Posted On: March 01, 2020
Her own cancer journey launched this young leader into a research career aimed at helping children in need.
She wasn’t exactly in limbo as she approached the end of her high school years, but Matilda (‘Tilly’) Gorce didn’t have anything like the clearly mapped career plan that she has now. What changed along the way? It was cancer.
During her eighteenth year, Tilly visited the doctor about a small bump on her left ring-finger. Medical professionals diagnosed a rare, malignant, aggressive form of cancer known as epithelioid sarcoma.
“When the doctor first told me what it was, he used the cancer’s scientific name and I had no idea what it was,” Tilly says. “I had to ask whether it was good or bad.”
“Then he told me it was a rare form of cancer, and suddenly it felt like I was in a movie scene when they fade out the background and the noise. Everything became a blur.”
Tilly with her parents.
“Actually, I think I originally tried to convince myself that they’d been given the wrong results – that it was a different person’s diagnosis.”
Tilly’s entire finger had to be amputated. The operation, although a great success (she is now five years free of cancer), sent her into a spin.
“You have existential thoughts when you have an experience like cancer. I kept thinking ‘Why me?’, ‘Why is this happening to me?’, and ‘What sort of molecular mechanism might have caused this?’. That’s when I began thinking about it from a scientific angle.”
A cancer researcher is born
Currently studying a Bachelor of Laboratory Medicine, Tilly plans to go on to earn an Honours year, followed by a few years of work and then a PhD. Her goal is to build a career in medical research, just like the scientists she’s been doing work experience with at WA’s Telethon Kids Institute.
The Kids’ Cancer Project co-funds various projects at the Telethon Kids Institute, including work by Dr W Joost Lesterhuis, who heads up the Institute’s Sarcoma Group.
Behind the science | Dr Joost Lesterhuis
Dr Lesterhuis has been co-funded by The Kids’ Cancer Project – funding that was doubled through partnership with Cancer Australia's Priority-driven Collaborative Cancer Research Scheme – to explore exciting new treatment options for children with soft-tissue sarcoma.
Children with such cancer, Dr Lesterhuis says, are essentially treated the same way they were decades ago, so there is massive need for advancement.
Funding a cancer-free future
“I would say it’s a huge advantage in this field, the fact that I’ve been through the cancer journey,” Tilly, also a member of the WA Leadership Committee with CanTeen, says.
“I’ll be in quite a unique position having been a patient, having had a cancer experience, and working in medical science and cancer research. I will be able to see it from both a researcher and patient perspective, which I feel is super important.”
She is already acutely aware of the fact that funding is the lifeblood of brilliant research. A summer university project Tilly has been working on, looking into the effects of a sugar substance on slowing the division of sarcoma cells, has seen her working closely with career researchers.
Tilly sees a bright future in research for herself, and for those affected by childhood cancer. The potential for childhood cancer to become a thing of the past, she says, is not just a dream.
Tilly Gorce, Youth Ambassador.
“With recent advances, a world without childhood cancer no longer seems impossible,” she says. “It’s probably a long way off, but it is possible. Of course, it all relies on getting the funding to turn ideas into reality.”
“I’m also personally very interested in 3D printing of organs and body parts. After my amputation, I always thought there’s no way I’m going to live my entire life without all 10 fingers. I wanted a prosthetic, but that didn’t work out. So the idea of 3D printing, or bio-printing, strikes me as extremely interesting and would help a lot of children who’ve had my experience.”
To find out more about the research being done by the Telethon Kids Cancer Centre, visit cancer.telethonkids.org.au