I’m connected to the country because I was very lucky to grow up on a sheep and wheat farm in Narromine. To be completely honest with you, it was a great way to be brought up I was very lucky, I actually joked that from a young age my parents already knew I was very competitive because when I was rounding up the sheep I would try to beat the sheep dog.

It feels right for me to be an ambassador – of Can Assist because I have my own story of my beautiful mum. She was only 26 years old when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. My brother and I were very young at the time but I still remember to this day her spending so much time in Sydney in hospital fighting this cancer . Its hard enough having cancer in your family, it’s just so tough, not only for the person who is dealing with the cancer but also for the family unit around them trying to cope, so for me I feel very honoured to be part of this charity.

Unfortunately my mother had cancer three times in her life, which was obviously incredibly challenging for not only her, but also for us as a family. I remember the second time she repeatedly had to come to Sydney, all that travel, you know, 400kms just to get to treatment. And it was in that moment that I thought, you know, wow, how lucky it was really for David and I, to be living here in Sydney at the time, to be able to look after her, when obviously she was very sick. It made me think of all the other country people that were out there, you know, how do they deal with it when you don’t actually have a support network in Sydney, not to mention accommodation, and the cost that that would entail.

Reflecting on that time when Mum was getting treatment for cancer, I look back at my father and think how challenging it would have been for him as well. Here he is, trying to keep a farm running, keeping sheep alive, doing everything that he needed to do for that all to survive whilst knowing his wife was going through this really difficult battle. Of course he would come to Sydney as much as he could, but I’m sure he would have wanted to be there all the time to support Mum especially when she was so ill after having chemotherapy.

It was lucky that we were there and I’m sure that’s what a lot of country people probably find very challenging, they just want to be there with their loved ones. But in reality, especially financially, that is very difficult, which is also very challenging for that patient the one who’s actually fighting the cancer and going through the treatment. I think that it’s not only financial support that you really need, it’s that emotional support as well.

At just 5 years of age, a routine scan at Tamworth hospital identified a tumour on Lucy’s kidney. Her parents Belle and Mitch were advised to drive directly to the emergency rooms at Randwick children’s hospital in Sydney. Lucy, Nanna and Mum all jumped in the car to make the 5-hour trip to Sydney. What they had expected to be a day or two of tests, turned into a 3 week stay.

After a barrage of scans and blood work, Lucy was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Under a general anaesthetic, Lucy would have a port inserted to administer what would be the first of 12 rounds of chemotherapy. Whilst Lucy could go home – she would need to travel back and forth every week to receive her chemotherapy. The 5-hour trip home typically taking 8 hours with Lucy being so sick after treatment.

Whilst the chemo was successful in shrinking the tumour, a partial nephrectomy was needed to remove the remains which saw Lucy in hospital a further 2.5 weeks. Lucy’s prognosis is good, but she continues to make regular trips to Sydney for scans.

Over the course of a few months, Lucy’s family travelled near 15,000km and had to pay 6 weeks of accommodation in Sydney. It was a whole family effort – with Mum and Dad juggling Lucy and her two younger siblings Tommy (3 yrs) and Pip (1yrs). Lucy’s Grandparents were a vital part of the story. Belle was due to complete her maternity leave with Pip but was forced to delay her return to work and Mitch took many extra weeks off work juggling all the challenges.

“The massive shift in our lives…our world literally got turned upside down…faced with a challenge like this…weekly chemotherapy in Sydney, split family life…the emotional toll and time that it takes on us as a family” Belle, Lucy’s Mum.

Can Assist helped out by providing petrol vouchers, grocery vouchers and the payment of utility bills. “To know that Can Assist came along and supported us as a safety net was incredible.” Belle, Lucy’s Mum.

Jess

Jess discovered she had Stage 3 Melanoma at the age of 35 – the average age of this diagnosis is 65 years old. She thought that she was just getting a fatty cyst removed from her right shoulder. Fortunately, her doctor sent it off for testing, as it was a surprise to get this cancer diagnosis, given her age.

Jess had to travelled to Sydney (400kms from her hometown) to have surgery to remove the cancer and all the lymph nodes under her right arm, as it had spread. Then Jess had to face 12 months of immunotherapy at Westmead Hospital in Sydney. If Jess lived in Sydney, she could have gone to work in the morning, have the procedure in the afternoon, be home that night, be at work the next day. Instead for Jess the process took 2-3 days, due to the distance she lived from the treatment centre, and the fatigue from the treatment.

At just 33yrs old and 17 weeks pregnant with her 3rd child, Teann was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Ahead would be a rollercoaster of treatment in both Tamworth (160km return) and Newcastle (600km return); made all the more complicated by her pregnancy which was actually fuelling her cancer growth.

At 20 weeks pregnant Teann would have her first surgery in Tamworth; a lumpectomy and axillary clearance. Then it would be 4 rounds of chemotherapy across 12 weeks; various pregnancy complications meant each and every round ended with an air ambulance flight to Newcastle. “I lived in constant fear that my baby wouldn’t make it and that it would be my fault”.

Given her young age, genetic testing was conducted and revealed that Teann was a carrier of the BRACA2 gene. “When my BRCA2 results came in; It still makes me cry. To think that because of me, my children may also have to endure what I have they each have a 50-50 chance of being carriers themselves. I was composed before that…”

At 31 weeks, Hartley, weighing just 1.8kg was delivered in Newcastle. He would spend the next 5 weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit; the first 4 in Newcastle and the next 1 in Tamworth.

Teann

With Hartley just 3 weeks old, Teann would commence a further 12 rounds of weekly chemotherapy. The side effects were so severe; her feet were red raw, and she couldn’t move her hands properly. With DCIS already forming in her left breast, chemotherapy was cut short after 9 rounds and surgery was again advised this time a double mastectomy.

Whilst surgery was successful Teann has radiotherapy and a hysterectomy ahead of her; dozens of trips and thousands of kilometres to come.

The financial havoc that cancer creates for a young family living rurally is enormous and extends well beyond the travel and accommodation out of pockets.

Teann’s other children: Haxley and Henley were just 3 years and 1 year old at the time of her diagnosis. Not only did Teann have to stop working, but so too did her husband and her parents who work as local cleaners and lost many days of work helping out .“It was very worrying at the time because I didn’t have anything (extra) behind us to get us through” Teann’s husband, Sean.

Teann called Can Assist mid way through her first chemotherapy treatment round “Chris came out to my house to meet with me …she made it so comfortable for me, there was no judgment. Most people have their pride; it’s difficult asking for help but I never once felt like I was getting a handout.” Teann.

“The difference Can Assist made was really huge – having some relief from our piling bills meant that there was one less thing for us to worry about, they really lightened the load for us when we needed it most” Teann.

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.