Fiona Elsey’s Dream

The inspiration for a regional Victorian cancer research facility came from a young cancer patient, Fiona Elsey, who planted a seed in the mind of her oncologist, her family and her community. From Fiona’s dream a garden of hope has grown in the form of a world-renowned research institute in Ballarat.

Fiona grew up in Ballarat in regional Victoria and attended Ballarat High School. In 1990 she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of 13. She underwent treatment at the Royal Children’s Hospital, where she was treated by Ballarat paediatric oncologist and haematologist Dr George Kannourakis. Ewings Sarcoma at this time had a survival rate of 5% and despite treatment Fiona’s disease progressed.

The relationship between doctor and patient is particularly close and especially when the patient is dying. George Kannourakis was pivotal in enabling Fiona to remain at home in her final weeks. During this time, Fiona asked George why cancer research only occurred in capital cities. She made him promise that he would to make her dream of a regional research centre a reality and work so that other people would not have to go through what she was going through insightful and brave from a young girl battling a terminal disease.

Speaking about the death of a young child is particularly difficult. It represents every parents’ worst nightmare and every doctors’ most challenging situation. But in 1991, the statistics around Fiona’s illness meant that the likelihood of surviving this illness was remote. What a doctor needs to do is continue trying to outwit the disease, remaining hopeful, but also being practical. Fiona needed care, particularly during the final stages of her illness and George Kannourakis provided that care. Fiona lost her fight for life in 1991, aged 14, but she inspired all those around her, including her local community. The community rallied to then raise the initial funds to support the establishment of what was known as the Ballarat Cancer Research Centre. In 1998, the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Laboratory, named in Fiona’s memory, was officially opened.

Each day 367 Australians will be diagnosed with cancer. Families and friends are shattered by the way a challenging illness affects their loved ones and each day people continue to die. Diagnosis and treatments are improving all the time. But while this disease kills, we must continue our part in researching for a cure.

Today, led by Professor George Kannourakis, the Institute is making a world class contribution to cancer research, with recent recognition for achievements into targets for ovarian cancer and histiocytic disorders. As Australia’s only regionally based cancer research centre, we are non-government funded, and rely on the generous support of the community to continue research into more effective ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

Our research team is working hard to unlock the riddles of cancer. We are well positioned to do this, with world class facilities at the Ballarat Technology Park, and a tissue bank of over 35,000 patient samples, that is facilitated through the support of medical clinicians that recognise its importance. Additionally, our team maintains an extensive program of local and international collaborations with other research centres.

Funding is sourced from the community donations, corporate partnerships, events, grants from philanthropic and scientific bodies and bequests. Funding is required to ensure sustainable momentum of the research program.