By Bria Mackay, South Wales
Joanne Mackay was a vibrant and caring woman who lived with nothing but love to give to those surrounding her. Her zest for life, love for others and faith in a higher power outweighed all obstacles that she faced. This is the story of her battle with breast cancer and how her vision of creating a support network for Breast Cancer patients came to fruition.
In the year 2000 the Mackay family were settling back into sunny beachside life after a year of living in England. Brad Mackay had just finished a successful NRL (Rugby League) career and hung up the footy boots for a more laid-back family lifestyle on the beautiful shoreline of Stanwell Park, Australia.
Joanne, a former midwife and nurse was focusing on mothering her two children Angus, 7 and Bria, 5. She was expecting her third child later that year. On the 22nd of December 2000 the family was blessed with the delivery of Tully.
Things were blissful in the Mackay household until one morning whilst breastfeeding Tully, Jo noticed an unusual lump in her left breast which caused her concern and she immediately phoned to make an appointment with her local doctor. Intuition told her that something was not right. It was late February and Tully was not even nine weeks old. The doctor arranged tests to be conducted immediately and on Tuesday 6th March 2001 Jo received a phone call that would forever change the lives of the Mackay family. Joanne was diagnosed with stage IV aggressive breast cancer at the prime age of just 36 years old.
“It’s now just over three weeks since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy on my left breast. My first chemo session was eight days ago and since then I have felt tired, sick and lethargic. That is just the physical side!
Emotionally I cannot begin to express the roller coaster ride I have been on since that horrible Tuesday afternoon that the breast surgeon rang me with the news. One minute I’m living in my perfect world, Stanwell Park in summer with the sound of the waves crashing on the shore, the parrots squawking, the sea salt air, my two oldest children playing happily, my gorgeous husband about to become a fireman and me, mother for the third time to little angelic Tully…then a freight train from out of nowhere hits me at 100 miles an hour and completely wipes out my picture perfect world.” (exert from Joanne’s diary entry on 25th March 2001).
Joanne bravely underwent a double mastectomy and had multiple rounds of chemotherapy. It was during this treatment that Jo became aware of the various struggles other breast cancer patients around her were facing. Whilst she had an abundance of support from her dedicated friends and family and was in a comfortable position financially, Joanne’s heart broke for the women she met who did not have these things. Jo began speaking about the idea of a foundation; one that would work at a very hands on level. She wanted to be able to provide women with the support that she felt so lucky to have.
Jo had met single mothers who had to give up work to undergo treatment and therefore could not afford to pay their utility bills or buy groceries to provide for their children. She met one woman who had just moved countries with her husband and didn’t have her immediate family nearby for support. She met women who did not have the means to afford the gap payment of their chemotherapy. Another woman she met had to catch a public bus to and from treatment as there was no one close to her who could drive. All these things broke Joanne’s heart. She wanted to create a centre for women who needed extra support. She dreamt of the day that she would be well again so that she would be able to dedicate the rest of her life to caring for this community of women.
Tragically, Joanne lost her battle on the 11th of July 2002 surrounded by her family and loved ones.
Joanne was survived by a group of passionate women whose goal became realising her vision and so in her honour the Joanne Mackay Breast Cancer Foundation (JMBCF) was created. JMBCF, otherwise known as Jo’s Helping Hand has since been supporting the breast cancer community in New South Wales, Australia. For over sixteen years the foundation has operated entirely off kind donations and has been run solely by a small and dedicated team of volunteers. The Directors include Joanne’s mother Maureen Eades, close childhood friend Leanne Reed and as of 2019 her daughter Bria who took on the role at the age of twenty-two.
JMBCF’s mission is to ease the burden placed on one’s life after the initial diagnosis of Breast Cancer. Patients are referred to the foundation through many oncologists and nurses working across four different hospitals in Sydney, Sutherland Shire and Wollongong. JMBCF offers transportation for patients, cleaning services for their homes, premium quality wigs and financial aid to cover excess treatment costs, utility bills and groceries bills etc. Until recent years the foundation provided patients with prosthetic breasts however this has since become a service covered by Medicare.
The foundation has to date supported over 1,300 women and their families, averaging a total of 81 women each year since it was founded in 2002. The Foundation has always worked as a small charity allowing them to form individual relationships with each patient. Incredibly, Joanne’s Mother Maureen personally phones and writes to each patient regularly throughout their personal journey.
In recent months the foundation has undergone a re-brand with the intention of gaining more awareness and expanding their network to support breast cancer patients Australia wide. The Team are working hard at launching new fundraising events and forming partnerships with other breast cancer organisations.
Jo’s Helping Hand will be carried throughout decades to fulfil her inspiring legacy.
For more information please visit: https://www.joannemackaybreastcancerfoundation.org/