When emergency nurse Kaela Graham-Bowman was diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer affecting the bone, cartilage and soft tissues, she had never even heard the word before.
Although she had been working in the oncology ward for a year before her diagnosis in January 2020, she had never come across the condition that makes up only one per cent of adult cancers.
The mother-of-two underwent surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy and was cleared of the cancer later the same year, only to relapse a little over two years later, in June 2022.
Kaela was told the cancer had spread to her lungs, leading to another round of surgery and chemotherapy, before she went into mild heart failure and started another round of chemotherapy.
But Kaela hasn’t let her diagnosis or treatment slow her down; she continues to work in the emergency department, has launched an advocacy platform and won a nursing award.
“I was in the army for eight years … but I finally got around to doing what I’ve always wanted to do [nursing],” she said.
“And I absolutely loved oncology and palliative care work. It was just unfortunate I found myself in that position.
“But it’s made me such a better nurse and it makes me an even more passionate advocate for oncology patients.”
Kaela said although it could be difficult to care for other cancer patients, her “protective instinct” had kept her going.
“I do have that knowledge that others might not, both from the nursing oncology perspective and the patient perspective,” she said.
“So if I can change their outcome, or give them some information that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, it might be a bit selfish of me, but it makes me happy.”
Kaela’s commitment to her patients was acknowledged in 2022 when she was presented with a nursing and midwifery excellence award.
She attended the awards ceremony with Julia Sandlant, who was diagnosed with the same rare sarcoma cancer as Kaela.
Julia has since died but her friend Imogen Hughes said Kaela’s care and understanding had made Julia feel safe and looked after while in hospital.
“She had been taken into emergency,” Imogen said. ”They didn’t know if she had pneumonia. They didn’t know what was wrong with her.
“Kaela was such a wonderful, kind, caring, reassuring figure for her and her family on that night. I still have the messages from Jules saying how much it meant [to her].”
The two women became friends and have both advocated for and raised awareness about sarcoma, including through media appearances.
Kaela was also behind the Instagram page sorareity, which shares information about sarcoma from her unique perspective as a nurse living with the cancer.
“What I’ve found a lot myself was unless you have a health background, you’re left in the dark, as it is with a common cancer, let alone a rare cancer,” she said.
“I’m getting a lot of messages from parents or people going through sarcoma thanking me because they either didn’t know some of the stuff I was sharing or they just felt so grateful that there was someone who knew what they were going through.”
Kaela has also written to government about increasing funding and research for sarcoma.
“What myself, and I know Julia, would want everyone to know is we need our voices to be heard,” she said.
“We need to get more education, we need a bigger platform for sarcoma … because early warning signs lead to prevention or better outcomes.
“[Sarcoma] is rare but we are dying without the awareness and without the funding and research that other common cancers have.”