It is the news no one ever wants to hear, but a Mandurah teacher has vowed to fight after she was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Savanna Griechen has called on the community for support to raise funds for a clinical drug that could save her life.
The 32-year-old was diagnosed with stage four gastric cancer in September and told she had an average of one year to live.
The diagnosis is extremely rare for someone her age and health, with the disease usually occurring in people in their 60s.
Ms Griechen’s only hope is tailored chemotherapy treatment and the specialised drug, Pemrbolizumab – which will set her back $65,000 out-of-pocket.
The former WAAPA student and music and drama teacher said she was feeling fit and healthy until she started experiencing back pain and stomach cramps early in August.
“I had just moved back to Melbourne after six months travelling and just started a new job teaching,” she said.
“I took myself to the emergency room because it felt like it might have been in my kidneys. They sent me home and said it was all clear, but the back pain persisted.
“A GP told me it was just a muscle pulling and to go to the gym and keep up my already active lifestyle but I knew deep down that something wrong.”
What followed was a series of tests and scans before an MRI revealed swollen lymph nodes in Ms Griechen’s neck.
“They said that was a bit strange so they did an abdominal scan and found huge massive lymph nodes pushing on my spinal cord which was what caused the back pain,” she said.
“My stool sample came back clear except for a stomach bacteria, helicobacter pylori, which up to 75 per cent of people have with no symptoms.
“But in really rare cases like mine, it can cause stomach ulcers and stomach cancer.
“They said the worst case diagnosis would be lymphoma – which is hilarious to us now because it has a much higher survival rate than what I’ve actually got.”
She flew to Perth the next day to return home to Mandurah and be closer to family.
Ms Griechen underwent tests, biopsies and an endoscopy before she was finally diagnosed with gastric cancer and started the fight of her life.
“I was told repeatedly by everybody that there was no way it could be cancer in the stomach because it’s so rare because of my age and gender, I’ve never smoked or consume too much alcohol and I go to the gym five days a week,” she said.
“But I just knew that it was stomach cancer. I knew something was wrong and I was so pushy so I would encourage everyone to trust your body and get a second or third opinion.”
Based on the aggressive nature of her tumor and the average life expectancy of others with the disease, Ms Griechen was told she had a year to live.
“I was shocked and just went home and spent a day planning my funeral,” she said.
“I’ve had an amazing life and have done so much in my 32 years – lived overseas, spent my life teaching and working in music and drama, which is my passion.
“Then the next day, I woke up and thought ‘no, I refuse to be a statistic’ so I spent one day in that hole and then I started watching stories of survivors and connecting with other people online.”
Ms Griechen was put in contact with one of the top specialists to beat gastric cancer in Western Australia, Dr Andrew Dean, who put her on a tailored chemotherapy program and the drug, Pemrbolizumab.
“I believe the universe is setting me up to succeed because two of my friends work in clinical trials and one has so much knowledge in the area of trial drugs and immunotherapy,” she said.
“Pembro has already been a breakthrough for all cancers but is specifically showing promising results for gastric cancers.
“But it costs $65,000 for a year before it is then subsidised by private health.”
The young teacher and her family are urgently fundraising to pay for the lifesaving treatment through social media and GoFundMe.
They have already raised more than $20,000 of their goal in three weeks.
“I’ve been surprised by the generosity from friends and family and even people I haven’t spoken to for years. The outpouring of support from Mandurah and the amount of ex-students and their families that have donated – that’s what has touched me the most,” she said.
“I want to blow out my 80th birthday candles, see my parents grow old, hold my niece or nephew.
“I feel like I have to live to tell my story and to mentor young people who end up with a diagnosis like mine so I want to work for a charity when I get better to help with diagnoses that are this extremely rare.
“I probably have more doubt that I can beat this than any one else in my life but I will.”
The Griechen family are holding a garage sale fundraiser on November 2 and 3. For more information, visit the Facebook event page.
To follow the latest news on Savanna’s fight against cancer, follow the Facebook page.