If there’s one thing that Owen Finegan has learned during his time as chief executive of The Kids Cancer Project, it’s that cancer doesn’t discriminate.
The former Brumby and international rugby union star speaks to families dealing with disease constantly through his work, but hearing about each new case never gets easier.
“In June this year, one of my son's classmates at school was diagnosed with cancer,” he says.
“He's in my son's club rugby team here, the Coogee Seahorses, he's in my son's school, I went to school with his father. It's indiscriminate.”
But since the news of the 12-year-old’s plight has rippled through the local community, there has already been a community head-shave, raising $55,000.
“That was local club rugby, and then because I coach at Randwick, first grade, the under-20s team all decided to shave their heads. I'd be surprised if over the juniors and seniors, over 100 people didn't get their head shaved.”
There is a note of awe in his voice: for all his stature on the field, Finegan is constantly inspired by the types of people he’s met as a matter of course throughout his post-playing career.
Nicknamed “Melon” because of the size of his head, he played 90 Super 12 matches for the Brumbies, and led Australia to victory in the 1999 Rugby World Cup.
He retired from playing in 2007, and three years later became chief executive of Snowy Hydro Southcare, the aero-rescue helicopter based in Canberra. It’s a job he “stumbled into” because by then, he had a business background.
“I had a facility management business in Canberra, and playing in the Brumbies I had the chance to do a degree and two master's, and educate myself while I was playing with a bit of business experience,” he says.
But while he always had an eye to the future, he had no inkling that he would one day be so closely embedded in the local community. It’s the same community he has always been a part of, but instead of the sporting greats, the champions for him are children with leukemia, neuroblastoma and around a dozen other childhood cancers.
They are also the parents and siblings battling alongside their sick kids, and, in many cases, the families left behind after their children have died.
“You actually see the plight of these families, and it's really heart-wrenching to see these people continuing to do something,” he says.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, with a focus on the 20 per cent of children diagnosed who don't make it; it's a statistic Finegan quotes often, to hammer home the fact that cancer is the biggest killer of Australian children by disease. More than 100 young people will die of it this year alone.
By the time Finegan took on the role at The Kids Cancer Project, leaving Canberra after 20 years - he considered himself a Canberran by then - he was already familiar with the terrifying affect childhood cancer can have. Fellow Brumby David Giffen’s two-year-old son Joseph was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer, in 2004.
“He wasn't sleeping well at night,” says Finegan of Joseph.
“It was a few GP visits, and then they finally went to Canberra Hospital and got diagnosed with neuroblastoma, stage 4, which is fairly significant, means it's fairly well developed, and the treatment started.”
Joseph is a now a teenager - he survived the cancer, but it took many years of treatment and several near-death experiences before he was declared cancer-free. At one stage, the Canberra-based family lived in Finegan’s sister’s house in Sydney to be closer to Joseph in the hospital.
It’s these cases, and many others that are diagnosed every year in Australia, that The Kids Cancer Project has been set up to tackle. Founded in 1993 by tour bus driver Col Reynolds, the charity’s mission is to support scientific research that targets childhood cancer treatments, with the goal of one day having a 100 per cent survival rate for children with cancer, as well as eliminating the harmful impact of cancer treatments.
Finegan loves to tell Reynolds’ story, that one day, while driving his bus, he drove past the children’s hospital in Camperdown and saw two bald kids holding hands. After parking his bus and going inside to investigate, he decided to start taking these kids on day trips - to the zoo, the circus - as a way of brightening their days. He also, over the years, attended dozens of funerals, until, after one of the services, an oncologist showed him an empty, unfunded research laboratory, and urged him to focus on fundraising to help stop the children dying in the first place.
The Kids Cancer Project was founded with a focus on cutting edge scientific research, and over the last 14 years has contributed $40 million to scientific research.
“Our tagline is ‘science, solutions, survival’. When you look at the care side, there's Camp Quality, Make A Wish, Starlight - our niche is cancer research, specifically childhood cancer,” Finegan says.
“Last financial year, we had 33 research projects across 17 institutions in Australia that we're funding. And they're amazing scientists.”
He says the thought of Reynolds stopping his bus all those years ago has inspired him in his current role, to use his sporting profile and considerable networks to raise money and awareness.
“It gets tough asking people for money all the time,” he says.
“I found it harder when I was in Canberra and the money was going to my business, whereas I know I'm asking for money and I'm not getting it, it's going instead to a really good cause. It's kids and it's cancer and people are happy to support it.”
He talks about the family of six-year-old Evie Weir, who died just before Christmas of neuroblastoma. Her parents are still running events, and raising money each September for Cancer Awareness Month. Meanwhile, the Kane family, whose eight-year-old son Declan died in May this year, are about to ride 600 kilometres from Bridgetown to Perth on motorised scooters dressed as superheroes, on a special fundraising mission.
“These are people that have lost their kids within two years, but they're still passionate, and they don't want to see other families going through the same thing that they went through,” Finegan says.
“When you see that, you get inspired about what you're doing.”