Trisha Toangwera Aruhuri was a long way from home when she received the diagnosis that would change her life. The support of the ANU community has been crucial to her recovery.

When Trisha Toangwera Aruhuri was growing up in Vanuatu, cancer was not something people talked about.   

“If I heard anyone talk about it, it was mostly gossip that contributed to the fear, embarrassment and stigma,” she says. 

The discovery of a lump in her breast in 2020 left Toangwera Aruhuri terrified for her future. She knew the chances of accessing treatment were “slim-to-none”. 

“No word of comfort could help me as I was thinking about how much time I would have left with my family and if they would make it without me,” she says. “I was embarrassed and afraid, and I didn’t want anyone to know.”  

Fortunately for Toangwera Aruhuri, the results of her test came back benign. But the trauma of the experience made her want to do more. Since then, she has dedicated herself to finding solutions and removing the stigma around cancer in her community. This mission led her to The Australian National University (ANU), where she is starting her research on the experiences of women with breast cancer in Vanuatu as part of a Master of Applied Anthropology and Development (Advanced). 

It was earlier this year, during her first semester at ANU, that Toangwera Aruhuri received a second life-altering diagnosis. 

“I went in for a routine pap smear and just had this ingrown hair in my armpit that I was concerned about. I asked the nurse to check, and she felt something that I never felt before,” she says. 

“A few days later, the results came back that I had breast cancer. It was an aggressive form; and had already spread to two of my lymph nodes.” 

Alongside the stress of grappling with her health and being far away from family, Toangwera Aruhuri faced another daunting challenge: the financial strain of medical treatment. 

As an international student, she was not eligible for Medicare. Her insurance did not cover chemotherapy and she struggled navigating a complex and unfamiliar healthcare system. 

“I made the right decision by coming to ANU because I don’t know if I would’ve received this kind of support anywhere else at this critical point in my life.”

Trisha Toangwera Aruhuri

“I was trying to be brave for myself and my family. But then with the question about funding, all the mental and emotional trauma started to kick in again, because here was I with this being the only blockage to me accessing the treatment that I need to survive,” she says. 

“It was tough because I am not an Australian citizen, so I could not get treatment quickly. I could not get a loan and my insurance did not cover chemotherapy, so I needed to raise around $60,000 for my treatment.” 

As Toangwera Aruhuri scrambled to raise the money needed for her treatment, she found support in the ANU community. A GoFundMe to assist with her medical expenses was created by the Toad Hall chaplain and members of the City Uniting Church.

The University’s Student Safety and Wellbeing team also helped Toangwera Aruhuri to apply for funding through the ANU Student Urgent Relief Fund (SURF). Designed to provide immediate financial assistance to students facing unexpected crises, SURF became a lifeline for Toangwera Aruhuri. 

“The immediate response I got from SURF, and all the other support I received within ANU, was really important. Not only did it help settle my mind, it was also a huge relief to be able to go to my appointments and treatments and pay my bills,” she says. 

Toangwera Aruhuri is now on the road to recovery. Photo: Elise Dare/ANU

Toangwera Aruhuri believes that without SURF, her story could have been much worse. 

“I made the right decision by coming to ANU because I don’t know if I would’ve received this kind of support anywhere else at this critical point in my life,” she says. “I want to thank everyone who has donated to SURF, because without their donations, I wouldn’t have gotten the help I needed.” 

With her treatment now in progress, Toangwera Aruhuri is resolute about paying forward the support she has received, both through advocacy and her own research.  

“Access to funding has been just a huge second chance for me in life,” she says. 

“I am glad to share my story to help break the fear, embarrassment and stigma at home, and have more women speak out to get the help and support they need. As an individual, I cannot do this on my own, but we can do this as a community.” 

You can help students like Trisha by donating to the ANU Student Urgent Relief Fund. Find out more here 

Top image:Trisha Toangwera Aruhuri. Photo: Elise Dare/ANU

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