Queanbeyan's Yvonne Cuschieri continues to fight for her community

Yvonne Cuschieri shortly after receiving her Senior Australian of the Year nomination. Photo: Jamila Toderas
Yvonne Cuschieri shortly after receiving her Senior Australian of the Year nomination. Photo: Jamila Toderas

For much of her life Yvonne Cuschieri has been surrounded by cancer.

It took her father, James, and then in the space of four years Mrs Cuschieri had to watch two of her four children, Steven and Sue, succumb to the disease both aged 54.

Right now she’s permanently attached to an oxygen machine as she battles cancer herself.

But while cancer has been a constant factor in her life, it’s how Mrs Cuschieri has responded to each instance and the dedication she has shown to help others battle the insidious disease that has defined her life.

Former Australian wicket keeper and Queanbeyan boy Brad Haddin is the ambassador for Rise Above (the ACT Eden Monaro Cancer Support Group). Pictured here with Mrs Cuschieri. Photo: Holly Treadaway

Former Australian wicket keeper and Queanbeyan boy Brad Haddin is the ambassador for Rise Above (the ACT Eden Monaro Cancer Support Group). Pictured here with Mrs Cuschieri. Photo: Holly Treadaway

It was 1985 when Mrs Cuschieri founded the ACT Eden Monaro Cancer Support Group. She saw a television program about teenagers unable to attend a national camp for cancer sufferers and relatives.

Laid up in bed waiting for back surgery Mrs Cuschieri decided to act and get those teenagers to camp. Since then she hasn’t stopped acting for others.

Over the next few years she raised tens of thousands of dollars to support various cancer-related causes. But once she realised much of that money had never reached actual patients and their families Mrs Cuschieri took matters into her own hands.

“If you give me a $10 donation and I’ve told you it’s to help a family, I don’t want $7 going to someone’s wages,” she said.

Yvonne Cuschieri, with chairman Hugh Percy and ActewAGL's Paul Walshe , holds the Encouragement Award awarded with ActewAGL Community Business Partnerships in Canberra at the 2007 PMs Awards for Excellence presentations. Photo: Richard Briggs

Yvonne Cuschieri, with chairman Hugh Percy and ActewAGL's Paul Walshe , holds the Encouragement Award awarded with ActewAGL Community Business Partnerships in Canberra at the 2007 PMs Awards for Excellence presentations. Photo: Richard Briggs

From a meeting in her Queanbeyan lounge room with some friends, the Cancer Support group was born and has grown to a point where it now supports more than 900 families in the region.

For her efforts Mrs Cuschieri has been awarded an Order of Australia and was a Senior Australian of the Year nominee among many other awards. But it has never been about the recognition for Mrs Cuschieri.

She insists it has always been about families, people going through tough times whose day she could brighten slightly or help out in some way.

Parents would often come to the office to have a cup of tea and Mrs Cuschieri would listen to all of them. She became a part of their lives, a constant support that never said something couldn’t be done.

Asked what memory sticks out from the 35 years Mrs Cuschieri immediately recalls a three-year-old blind girl who was receiving treatment for cancer.

Every day for 18 months Mrs Cuschieri visited her and let her sit on her lap while she told her stories because that’s what that little girl needed.

Even now, struck down by the disease herself, Mrs Cuschieri won’t stop working for others.

Working with Paul Walshe Mrs Cuschieri is leading the campaign for an all-ages, all diseases respite centre in Queanbeyan.

Mr Walshe has worked tirelessly to lobby the government and other stakeholders to get the much-needed facility off the ground. His inspiration unsurprisingly is Mrs Cuschieri.

“Yvonne was a stay-at-home-mum, she had her own family of four children to look after, but she just wanted to make a difference,” he said.

“And boy has she made a difference over the last 35 years.

“If it wasn’t for people like Yvonne we would be in all sorts of trouble.”

He said despite the fact Mrs Cuschieri was undergoing chemotherapy and struggling to breathe she sits at her computer everyday emailing medical professionals to find out what equipment the centre would need.

“She won’t stop until she stops breathing,” he said.

One of Queanbeyan’s most recognisable faces, Ricky Stuart, has thrown his weight behind the respite centre all due to his respect for Mrs Cuschieri.

“Yvonne is a person of great respect and integrity,” Mr Stuart said.

“When people such as Yvonne want support I’ll be the first person to jump on board.”

Mr Walshe said while progress on the respite centre had not moved as quickly as anyone would have liked, it was progressing and they hoped to make an announcement soon.