By Gabriella Wehbe (pictured above at the Lifehouse Dinner, November 2016)
Imagine this, you’re on a boat, sailing along in fairly calm weather. You’ve been travelling in one direction for as long as you can remember and life is as good as it’s ever been. Then, without warning, a massive storm hits. Your boat thrashes around in the crashing waves, and you begin to question whether you’ll come out of this alive. Then, after what seems like an eternity, the storm clears, and you see someone in the distance holding a life jacket. Your boat has been damaged, nothing too severe, but then you realise you’re still a long way from home.
My name is Gabriella Wehbe and I am 18 years old and one of seven children. My father Jim is a builder and property developer who tirelessly works to provide for our family. As you can imagine with the demands of seven children, my mother Loretta is a full-time housewife. They have both been the rocks of our family and the anchor that keeps my boat stable.
2015 was an emotional year to say the least. I had planned to go to Cambodia with my school to visit an orphanage and build houses for the disadvantaged. Then in July we lost my maternal grandmother, which was a hard time for my family. At the time, I was completing an accelerated HSC mathematics course and I had to complete my trial examinations. I was also blessed to be elected assistant head girl at Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta by my peers. To say the least, I was very excited about my final year of high school.
I was participating in the City2Surf when I noticed a painful lump on my left foot. Numerous doctors’ visits and scans later, they deduced it was just a ganglion, nothing too serious and that it could be removed through a simple surgery.
I had the surgery on 18 September 2015 and the surgeon said it went perfectly and that the lump had been sent for routine testing. A couple of days later the doctor called and asked me to come back in for the results of the test. He then said: “I’ve done thousands of these surgeries and I’ve never seen this before. Unfortunately, you have alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma”. I didn’t know how to react because to be honest I didn’t know that a word could exist that could have that many syllables. But my only question for the doctor was whether I would still be able to go to Cambodia. To which he shook his head and said: “I’m sorry Gabby, I don’t think that’s going to happen”.
That’s when the tears started and I thought that the entire next year of my life would be spent in a hospital. I was referred to the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, where I met with a team of people who were to become familiar faces over the next year. My oncologist, Dr Vivek Bhadri, explained to me what a sarcoma cancer was. To me however, it was much more than a simple definition.
A sarcoma involves several incredibly difficult conversations, bucket loads of tears from those around you, and it requires the most determination you could possibly channel. I was told I only had a 20% chance of long-term survival, but I was determined to be one of the 20%. I was given a 54-week treatment plan, involving both chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
I was worried about finding time for my role as assistant head girl. The elected leadership team was already a close network of girls and my diagnosis made us all communicate more and brought us closer. There was a real sense of camaraderie and teamwork which made it much easier for me to juggle my treatment with my role.
I was also concerned about not receiving my HSC through not attending enough days at school. I decided to go ahead with my HSC because I enjoyed learning, I loved my school and I wanted to be able to spend time with my friends. I also saw studying as a distraction from the side effects of treatment. I would ask the staff at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse to book my appointments in the afternoon, so that I could still attend school in the morning and receive treatment during my study periods rather than miss out on lessons. Although I did miss a few days and a couple of important lessons, my teachers caught me up on what I’d missed and offered constant support. As a result, I only missed three weeks of school.
After 93 chemotherapy sessions and 20 radiotherapy sessions, I’ve finished my treatment and the scans have come back clear. I’m truly looking forward to what the future holds for me. Next year I would like to further my studies at the University of Sydney in a Bachelor of Physiotherapy with a Masters of Teaching, a course that will enable me to pursue my dream of being either a physiotherapist or a PDHPE teacher. My number one ambition however, is to be completely happy, healthy and still have the same amount of determination and optimism that I currently have.
If it weren’t for those two qualities as well as the support of my family and my school and the hard work of the staff at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse I would not be where I am today. I’m so grateful to this incredible cancer facility, that has saved not only my life, but also the lives of so many others. We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust our sails.
Gabriella played a key role in helping us to raise over $400,000 for Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in 2016 and has been named the City of Parramatta Council Young Australian of the Year.