Imagine you are 16 again and in the midst of your first year of VCE.
Just like every other teenager, you hang out with your friends, get up to a bit of mischief and complain here and there. You love your sport, especially rowing. In fact, you’re such a great rower that you are chosen to compete at an elite level. Oh, and you’re pretty good at school too. You’re textbook healthy, someone doctors make an example of.
One day you notice a lump just above your left collarbone. You joke with your friends… “maybe it’s just a fluid build-up”.
But it wasn’t. You would soon find out it was a malignant tumour, and everything would change.
It was a beautiful Friday in May. Seated in front of me was a vibrant, amiable, Gaby Clarke. She rocked a curly pixie cut, and wore a smile that beamed from ear-to-ear. Judging a book by its cover, I would never have thought someone like her was sick for two years. Strength, courage and resilience are three words that would best describe her. But Cancer Survivor? Humbly, Gaby felt that this title was more deserving to others who have “been through much worse”.
“My diagnosis threw a spanner in the works,” she said as she reflected on her preparation toward a national rowing competition in 2017. “I had never even had a blood test before. I was confused and scared of not knowing what the treatment might be.”
Hollywood tends to diverge from reality through dramatisation, plots and character development in order to enhance the narrative and attract audiences. But Gaby admitted the way cancer is perceived in movies did make her feel scared and afraid of what was to come.
“They usually portray it as horrific which didn’t help. And no doubt some people do get treatment that is like that… but I wouldn’t say mine was to that level.”
In April of 2017, Gaby’s world came to a standstill. She endured four rounds of chemotherapy at Peter MacCullum Cancer Centre. While her friends were fussing over what dress to wear to the year 11 formal, Gabby was more concerned about getting through her next bag of chemo.
“I made little subconscious goals everyday like lets get through this one and then you get to go home and into your own bed, mum’s cooking a good dinner tonight… I really appreciated the small things like that.”
The chemotherapy brought upon fatigue, nausea and a suppressed immune system. Gaby was also losing her hair. “That really scared me… and then when people started to find out, it all started to sink in.”
She didn’t mind her close friends talking about it, but feared being the topic of gossip around her high school. Gaby didn’t want the sympathy or the pity. Her physical appearance was changing but she just wanted to blend in with the rest of her class mates.
“A lot of the time I felt beyond tired, I was pale, I had big bags under my eyes and no hair. But I feel like when you are treated differently to everyone else that’s when you start to feel different and I didn’t want that.”
After 6 months of treatment, Gaby received the all clear from her doctor. She was cancer free. Filled with relief, Gaby could focus on her road to recovery by getting back into school, sport, and her normal routine. But having lost all of her hair, she didn’t feel quite like herself.
And that’s when her older siblings Matthew and Monica, showed their support in the best way possible…by shaving their heads, too, for the Leukaemia Foundation’s World’s Greatest Shave.
It was a Saturday morning and the Clarkes put on a feast for friends and family to graze on. Generous donations were rolling in on Gaby’s page on the foundation’s website. A day that could have been filled with sadness, turned out to be one of Gaby’s best memories because of the support she felt from friends, family and online donors who she did not even know. “When I look back on that day, it makes me smile,” she said with an infectious grin.
The Clarkes set a goal of $5000 on the World Greatest Shave website. However, with the incredible support and generosity from many people, they raised $17,079 for the Leukaemia Foundation.
The next year, Gaby felt like she had finally got her life back on track. She still visited her doctor for check-ups here and there, but her life felt almost normal again.
Until she realised the lump had returned.
In the same spot, just under the left collarbone. How could it possibly be?
Gabby was in disbelief, as were the rest of her family. “I remember when I relapsed my first thought was that means more chemo and more treatment and that would mean never feeling one-hundred per cent. Even when I felt ‘good’ I never felt one-hundred per cent.”
Although the news “crushed” her, she didn’t feel as scared or afraid because she already had some idea of what the treatments were going to be like.
Her relapse meant two rounds of chemotherapy and an intensive three-week treatment that kept her in hospital. “I was immunosuppressed, so I wasn’t allowed to do much. It wasn’t pleasant in anyway but it was bearable and I got through it,” she said.
In her final year of school and with VCE exams looming over the year 12 students, one may ask how Gaby coped.
School was a coping mechanism for Gaby as it made her feel “normal” and gave her something to distract her thoughts. She had the option of completing her VCE over two years, but she was determined to complete her studies with her friends. With support from her teachers, friends and the school community, Gaby completed her VCE studies with remarkable results and was even awarded her school’s Excellence Award in Product Design.
Her mother, Trish, and siblings Matthew and Monica were her biggest support throughout her illness. “Mum was always there at every point… she dealt with the stress side of things whereas Monica was a bit more tough love. She was like you’re allowed to be upset, angry, sad but you need to pick yourself up so we can work towards getting you better,” Gaby said.
“That was a turning point for me. Instead of feeling sorry for myself I had to get on with life. I knew that other people were going through things ten times worse than I was.”
Now 18 and seven months in remission, Gaby is stronger than ever. Although the fear of relapsing does cross her mind, she is looking forward to the future and focusing on getting her life back into a “routine”. She is rowing and running long distances with her siblings to regain her fitness, as well as juggling her university studies and social life.
“Although I missed out on opportunities that would have been great to experience, I look back and realise I’ve learnt so much more about myself as a person.”