While the OCRF has been around nearly 20 years its launch was certainly not something that happened overnight. It took drive and hard work.
Liz Heliotis, a Melbourne businesswoman, was a patient in hospital in 1998 when she became disturbed by what she was seeing around her.
Untouched by ovarian cancer herself, she was in a ward with women who were. What she observed caused her to spend the next two years working to establish the OCRF.
“What shocked me was that I saw women of all ages, some frighteningly young, with young children and young husbands, quite distraught.
She saw the shock about a then obscure cancer. “It was very unknown. Very few people talked about it. I was personally, completely unaware of the severity of this insidious, dreadful disease and, being a Mother to young women, I felt compelled to raise the profile on this often symptom less women’s cancer. “
In partnership with Professor Tom Jobling, a surgeon she’d met as a patient, she began overcoming obstacles in order for the pair to co-found the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation (OCRF). Driven by an awareness that while she, her friends, her colleagues, had talked about galvanising their combined skill bases to do something when they had lost people to cancer, they actually didn’t as ‘life’ got in the way.
“We had talked the talk but we hadn’t walked the walk.”
That’s how Liz found herself working out of small donated offices, or home, pitching for sponsorship. There was no money to work with and no staff.
“It was a risk but it was something I felt passionate about. The more knockbacks there were, the more passionate I became.”
How did she take rejections? “You do your best to change minds” is her simple answer.
Liz is petite but her eyes are large and you can see in them that she doesn’t accept no without pushback. Seeking money from large institutions she faced down male-only boardrooms “who didn’t want to know about female plumbing” and demanded they think about their wives, daughters and future grandchildren.
“I’m fiercely stubborn. I’m not good at seeing barriers.”
At her own expense, risking loss, she produced a coffee table book which helped bring on board major OCRF sponsor Witchery, who sold the book and raised $250,000 in the first six months.
Securing a five-year deal with a major bank involved many months of hard work and no guarantees.
“I had to meet with them every month, then wait to see if I got a phone call three weeks later, to go on to another meeting.”
At that time, lack of awareness was a hurdle to overcome and potential donors “didn’t believe that it was worth injecting money into this cause if people didn’t understand what it was about”.
Liz felt cancer public awareness and prevention campaigns were mostly based on fear. There was also, for cancer sufferers, the fear associated with white coats, worn by doctors bearing bad news. So, the White Shirt campaign was realised. The association with Witchery and other like-minded brands was Liz’s vision of finding fashion and lifestyle partners who could talk about this disease in an empowering manner encompassing living with cancer rather than dying from cancer.
“It’s about every woman’s right, even if they’re currently enduring cancer treatment, to feel beautiful about themselves and embrace hope for their future.“
At the time of stepping down as CEO in early 2017, Liz believed the foundation’s impact had been ”massive”, providing research fellowships and paying for laboratory equipment in many parts of the country, giving “the right to hope that somebody out there in the labs and doctors around the world are committed to discovering ‘an early detector ‘of this terrible disease and change the future outcomes for all, forever.
Australia is now on the map as having amazing quality scientific endeavour in this field of research.“
“I used to say we are a combined force at all levels. Glorified tin rattlers wrapped up in a bow of hope, passion and belief and if we worked together we would make a difference. Two decades later, I know we have.”