A Geelong Father’s Last Fight Against Cancer

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Garry, his wife and his three children. (From left to right) Jason, Hayley, Sharnie, Jenny and Garry

Cancer. Its cruelty extends beyond its physical impact. 

A dreaded experience for any family, an illness of this aggressive nature has the merciless capacity to inflict a pain far deeper than one’s worst fears. 

What’s even more frightening is the truthfulness within the phrase “cancer doesn’t discriminate”. An unkind disease, the monstrosity of its emotional effects have shown no clemency towards Geelong family, the Russells.  

Fifty-seven-year-old father Garry Russell has only months to live. Despite radiation treatment, chemotherapy and surgery, Garry’s illness has proven to be completely unapologetic.

A rising cancer drug called immunotherapy is Garry’s last shot to beat his cancer. With two upcoming fundraiser events in place, the family hopes to access the costly medication.

The Russells are inviting the local community to Barwon Head’s restaurant The Heads this Sunday May 6 as well as The Grovedale Football Club on Sunday June 3.

Garry’s battle

In July last year, The Russell family came face to face with the devastating reality of losing their leading man, Garry. After discovering an abnormal lump on his neck, he became one of the estimated 134,000 Australians to be diagnosed with cancer in 2017.

He had lymphoma. 

Though such news was incredibly daunting for Garry, his three children and wife Jenny, following intensive radiation treatment and chemotherapy over the course of several months, specialists expressed their confidence that he was on the road to recovery.

Garry with his wife, Jenny

It was predicted that in March 2018 he would be close to complete remission. 

With a glimmer of hopefulness in the air, the family gathered money over Christmas to spend on a weekend away in March.

They were excited to celebrate Garry being cancer free.

While their collective optimism cultivated positive outlooks, before they could blink their eyes, the autumn leaves began to fall. 

“Dad was looking as good as gold. He was finally starting to get his taste back, enjoy food again and go out fishing,” says Garry’s eldest daughter, Sharnie. 

“But early into March, we were slapped in the face again with horrible news that the cancer had spread during the time of his recovery.” 

The cancer advanced to his throat. With treatment options diminishing, surgery to remove the tumour was the last and only resort. 

Garry was operated on by top Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) Surgeon Dr Nicholas Agar in his hometown of Geelong. As Garry had previously undergone many hours of radiation treatment, the surgery was extremely complicated. Dr Agar was forced to avoid a lot of major nerves in the area to minimise the risk of issues post-surgery. 

A week and a half later, the family suffered another unexpected blow. 

The surgery was unsuccessful. Garry was told he has only 12-18 months to live.

As the cancer is spreading fast, time is of the essence. Tube-fed, unable to swallow and struggling to speak, the family are in broken pieces as they watch their irreplaceable loved one suffer in the most undignified manner.

The drug that could save his life

Though they’re constantly being reminded that time is running out, the Russells remain adamant on discovering another treatment. Devoting their energy to locating an alternative option, the family has stumbled on a new kind of curative practice – immunotherapy.  

According to Cancer Council Victoria, “immunotherapy is a type of cancer drug treatment that focuses on using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.” 

With trials in place overseas demonstrating pleasing results, immunotherapy could eventually replace chemotherapy. Such findings have inspired trials in Australia, particularly for skin cancer patients as well as head, neck and throat cancer patients.

In an article posted on the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’s webpage, Professor Joe Trapani (executive director of cancer research and head of the cancer immunology research program at Peter Mac) suggests immunotherapy is a game-changer. 

“Immunotherapy is the first totally new treatment modality for cancer in over 50 years and it is already revolutionising cancer care as we know it,” he said.

Despite the steady number of immunotherapy trials in Australia, currently there are no studies available to Garry. 

“The drug is currently available for melanoma patients but, as this drug is only being trialled for head, neck and throat cancer patients, it has not been approved by the government. It is very difficult to get a hold of and even so, it comes with an extravagant price tag,” Sharnie informs Dscribe.

How you can help

In a desperate attempt to reignite Garry’s quality of life, Barwon Heads restaurant The Heads have kindly offered to host a fundraiser for Garry in the hope of raising enough funds to help with medical costs. 

On Sunday June 3, The Grovedale Football Club will also be throwing a fundraiser for Garry. Silent auctions have been organised with plenty of prizes up for grabs as well as live music. 

The ultimate goal is for Garry to access the immunotherapy drug. 

Garry’s devoted wife of 29 years is overwhelmed by the generosity of the community. “This has been so overwhelming for us. We want to say thank you to everyone who has been involved in the planning of these fundraisers,” Jenny says. “We are blown away by the generosity we have received during this difficult time.”

Having recently welcomed their first grandchild Milla in January, son Jason and his fiancé Sharne are praying for a miracle. “One of the hardest things for us has been seeing Dad with Milla and how much joy she brings him. If we can get this medication, it means he gets one last chance to watch her grow up which means everything to us,” the pair said. 

The Heads’ fundraiser ‘Get Around Gaz’ will be running from 4pm this Sunday. Entry price is $20. 

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