Founder and Chairman of Solaris Cancer Care, Professor David Joske gave a moving speech at the Solaris Gala Ball on 9 February 2019. Here is the transcript;
Good evening, guests and friends of Solaris Cancer Care,
Tonight we have another chance to celebrate our story. It’s always a lovely evening, with the organised chaos that is Andrew Wynne, fantastic surroundings, the temptations of the silent auction and a great opportunity for fun, dancing and fellowship. But my job is to remind us of the true reason we are here. To do this, let me introduce Teresa, who is 40, busy at work and has a planned trip of a lifetime coming up. But she’s suddenly become crook lately with sweats at night, unexpected weight loss and she’s just discovered a lump in her neck. She is scared witless, and she has a deep intuition what this could be. What will it mean for her? Her health? Her job? The trip? I’ll come back to her story in a minute.
I have been reading Leigh sales book, “Any Ordinary Day”. Leigh is of course the host of ABC TV’s 7.30 report and in her book she writes about how Australians, and the media, react to and cope with major traumas – she interviews people involved with the Lindt Café siege, the Thredbo Landslide, and the Port Arthur massacre, amongst others. She asks, how do people affected by these events make sense of what happened? In her words, “How do we come to terms with the fact that life can blindside us in an instant?”
And in reading her book, I found I was on busman’s holiday. I felt like the events she was writing about – the grief, the confusion, the fear, the bargaining - were what I and my colleagues in cancer medicine witness daily. For when I have to tell Teresa, and many others, they have cancer, it is a major trauma for that person. It is the disaster scenario hitting just one of us.
And of course cancer is not rare. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, something like 130,000 Australians are diagnosed with cancer each year. That equates to 13,000 Western Australians each year. The sobering figure is that for those of us who reach 75, 1 in 3 men and 1 in 4 women will be given the bad news. One in 8 Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by age 85.
Cancer doesn’t make an appointment. It can’t be cancelled due to lack of interest, or deferred because of a cold or fatigue. It can’t be booked AFTER your trip of a life-time; it can happen a week before then, as happened with Teresa. Life well and truly blindsided her.
It turns out Teresa doesn’t have breast cancer, she has a form of aggressive lymphoma that requires six cycles of intensive chemotherapy. As it turns out, her chance of cure is high – around 80% if she can complete the more intensive treatment that is recommended for her. Her treatment is, however, urgent. We agree she has to cancel the trip. We seek deferment of her expensive bookings and tickets. I say to her that we want her to be able to have many more trips in the years to come. She finds the treatment hard, but doable. We manage side effects.
Teresa takes up the offer to attend SolarisCare for massages and music therapy, and finds a place where people understand what she is going through, and where some nice things can happen amidst the trauma of her illness. The massage enables her to relax, and gifts her a lift that doesn’t seem possible anywhere else. In fact, we know from work done in Solaris and elsewhere that massage reduces anxiety, and that music therapy improves depression scores in cancer patients.
At the half-point we do a repeat scan and her response to treatment looks excellent. She is heartened to see it’s all worth it and we press on and finish the treatment.
And suddenly, she is out the other side. But now, a funny thing happens. Now, she feels like she is falling apart. She has the feeling she has just escaped the tiger, and her mind is trying to move on to whatever has to happen next. We have a long talk. I describe the surveillance plan we enter into now, and encourage her to exercise, make plans, get the trip re-organised. We have counsellors at the Hospital and at Solaris who can listen.
Back to Leigh Sales. Late in her book she raises the concept not of post-traumatic stress, but of post-traumatic growth. This resonates strongly with me. I started Solaris for two reasons: firstly, to give my patients a team around them to help with the journey and provide access to safe and supervised complementary therapies; and secondly, because I sometimes saw people come out after cancer with a much richer appreciation of life. Good can come out of bad, and I wanted to give my patients the best chance of this happening. Leigh in her book, quotes dozens of studies on this. Factors like the ability to contemplate and verbalise the experience, and ready access to social supports are shown to increase the chance of this happening. It is gratifying to me to see this in print and it reflects my own experiences dealing with people handling the trauma of cancer and its treatment.
Before I finish, I need to say some thank yous. Firstly, to my fellow Board members, and especially Kirsty Danby, for the resilience you showed when we faced something of a crisis last year. Secondly, to the WA public for their magnificent response to our public fund-raising campaign last year. Next, I thank the RedSkyRiders for the wonderful efforts literally doing the hard yards for Solaris for many years now. And Lastly to Tres, Michelle and the team for the fantastic show they have put on for us tonight.
So I hope I have given you a sense of what Solaris does and why it is. Teresa and tens of thousands like her have been helped by Solaris since 2001 and before that with the Cancer Support Association which we amalgamated with in 2017. Let us wish Teresa well on her cruise around the pacific; she won’t know if she is cured now until the passage of time, but things are looking good. I have to ‘fess up that she is mythical, or rather a composite of several people under my care, but the issues she has faced are very, very real. Thank you for coming tonight, thank you for your support, welcome to the Solaris family, if you haven’t been along before and please, enjoy yourselves, help us celebrate, and have a great night.