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It was like finding an oasis of peace in the middle of madness.


That is how Gill Whittingham describes the first appointment she had at the Cancer Society in Gisborne, not long before she was diagnosed with retroperitoneal liposarcoma, a rare type of soft tissue sarcoma.

In April 2017 Gill turned up to her doctors with symptoms of indigestion and was told she had a large mass in her abdomen. Two and half months later, after she felt as if she’d had “every test known to man”, she received her official diagnosis.

The period from first seeing the worrying look on her GP’s face to getting a formal diagnosis was an incredibly intense time for Gill and her husband. Gill says her emotions were heightened and her imagination was running wild amidst all the unknowns to the point where she remembers “flipping out” at a biopsy appointment.

In contrast to that low point, she remembers her introduction to the Cancer Society in quite a different light.

Through a recommendation from a close friend, who was going through breast cancer at the time, Gill got in touch with her local Cancer Society in Gisborne to make an appointment to go in for an initial chat.

“I tell people it was like finding an oasis of peace in the middle of madness. It really was.

“Heidi immediately listened to me, she got into my history, she started checking on all my hospital dates – as I’d had a hellish experience of having appointments being given to me, then cancelled but not being told.  She sorted it all out for me and said, ‘you are welcome here any time’.”

In August 2017 Gill had surgery at Auckland City Hospital to remove a 25cm tumour from her abdomen. Five years later in December 2022 another tumour was discovered leading to Gill having her right kidney removed. Since then, six-month scans have revealed three more tumours, which are currently being monitored by her medical team.

Gill says she lives with her “little visitors”.

“My consultant has told me that the recurrence of tumours - still classed as primary tumours - could go on for the rest of my life. It’s one of these cancers where you usually die with it, not of it. Though it may and can morph into something worse. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t.”

Since the first day she stepped into her local Cancer Society office Gill says she has been a frequent visitor and the East Coast Cancer Society has been her “mainstay of support” for the last seven years.

She says that there are things offered by Cancer Society that weren’t offered to her anywhere else that helped her manage the “really hard days”.

“We have a lady who comes in once a week to our local Gisborne Cancer Society office and offers massage. You can book your appointment. When you’ve got absolutely nothing else to look forward to but an appointment with Paula it’s absolutely mind-blowingly welcoming.”

Gill was also put forward to attend a workshop with charity Look Good Feel Better, a close partner of the Cancer Society . She says it is an experience that has stuck in her mind since and she still puts on “a little bit of make-up” when the going gets tough and that “little thing” can make a big difference.

Gill is now an active volunteer with the Cancer Society.

She has tended the gardens surrounding the Cancer Society’s Gladstone Road offices, been a ticket collector at fundraising shows, puts her hand up most years to pick flowers in the lead up to Daffodil Day and was Chair of the Gisborne Relay for Life in March this year.

She is also keen to give back and be a support to anyone else with sarcoma.

She started the Facebook group NZ Sarcoma Support Group in 2017 when she was diagnosed and realised there was no support group for the rare cancer. The group now has 68 members.