Grace Gawler: The Beginnings of a Life of Service to Cancer Patients
Updated Oct 2022
In 1974, I became a proactive sole caregiver when the veterinary surgeon I worked and with whom I had just started datingalso my boyfriend, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma of the femur that resulted in his right leg being amputated. His name is Ian Gawler. At that time, I was a very experienced veterinary nurse with a speciality in practice management and surgery and was used to dealing with crises of a different kind.
Ironically, my childhood desire was to become a veterinary surgeon or a cancer researcher!
The following year Ian became very ill and was deemed palliative with a short life expectancy when his oncologist presumed he had a recurrence of bone cancer. In a leap of faith we married in February 1976 around the time when he was given a prognosis of 6 weeks. A biopsy was not performed but he became critically ill with mysterious symptoms that seemed not to be related to a bone cancer recurrence. Veterinary practice often involved thinking outside the square to solve problems and this approach served me well as Ian’s patient advocate and caregiver. I was not giving up!
His condition deteriorated rapidly and unbeknown to us or doctors at the time, but later confirmed; he was diagnosed with advanced TB which made sense of the seemingly unrelated symptoms he experienced. 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. Refer to MJA
My story is recorded in my memoirs – Grace Grit and Gratitude
During the 1970’s cancer support groups were non-existent and 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.
After his recovery, fame followed and hundreds of letters arrived from cancer patients needing help. I answered letters and then developed a phone-based help service for cancer patients from home, whilst Ian returned to veterinary practice. Our first child was born in 1978. In 1979 I began studies in Natural Therapies/Herbal medicine and Nutrition, qualifying at distinction level in 1986. Three more children followed. Life was full! I am eternally grateful to have been mentored by the late Dorothy Hall who was the Matriarch of herbal medicine in Australia. Today, I am still studying and extending research into supportive care, breast cancer and complementary medicine. Life was full!
Our Cancer Support Groups were an Australian first and were soon to be followed by the realisation of my vision for creating a country retreat, thanks to the financial support for a land purchase from another family who had personal experience with cancer, the Edgelows. The Gawler Foundation which later became known as the Yarra Valley Living Centre was created. I pioneered specific breast cancer support groups and residential programs. The main focus was emotional healing, stress management and lifesyle medicine, including sensible nutritional advice.
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, a hysterectomy & prolapse repair. Ironically once again; I had been studying body psychotherapy in New York, USA with Dr Ilana Rubenfeld – pioneer of Rubenfeld Synergy TM method. There was no choice to take a break form my studies.
Overnight my world turned into a medical nightmare that was to continue for many years! This was made even more challenging as I had recently experienced unexpected marriage separation and divorce. Now with young teenagers at home, I was faced with a life-challenging and life-altering colon condition, caused by loss of nerve function in my colon. Horrendous years followed. Having spent decades as a supporter/care-giver, I found my self alone and unsupported. My mettle was truly tested – I learned a lot. As Hemingway wrote: I grew strong at the broken places!
My story is recorded in my memoirs – Grace Grit and Gratitude
Many surgical attempts were performed aimed at restoring colon function. A colectomy and surgical removal of a large section of lower small bowel, and lost most of my large bowel. Ileostomies & colostomies followed – all failed. However; thanks to a skilled and compassionate surgeon, the colectomy and ostomies clearly saved my life! However, my life became focussed on managing leaking stomas, burned skin and cleaning up as a result of exploding “bags”. Could some level of wellbeing ever be achieved? Things were looking grim.
I researched my condition and diagnosis eventually discussed 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 via electrodes implanted near my spine connected to pacemaker-like device in my buttock! After a trial period function was restored, then a permanent device was implanted. 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. A lump had been evident since I matured around 9 years of age. Checked for decades, the one time I missed my mammogram; as I had fallen of the contact list- the lump changed and I was diagnosed.
So here I am having undergone 4 breast cancer related surgeries including a mastectomy, plus 24 gynaecological and associated colon surgeries. I survive & thrive to tell the tale and more importantly to share my experiences with others.
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 Action 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 therapists, diagnosticians, and interventional radiologists to name a few.
These relationships help you the patient to access some of the world’s most brilliant cancer minds and breakthrough cancer treatments.
Grace Grit and Gratitude, was published 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!
Radio BBC Bristol UK – In this interview, my unique approach based on my personal experience as caregiver, healthcare professional and patient survivor is discussed click here
Kristi UK writes….“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”!