Meet Gabby, a Cancer Connect carer volunteer

Gabrielle Graham is a Cancer Council Queensland Cancer Connect volunteer. She offers empathy and support to other carers, as she was a carer for both her brother and sister when they were diagnosed with cancer. Gabby took some time to chat to us about how important it is to nurture our carers, and create safe and welcoming spaces for them to address their concerns, thoughts and feelings.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your story? 

About 5 years ago now, my older brother was diagnosed and passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2015. Afterwards, I was looking for something I could do to be helpful to people. I wanted to see if I could share my experience because my brother had an amazing attitude towards everything. Even though it was incredibly tragic and very hard and awful at times, there was a real beauty in the whole experience. I was devastated to have lost him, but found a sense of purpose during my time as a carer, and I was hoping to share this experience with other people that may find this helpful.

It was such a profound moment in my life and I was trying to find my feet again after he had passed and discover ways to move forward. I thought volunteering was a great option and spoke with Cancer Council Queensland. I think too that sadly, not a lot of people with pancreatic cancer survive, and to be able to talk with people in a similar situation felt good. I wanted to provide a safe and supportive space for those people.

I left the workforce to be my brother’s (Roy) carer. After Roy died, it was a good 6 months before I felt ready to go back. Previously, I was in a receptionist role but didn’t think it was suitable for me at that time, so I started working for a family company as a domestic cleaner. This was great as I could work as much as I wanted, fitting it around my schedule, as the work was pretty local to me. It was good to be physical and help someone by providing a service. People were very appreciative, and it was very cathartic work too. You get into a sort of meditative state during cleaning and there is a pleasure with the end result. I did this for a year and a half with the same company until a position became available in customer service in their office, which I was successful in obtaining. I have been working in this role since.

Sadly, my older sister had been diagnosed with lung cancer and left us in May. She had a family, so my role with her was different to being carer for my brother, who was single. I reduced my hours to three days a week with my employer’s support to allow myself to self-care and move through this process. Again, it was important to bring some balance into my life and to make space for that.

 What do you love most about your Cancer Connect volunteer role?

As a Cancer Connect carer, I have had an experience with a client whose mother was diagnosed with cancer. My client had similar questions, as a carer, that I had when my brother was diagnosed. I found speaking with her very healing as I answered her questions purely by talking about my own experience. I was able to help her and she mentioned at the end of our chat that she was lifted by the opportunity to speak with me. It was such a great feeling, and so rewarding to support her in a way that was really helpful to her.

What has surprised you in your Cancer Connect role?

I guess one of the things that was surprising for me was how healing it was. Supporting someone else helps you to move through the experience yourself. As much as you are there to support others, it has a reciprocation-type effect. It helps me to feel better when I am talking to someone else who is going through a similar experience. I just didn’t expect that.

What has been the most inspiring or memorable moment you’ve had since starting with Cancer Council Queensland? 

It has been a great experience being connected with Cancer Council Queensland. I have been part of Daffodil Day as well, and I’ve found all those involved are supportive, caring and positive.

 What is your hope for the future? What do you hope your volunteering will achieve for cancer and Cancer Council Queensland?

Having created space in my work life, I really would like to expand what I do because I think it is a great source of support for people and has a meaningful mission. I love what I’m doing at the moment and would like to support more people, in different ways. I know there are a number of different areas within Cancer Council Queensland that you can volunteer in and would like to explore more ways to help others. I think Cancer Council Queensland has much to offer at such a difficult time in life. Being able to support regional people when they come into town, I think is an area that is really important as well. It must be difficult to be so far away from home at this time.

 What would you say to someone who was thinking about volunteering in peer support or with Cancer Council Queensland in general?

If you would like to be a peer support volunteer, there is a lot of support from Cancer Council Queensland. It can be difficult having gone through the experience yourself, but the volunteer induction was really informative and lots of value. One of the big things I took away from the induction training was that if there are difficulties, there is always support along the way for you. I think that because I knew the support was there, it helped give me the confidence to participate.

For event volunteers, I can say when I was part of Daffodil Day, it was so wonderful to be out on the street and see the generosity of the people walking by, happy to help out and show support. It was a really lovely experience, along with the team of people I met who organised the day.

 Do you undertake any additional/other Cancer Council Queensland volunteer roles? If yes, what made you want to volunteer more hours with Cancer Council Queensland? 

Apart from being a volunteer on a Daffodil Day stand, as admin has featured strongly in my previous roles, it’s an area that I would like to explore. At the moment, I’m looking at becoming a transport driver who takes people affected by cancer to their appointments. I want to help others who are going through something similar to my experience and spend some time with them to create a safe and comfortable space. By volunteering more hours, I am able to be there in whatever capacity they need. I think it would be great to give back in this way.

How do you stay focused and connected to your role?

I think it’s important to do the really basic things we all should do to nurture ourselves. For me, it’s walking and I also enjoy bike riding. These are the sorts of things that keep my energy up and my attitude in that positive kind of place. I also have a counsellor that I talk with who supports me in a really great way. This is a good avenue for me to keep a check on myself. I think too that when you are talking with someone and they are in the midst of it, it’s very simple to just hold that space for them and allow them their time to unload and to ask questions. Create a safe, supportive space where you can focus on the person you are supporting.

What do you do in your everyday life to focus on separating your own experience of treatment to those you visit?

In this role, you are separate from someone else’s situation. You are holding that space for them, rather than feeling like you are lining up or jumping in with them. I kind of feel myself separating, and by holding that safe space I provide a place where they can cry or whatever they need to do, so they can walk through it and come out the other side. I think it is also important afterwards to do something that is just nurturing for me. I think what I’ve done in the past is have a bubble bath, to have some time to decompress a bit. Oh, and I would call and speak with somebody if I needed to, but I think by creating that space for them all this happens fairly naturally.

Do you have any tips for other peer support volunteers on how to relax after difficult support sessions?

I think it is important to be kind to yourself. If you do start to slip or struggle, remember that you have been through this experience as well. If at any point something triggers you, or you are struggling in some way, be kind to yourself and get the support that you need, rather than feeling you have to be strong and shoulder it through. You have to care for the carer. I think the reason that we can be such a support is that we have lived through it and it’s very much a part of ourselves. It’s good to share this with others, but it also makes us vulnerable as well. It’s important to just be aware and recognise when you need support yourself.

 Do you have your own support network that you lean on? How do they help?

Yes, I have a counsellor and I’m blessed with a wonderful husband who has been my rock. I come from a family of nine, so all of my siblings have been through the same experiences of losing a brother and a sister, so we are a great support for each other. We have our own way of doing this, it is subtle, we are there, and we can call each other at any time. I also have a great bunch of friends who have been in my life for 25 or 30 years, who are that gentle support in the background. They are the people I often turn to for fun, to lift up or to distract. This is important to lift your mood.

As a side note for all carers, one of the most important lessons I learnt from my brother was to have fun. Once he got over the initial shock of his situation, he was the most present human being I’ve ever met. He was always a teaser and loved a joke. The majority of the time we spent together (and it was a lot at hospitals and at appointments), we had fun. It was so cathartic and important. The big, heavy situation was happening, but he was still living each day while it was there. Four days before he died, I asked him how he was feeling and he said ‘actually I think I am doing pretty good’. I think having people in your life that can lift you is really helpful. And if not, you can always just find it in yourself by doing things like going to the movies. There are a lot of things you can do. For example, Southbank is one of my favourite places to go as you can go bike riding or to the ‘beach’, whatever it is in you that can help lift your mood.

If this article has raised concerns for you, you can find cancer support by calling Cancer Council Queensland’s 13 11 20 Support and Information line. 13 11 20 is for all people impacted by cancer, including those living with cancer, their families, carers and friends, people wanting to reduce their cancer risk, teachers, students and healthcare professionals.