Date: 19 May 2023
23 year old Tess McMurtrie has faced more than most can imagine. Her cancer journey took her awat from her home in Anglesea, Victoria to receive the best possible treatment in Melbourne. At Sony Foundation's River4Ward, Tess was introduced by Paralympian and friend, Kelly Cartwright, to share her story, and how the You Can Stay program was there for her family when they needed it most.
Click the video below to watch Tess' speech in full, or scroll to read the transcript.
I want to start by thanking everyone who has come and bought a seat as well as generously donating to this important cause that supports young people and their families who are going through probably the worst times of their lives.
Myself and my family are not strangers to extremely difficult times. When I was 20 I was told I had metastatic osteosarcoma. When I was 21 I was told I would have my leg amputated above the knee for my best chance of survival. When I was 22 I was told my cancer was incurable and I most likely only had a year left to live. I'm now 23 and still surviving with one leg and one lung, I've passed the 12 month mark that I was given and I'm trying to live a life that fulfills me and makes me happy.
In 2020, I was lucky enough that cancer was not a word that existed in my day to day life. I was 20 years old, had just finished two years of study, was looking to move into a share house with friends and was saving money so I could blow it all on back packing trips. Before I turned 20 I had done a month in Borneo and 5 weeks in Mexico and Cuba backpacking solo and I well and truly had the travel bug.
This changed on the 27th of November 2020 when a standard scan revealed that the annoying pain in my knee wasn't just a strained patella tendon, there was a large mass. Within a week from that scan I was diagnosed with metastatic osteosarcoma. Osteosarcoma is bone cancer. It's rare and its aggressive and in my case it had already spread to my lungs.
Treatment meant I would have to travel to the Peter MacCallum hospital in Melbourne, two hours from my home, for treatment. I was numb for most of this time, everything moving so quickly. I thought, yes this is not how I saw myself spending my early 20s, but it would be an experience that would give me a lot of perspective and life experience. This has turned out to be true, but god I was so naive to think that because I really didn’t know what was coming.
Not only was the chemo was brutal but also all the fluids and steroids were awful. They changed my body quickly and dramatically. I obviously lost all my hair but I also rapidly gained weight, had an insatiable appetite, nausea, extreme fatigue. I experienced taste and hearing loss, brain fog, temperature drops and hot flushes, many of these symptoms I am still to this day managing.
I was in hospital stays just short of a week and honestly the only thing that kept me sane was having my family there. This is where the Sony Foundation and furthermore, Quest and the You Can Stay program were there as our silent supports. Being 2 hours from home if my family, more specifically my mum couldn’t stay in Melbourne there is no way she could've been with me in hospital to the extent she was. For almost all of the 7 months of initial chemo my mum was next to my bed in hospital from 9am in the morning to usually 9 or 10pm at night. The pressure that Sony took off our family and allowed them to be there with me during my treatment was crucial for my mental health.
One of the hardest parts of this entire story was being told I'd have to have my leg amputated to save my life. Being told this completely broke me. The thought of irreversibly changing my body forever in such a drastic way was unthinkable. How would I walk? Would walking always be tiring and difficult (yes it is)? How would I travel alone again? How would I get up stairs? In and out of a shower? To the toilet in the middle of the night?? I was absolutely terrified of losing my independence but it was what had to be done.
And through all this my family was there, to sit with me while I cried, bring me food, help me shower and get me out of the house. At the time I was too occupied with grief and depression to properly thank them, but I want them to know, that having them there during the darkest hours of my life means everything to me.
The other thing that pulled me through this hole was meeting Kelly. Before I met Kelly, a few weeks before my amputation I had never met an amputee. Kelly came to visit me at my house and she was so down to earth and giving with her time, coming to see me in hospital and meet for coffee, she would answer all my stupid questions and listen to everything that was worrying me. Every time after seeing Kelly I felt tenfold more optimistic about what my life could look like after having an amputation.
Unfortunately sacrificing my leg didn’t save me like we hoped it would. I've since has multiple relapses, lung surgeries and chemotherapy. Towards the end of 2022 I came very close to dying, a huge tumour had grown in my lung cavity and I was told I only had a matter of weeks left to live.
I here now because I'm on a trial chemotherapy that has miraculously kept the tumours stable, surprising myself and my medical team. However, this is no means a long term solution and everything that I am lucky enough to be alive for now is really an added bonus.
Before I got sick and all of this has happened I knew I wanted to live a full life and experience as many things as I could. I wanted to travel the world and meet interesting people.
Even though my life will most likely be cut short, and maybe I didn’t get to travel across the globe, my life has definitely been full. I value so much more now spending time with my family and friends and just enjoying the small moments in life.