of radiotherapy (one in Sydney and one in Wagga Wagga), and a course of chemotherapy. Jon and Dani traveled more than 8,000km in trips back and forth to Sydney and many hundreds more back and forth to Wagga Wagga. In addition, they were required to fund around 10 weeks of accommodation in Sydney.

Not only did Jon stop working, but so too did his wife Dani, who has been his carer. The financial impacts were devastating. With no income coming in, bills quickly added up. It was then they met Colleen – the treasurer of the local Can Assist Cootamundra branch. The family had never heard of IPTAAS (the NSW government-funded travel and accommodation subsidy scheme), had not collected any of the appropriate signatures nor had they retained any receipts. Whilst Can Assist helped them to lodge the government claim, there were many excess bills left over to pay. Can Assist provided multiple petrol vouchers, paid for their accommodation in Sydney, and contributed toward multiple out-of-pocket medical expenses; both for treatments and pharmaceuticals.

Being an ex-pat from California, Jon says – “In the States, being self-employed, this tumor could have been a death sentence” and further that “If it were not for Can Assist, we would have needed to sell our house to afford treatment…. we can’t thank Can Assist enough”

At 58yrs of age, Leonie – mother of two and retired primary school teacher from Leeton, was diagnosed with melanoma. She had mistaken a mark on her face for a minor irritation, and with it taking 3-4 weeks to get an appointment with the local GP, Leonie let it slide. One day, feeling so unwell, she took herself to the local hospital on a completely unrelated matter and it was there that the medical staff noticed the mark and booked her in for a biopsy the next day.

After diagnosis, Leonie was initially referred to a skin specialist in Griffith (120km return), who advised her that she would need surgery in Melbourne and, that she would need to find her own accommodation since surgery would be performed on an outpatient basis. She would have to book a hotel within walking distance of the clinic, and she need a carer 24/7. Her surgery to remove the cancer along with a required plastic surgeon would be done in a private clinic which would cost Leonie some $4,000. With only $2,000 in savings, Leonie burst into tears.

Before surgery, Leonie was required to undergo 6 weeks of chemotherapy treatment at home in Leeton and it was over this time that she heard about Can Assist Leeton. She met Mary – the local Can Assist President who assured her of their financial support and “most importantly, listened,” said Leonie.

Leonie made two separate trips to Melbourne (some 1,000km return) and spent some 8 nights in commercial accommodation.  Can Assist paid the bill.

Back in Leeton, she would make multiple trips back and forth to Griffith over the next couple of years and just when she thought she was out of the woods, the cancer returned. From here, Leonie would need to undergo daily radiotherapy over a 4-week cycle at Wagga Wagga. Whilst this treatment was considerably closer at only 250km return, it would be too much for Leonie to drive back and forth every day. Can Assist Leeton stepped in again. First, they funded the transport costs of getting her to Wagga, and then they made it possible for her to stay at Lilier Lodge (a not-for-profit accommodation facility, part-owned and operated by Can Assist) by funding her out-of-pocket costs over the NSW government accommodation subsidy scheme for isolated patients (IPTAAS).

“I literally would not have been able to afford access to treatment. My only alternative would have been to borrow money and who would lend a pensioner that sort of money? The only possibility would have been a Centrelink Advance Payment of $1500 which would have entailed a forced payback of $100 a fortnight on my pension. After bills, that $100 would have come out of my food money, it has all been so stressful. I will be forever grateful Can Assist and to Lilier Lodge for their help and compassion” Leonie James

Leonie is back at home now, well, and excited about the future ahead of her.

Lyn Pauling, 68 yrs., wife of Steve, Mother of 4 adult children, and grandmother to 8. Lyn was born and bred in Leeton.

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, skin cancer, near 10,000km of driving, 2 months of hotel accommodation and many more months of treatment was not only emotionally exhausting but financially crippling.

When first diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Lyn was flown to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney for immediate treatment. Sydney became home for Lyn for the next three months. Steve drove back and forth to Sydney (1,100 kms return per trip) multiple times over this period and spent several weeks in various Sydney accommodation facilities.

Upon returning to Leeton, Lyn would need to undergo chemotherapy treatment in Griffith (120km return per trip) where she would continue going twice a week every 8 weeks for the next two years.

But that was not the end of the story, several months ago, Lyn received a second cancer diagnosis -skin cancer this time. Back to Sydney for more surgery; more travel and more accommodation costs.

Next was radiotherapy at the Cancer Centre in Wagga and unlike her public hospital treatments in metropolitan Sydney, she would incur medical out of pockets. The RCCC required an upfront payment every two weeks for radiotherapy treatment – over $1,000 each time. Whilst Medicare provided a rebate, significant gaps remained. Over this period, Lyn stayed at the not-for-profit accommodation facility – Lilier Lodge, which is part-owned and managed by Can Assist. It was here that Lyn first became acquainted with Can Assist.

By now, Lyn was left thousands of dollars out of pocket over the course of her treatments. To make matters worse, given his repeated time off work, her husband had lost his building job and has never actually found full-time work again.

Can Assist Leeton stepped in – they would pay Lyn’s medical out of pockets, her out-of-pocket accommodation costs for the full 5 weeks stay in Wagga Wagga and they would issue her with multiple petrol vouchers. Without this assistance, Lyn would have been forced to drive back and forth daily, some 250 km, sick and exhausted. Lyn talks with fond memories of her time at Lilier – “It’s so much more than a bed; we had volunteers driving us to treatment, providing group dinners, education, exercise classes…. but most of all it was a safe haven; a family of people all going through the same thing. Lilier and Can Assist made it all so much easier, I will be forever grateful “

Luke Di Salvia, a teacher from Leeton was diagnosed with testicular cancer at 44 yrs. With time off work for surgery and 6 cycles of chemo the bills quickly added up. Luke contacted Can Assist Leeton to help!

“Whilst many things we take for granted scream to a halt during cancer treatment much of the mundane daily grind continues on unabated; there’s still plenty of bills to pay, cars to maintain, dishes to wash, lawns to mow, and kids to feed and clothe. Thankfully Leeton Can Assist were there in the background helping out by easing the burden of unexpected costs, thereby lessening our collective worries and thus helping me to more easily focus on getting better.“

“My second round of chemo fell in early January and so coincided with the Christmas school holidays. With the invaluable assistance of Leeton Can Assist we were able to stay at Lilier Lodge Wagga for my 5 successive days of treatment. Not only did this equate to a massive saving in travel time and cumulative rounds trips of over a thousand kilometres, it gave us a much needed chance to do plenty of fun activities with the kids and take their minds off the fears and uncertainty that comes with their Dad still in the early days of his cancer battle. Whilst I underwent my daily treatments the wife and kids did fun holiday stuff – went to the movies, laser tag, trampolining and shopping, with a central base, only 5 minutes from the Cancer Care Centre and Wagga CBD to return to at the end of the day. For this opportunity, afforded by Leeton Can Assist, we are forever grateful.“