Grace Gawler: The Beginnings of a Life of Service

Updated Oct 2022: At 21 years of age in 1974, I became a proactive caregiver to a co-worker/ boyfriend who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma of the femur that resulted in his right leg being amputated. 

The following year he became very ill and was deemed palliative with a short life expectancy when his oncologist presumed he had a recurrence of bone cancer. A biopsy was not performed but he became critically ill with mysterious symptoms.

His condition deteriorated rapidly and unbeknown to us or doctors at the time, but later confirmed; he was diagnosed with advanced TB. According to an expert familiar with TB, the TB was evident at the time of his diagnosed recurrence. These 2 concurrent medical conditions muddied the waters. The story is complex, but he survived.

During the 1970’s cancer support groups were non-existent. Being a sole caregiver was a lonely existence. The experience of closed doors and minds and lack of supportive care became the driver for us sharing the knowledge gained on the cancer journey with others.

At the outset, this was by way of support groups led by both of us and a phone-based help service I provided from home for cancer patients,

The Cancer Support Groups were an Australian first and were soon to be followed by my vision for creating a country retreat, the Yarra Valley Living Centre.

My vision was realised with financial support for a land purchase from another family who had personal experience with cancer, the Edgelows. The Centre became the home of the Gawler Foundation. Four children arrived and I studied and qualified in Natural Therapies/Herbal medicine. Life was full!          

The Centre functioned well for many years. However; when it moved further away from our original story; compounded by irreconcilable differences with management, I resigned.

In 1997, during my early 40’s it was my turn to become a patient following unexpected complications from surgery, hysterectomy & prolapse repair.

Overnight my world turned into a medical nightmare. This was made even more complex as I had recently experienced marriage separation and divorce. Now with a life-challenging and life-altering colon condition, caused by loss of nerve function, I could no longer empty my colon. Horrendous years followed.

Many surgical attempts were performed aimed at restoring colon function. A colectomy and surgical removal of a large section of lower small bowel, and Ileostomies colostomies to rest my remaining 30 cm of colon; all failed. However; the colectomy clearly saved my life!   

I researched possible diagnosis and solutions with an oncology colleague in Australia and a friend who was a gynaecologist in Rotterdam. With their support, I travelled to Rotterdam for a successful innovative treatment.

I underwent an experimental world-first “bionic implant” (sacral neuromodulation). No more ileostomy or colostomy bags but a device that pulsed at 5-6 volts! Since then, the device and electrodes have had to be replaced several times overseas.

Years passed, then breast cancer knocked at my door. Not just one type of breast cancer, but 3 separate histological types; solid papillary carcinoma, invasive mucinous carcinoma, & infiltrating lobular carcinoma! All at various stages, each of these cancer types showed specific genomic differences in their nature, and behaviour.

So here I am at 68 having undergone 4 breast cancer related surgeries including a mastectomy plus 24 gynaecological and associated colon surgeries. I survive & thrive to tell the tale. 

The Grace Gawler Institute represents all that I have learned during my almost half a century of providing cancer services.

More importantly; as a veteran of these diverse life experiences; I appreciate first-hand the reality of walking in the shoes of both caregiver and patient.

Today, I specialise in providing patients with cancer navigation and personalised Survivorship Care Plans.

My personal journey has led me to forming invaluable professional relationships with some of the world’s leading surgeons, oncologists, researchers, hospitals, cancer immunologists, innovative radiation therapies, diagnosticians, and interventional radiologists to name a few.

These relationships help you the patient to access some of the world’s best cancer treatments.

I authored my autobiography, Grace Grit and Gratitude, in 2008. Available in soft cover and eBook.

Footnote: My profiles can be found on Researchgate.net and Academia.edu. I am a member of the International Psycho-Oncology Society (IPOS). I work across multiple cancer disciplines focusing on QoL and well-being for cancer patients. 

Be inspired and Tune in!

Grace’s unique approach discussed on Radio BBC Bristol UK Podcast Interview click here

Wow – what a great interview. Loved how your endorsement of joining traditional and complementary medicine came across loud and clear. I always feel like cheering when I hear you speak like this – there are many, MANY podcasts where people share good information (for example on diet, supplements, visualisation), but then demonise western medicine in their next breath.

You are almost a “lone voice” in your astute approach and I admire you so much. Your personal story, particularly with the world-first surgery, is incredible! Thank you, Grace!