When Troy Bektas was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in 2015 during his first semester of Year 9, the first plans he made weren’t how he would fight the disease, but how he intended to die.
“At that stage, I was still fully mobile, and got up and locked myself in the bathroom, where I broke down,” Troy told news.com.au.
“I didn’t really know what having cancer meant at that point, but the main thought going through my head was how I was going to kill myself. And that’s something I would continue to struggle with for the next four years.”
The diagnosis, his mum Ozlem said, was a shock because he’d “always been very sporty, very active”.
“Still, to this day, that moment – you just don’t believe it. You keep thinking, ‘Something is wrong, it cannot be true’. I don’t know if you can ever be prepared for anything like that, but going from tae-k won-do one day and chemo the next, it was a bit hard, especially for Troy to accept,” she said.
“So he just closed himself off to the whole world, basically, especially school.”
Within a week, Troy was removed from school and began 12 months of treatment that left him with “excruciating headaches” and unable to “move, open my eyes, eat and talk”.
“At that point, I had given up on my education and still had no plans for a future for myself. And whether it was because I didn’t see myself surviving or whether I had just given up altogether, I couldn’t tell you – but school wasn’t a priority for me,” he said.
He “pushed away everyone”, Ozlem said – until a woman named Trisha Donovan, from the hospital’s Back on Track program, introduced herself to the Bektas family.
Started in 2006, the program is an “essential” service provided to families at The Cancer Institute at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and the Kids Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick.
With a team of just four education program co-ordinators, Back on Track works with families, their medical teams and their schools from the early stages of diagnosis until they’re through with treatment to ensure young people don’t fall behind with their education while receiving treatment.
And while Troy initially told Trisha he wasn’t interested in the program, “from then on she came every day, every time we were in the ward and didn’t say a word about school, but would show him a little video or read him something”, Ozlem said.
“And gradually, she made that contact with him. And I couldn’t believe my eyes – for nine months, every single time she came and asked if he wanted to do some schoolwork, his answer was always a really straight ‘no’. And then nine months later, Troy said, ‘OK’.”
Before his work with Trisha, Ozlem said, Troy was “never really fond of school, he never thought he’d go to uni either – he’s a very hand’s on person, and wanted to be a chef”.
“But with her, he started thinking about the future, and he started saying ‘when I go to uni’ or ‘before I go to uni’, and he was making plans a year later, two years later. And if Trisha wasn’t there, I don’t think he would be where he is today,” she said.
“Not just academically, but more importantly, psychologically, as a person – now I understand. She wasn’t there, that first day to introduce herself – she wasn’t there to give him a schooling. She was there to give him hope.”
Troy said it was Trisha’s “persistence” and the fact that “she showed me that there was a future past all of this trauma that kept me going”.
As a result of the bushfires and COVID-19, however, a lack of funding for the program has put it in jeopardy of being shut down – an unimaginable loss for many families, Ozlem said.
“If they don’t do what they do, those kids are not going to lose schooling or education, they’re going to lose hope,” she said.
Having been in remission for five-and-a-half years now, is studying a Bachelor of Marine Science at James Cook University, Troy said it was Trisha that not only helped him fight his disease, but is “ultimately the reason for me being where I am in my life today”, adding that the team “could not be more essential for kids suffering cancer”.
“He covered his eyes for the first six months, and he kept saying, ‘it’s the lights’. But it wasn’t the lights,” Ozlem said.
“He just didn’t want to see anything around him. He just couldn’t accept where he was. And the only thing that took him from that mental state was the Back on Track program, definitely.
“They’ve done just as much as his oncologists and his medical team have done. They saved his life and his health, but Trisha saved his soul.”
You can make a donation to the Back on Track program here