Tracy Bevan shares her moving story about her best friend Jane McGrath who died tragically from breast cancer and how her incredible legacy lives on through the McGrath Foundation.
Australia loved Jane McGrath.
She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter – and a much- loved best friend.
Jane, who died from breast cancer aged forty-two on Sunday, 22 June 2008, was funny and feisty and passionate and she had a vision, which has become her greatest and most enduring legacy.
2005 marks the launch of the McGrath Foundation, the charity that Jane and her husband, former Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath, co-founded to give families experiencing breast cancer access to a breast care nurse; and to teach young women how to check their breasts and be breast-aware.
What began as a ‘pipe dream’ run from the home of Jane’s best friend, Tracy Bevan, is now one of Australia’s most successful charities with an astonishing list of achievements.
Thanks to Jane’s vision – and Glenn and Tracy’s ongoing advocacy and unstinting support – there are now 170 pink- shirted McGrath Breast Care Nurses, or angels, as Jane called them, caring for families throughout rural and regional Australia.
There is also Curve Lurve, an education program for young women, complete with its own app; there are fundraising pink products (famously turning sauce bottles, book jackets and, more recently, egg cartons pink), high teas and community events; and the cricket world’s Pink Tests, where on the third day of the Sydney Test each year, the SCG crowd blossoms into a sea of pink and the Ladies’ Stand is renamed the Jane McGrath Stand. Tracy Bevan laughs as she reflects on the irony of a famous cricketer who has no stand in his name and a cricket wife, who is publicly celebrated each year by Cricket Australia and the cricketing community.
‘I can hear Jane’s voice in my head and she is saying, ‘Can you believe it, Trace? Can you believe it?’
‘I think Jane would struggle to find the words to convey her true emotions because I know this is way bigger than she would ever have dreamt,’ says Tracy, now the McGrath Foundation’s ambassador and director, and, in many ways, the keeper of the flame holding true to the values and vision of her friend.
‘What we spoke about then were pipe dreams. We had four nurses and we were proud of the impact they were having on families’ lives, but we never dreamt we would have 105 nurses in such a short time.’
Those nurses are Jane McGrath’s gift to the women and men of Australia. And they are the thread that binds Tracy Bevan to her friend and keeps her pouring her heart and soul into the McGrath Foundation.
‘I feel blessed to be a part of everything the foundation is achieving,’ she says. ‘The Foundation is one of the things I am most proud of. ‘Most people ask me, does it make you feel sad? But the foundation actually makes me feel connected to Jane because it allows me to keep the promise I made to her before she passed.’
Tracy, the mother of two teenage daughters, Olivia and Amelia, and godmother to Jane and Glenn’s children – James and Holly – was helping to care for Jane not long before she died. It was a special time for the two friends. The Foundation was up and running. Sponsors were coming on board. Four pink-shirted McGrath nurses were already working in the field.
The Foundation’s future looked assured, even more so, since Jane had elicited a $12 million pre-election promise from the then Prime Minister, John Howard, to fund another forty-four McGrath Breast Care Nurses (a promise honoured by Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd following the Liberals’ poll defeat).
Tracy relished the opportunity to share time with Jane, little realising that her best friend’s life was drawing to a close. ‘Glenn was in India playing IPL cricket and Jane’s mum had to go back to the UK, so Jane asked me to come and stay with her because she had just had an operation, so I spent a week looking after her,’ she explains.
‘In that week, we spent time laughing and joking about all the crazy things we had done as cricket wives and the opportunities we’d had and the kids. Looking back, I can see we were meant to have that conversation and it had great meaning, but, at the time, it was just flowing like a girly chat of, ‘Can you believe what’s happening with the Foundation?’, and how proud she was, and ‘who would have thought?’ . . . all those moments.
‘And I said to her, “I promise you, no matter what happens in this life, I will ensure the McGrath Foundation continues and make sure everything we dreamt of is achieved.” I have never forgotten that conversation, not knowing what I was promising, but wholeheartedly promising. It would be one of the last times we talked.
‘After that, she took a turn for the worse and I called Glenn. She passed eight days later.’
Even now, Tracy gets teary thinking about Jane. ‘I get emotional all the time,’ she admits. ‘In a way, it’s because of being proud or because I wish she was here to see things. I love her and miss her as my friend.’
Sometimes, the tears come with the memory of the madcap, fun times they shared on tour or the joy of becoming godmothers to each other’s children. Sometimes, she chokes up with the enormous sense of pride she feels in what Jane has achieved and the terrible sadness that Jane is not here to see how far her ‘little charity’ has come.
There are memories of Jane, wrapped in a towel in a London hotel in 1997, asking Tracy to feel the lump she had discovered in her breast; memories of Jane writing to John Howard, suggesting ways he could spend the government’s budget surplus by helping women with breast cancer; and lighter moments when the two friends prepared to gorge themselves on fundraising pink and white M&M’s.
‘We were acting like little kids going, Oh, my God, here’s an excuse to make ourselves sick eating chocolate,’ remembers Tracy. ‘And Jane turned to me and said, “Trace, don’t feel guilty, darl, because charity chocolate has no calories.”’
The two British blondes with cheeky senses of humour shared much in common. Tracy had moved from Manchester
to Sydney in 1994 to join her husband, Australian batsman Michael Bevan, and Birmingham-born Jane had left the UK in 1996 to be with Glenn. ‘As cricket wives we spent all our time together, either on tour or off tour, so we were always together and when we weren’t together, we were on the phone talking to each other about the kids or what was going on that day,’ recalls Tracy.
‘We had this very special bond. It’s a unique life being a cricket wife because you have this incredibly privileged lifestyle and you get to go to amazing countries and meet amazing people, but it is a very lonely lifestyle. You move to this country leaving your life and family in the UK and then the person you’ve moved for is actually away for a few months on tour. We bonded because of circumstance, because we’re from the same country and also because of our personalities. We were incredibly similar. We had similar tastes and the same sense of humour.’
Tracy vividly recalls Jane outlining her vision for the fledgling foundation. Glenn had a personal sponsorship contract with MasterFoods, and the company promised to give $1 million to the Foundation, plus 30 cents from every McGrath pink squeezy bottle of tomato sauce sold, to help Jane and Glenn set up the McGrath Foundation.
‘Jane said to me, “We’re going to have to get a little bit more serious. Who is going to run it on a day-to-day basis?” And I said, “Well, I thought that was going to be you and me,” and she burst into tears. She had just been re-diagnosed. She hugged me and she said, “This is exactly what I want. We are going to do this together.”’
‘One of the MasterFoods directors’ wives had also had breast cancer and had access to a breast care nurse so there was a reason they believed in the McGrath Foundation. It was decided I would be general manager – that was the title and it was basically me at home. I was saying, “Give me some direction. What is it you’re hoping to achieve with the foundation?”
‘Jane said to me, “My big dream, my pipe dream” – if I could have an Oprah moment, she’d call it – “would be for every Australian family to have access to a breast care nurse.” She had done lots of research and found that there were women in the Northern Territory who had to leave their families and travel to Melbourne or Adelaide for treatment.
‘She couldn’t bear it. She said, “My biggest dream would be that one day everybody has access to an angel and has that support every day.”
‘I’ll never forget her looking at me and she said, “Listen, Trace, equally important to me – and I need you to understand this – is an education program, but I want to do it in a way that won’t scare people.
‘“I dream that one day the next generation of Aussies – our children – will know the importance of checking their breasts and being vigilant and looking after themselves because I don’t want Holly, Livvy and Milly growing up thinking that breast cancer can’t happen to them, because I was thirty-one years old and I know that it can happen.”’
It was in 1997, when Jane and Tracy were on the Ashes tour of England, that Jane discovered she had breast cancer.
‘Jane knocked on my hotel room door with nothing but a towel wrapped around her and said, “Glenn’s asked me to get your opinion on something, Trace.” What came out of her mouth at the time was, “Does my boob look a funny shape to you?” I didn’t know what she meant and I threw out a funny line because of the friendship we had, but she looked at me and said, “Give me your hand,” and placed it on her breast. Straightaway I felt what I described as a tiny frozen pea.‘We cried and held each other. I knew she was begging for me to say I couldn’t feel it, but I could.
‘I remember that day because I felt, God, even in 1997, Jane was checking her breasts because her mother, Jen, had had breast cancer and she was always breast-aware, always vigilant, always looking – and the first thing she saw was not a lump, it was a change in her breast.
‘So, equally important as access to a breast care nurse was an education program and, even though she is not here to see it, when Jane passed, over $1.3 million was donated by the public, which was incredible. Glenn and I couldn’t believe it. ‘I feel breathless thinking about that. The whole of Australia got behind the sadness of losing Jane by making donations, and we put that into a trust and realised Jane’s dream of an education program, which we call Curve Lurve.
‘They were the conversations at the very beginning about what she wanted and what she dreamt of and now we’ve achieved so much.’ Today, 87 per cent of all the McGrath nurses are placed in rural and regional Australia, including one who is based with the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Broken Hill, New South Wales. And there are more McGrath angels to come. ‘The aim of the Foundation is to make sure every Australian family experiencing breast cancer has access to a breast care nurse,’ says Tracy. ‘That’s the goal.’
What that ‘magic’ number of McGrath Breast Care Nurses might be is not yet known. What is known is that the McGrath Foundation has to find $13.3 million every year to fund its existing nurses and this is perhaps the toughest challenge.
The Foundation’s priority is to inform people about the extraordinary work of the Foundation and its nurses and to get them ‘to understand that without your dollar – or your million dollars – we don’t exist’.
‘It’s tough times out there and there are so many other worthy causes. However, we need [donors] because at current rates, forty-two women are diagnosed each day and one hundred men a year and they need that support.”
And, with the support of the Australian public, Tracy knows she will be staying true to Jane’s vision and keeping her promise.
Extract from the book ‘Take My Hand’ by Jo Wiles and photographs courtesy of the McGrath Foundation and Newspix. Published by Viking, rrp $32.99. Also available as an Ebook.