Eva McGauley is a 17 year old with terminal cancer who has decided to use whatever time she has left to support young victims of sexual violence. She explains why.
Please note: this article contains discussion of sexual violence in New Zealand
My name is Eva McGauley and I’m 17 years old. I grew up in a family of very strong women who always encouraged feminism and being politically active, but I reckon I got it double-strength. There’s no doubt the gene is very strong in me. I started doing rape crisis work in Year 9 after going to a feminist club meeting at our school. I sat in that room full of women fixing problems and it was one of the most amazing, eye-opening experiences of my life.
At the end of the term, we heard about a cupcake baking evening at a local church. We went along, paid our money on the door and, without knowing it, become members of the Wellington Rape Crisis Centre. A month later I got an email saying that their annual general meeting was coming up. I had no idea what it meant, but my friends and I went along anyway. We were the youngest there by about 10 or 15 years.
After the meeting, we asked the agency manager if there was anything we could do to help out, and she told us to come to her office the very next week. Since then, I’ve always been involved with Rape Crisis in some way or another. My first task was working closely with them to update all of their services to make them more accessible and youth-friendly.
Then I got sick.
I was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma on the fourth of February last year – my mum’s birthday. I had been feeling bad for a while, but everyone thought it was just glandular fever and I had a low pain threshold. The cancer was at stage four by the time they sent me to the hospital. We got the news at midnight, and by midday the next day I was in Christchurch hospital by way of air ambulance.
The primary site of the cancer was in my neck. From there, it metastasised to my chest and to a lymph node in my hip. It’s always going to move around my body, but one day it will hit somewhere that they can’t fix. The chances of getting this kind of cancer is one in seven million, and it mostly strikes Asian males over 40. And then for it to move from the primary site is just unheard of.
Our home for the next five months was in the pediatric oncology unit of Christchurch hospital.
Here’s the thing about chemo: it kills every fast-reproducing cell in your body. It kills the cancer, but it also kills everything else. The whole lining of my stomach and my mouth was ripped away and bleeding, and my lips turned into huge blisters. We went back to Wellington after a particularly intense round of treatment, and I was told I was in remission.
Three weeks later they told us they had got it wrong, and classed it as terminal.
It’s around then that people started to ask me “what’s your bucket list?” This was annoying at first, but got me thinking about what I really wanted to do with whatever time I have left. I realised the thing I always wanted to do was to help people and this new pressure strengthened my resolve to work for victims of sexual violence.
I wrote up a business plan for the online support model, and with the help from Green MP Jan Logie – because people are so much more likely to open an email from her – I sent it out to a bunch of sexual violence support services around the country. The biggest one we have is called HELP, and ever since then we’ve been working together.
It all comes down to this: the majority of my friends have been sexually assaulted. There’s a total toxic silence around sexual violence that we need to change. Rape is not something to be talked about, it’s something to be embarrassed about and ashamed about [in the view of society].
We have a terrible culture around how women are treated in this country. Whether it’s through the media or just how little kids are raised differently based on gender, the boy is always the one in control and the girl is always going to be second best. She’s meant to be submissive and he’s meant to be dominant, and that’s where the problem is.
And to the people who say that rape culture doesn’t exist? Sorry but you just can’t know what it feels like if you are an old white guy. I saw this quote the other day that said, “a man in a crowd full of women thinks he’s in heaven, a woman in a crowd full of men is scared.” For us, it’s everywhere. How many women have pretended to take a phone call, or crossed the street to get away from someone? Women have to get used to being yelled at from cars. We shouldn’t have to.
One of the big current problems for young people is that consent is not a part of the curriculum, so it’s not a compulsory element in sex ed – and most schools don’t bother with it. My high school did – because my teacher was really awesome – but that doesn’t mean that sexual abuse and sexist, demeaning behaviour wasn’t also prevalent. I’ve been in school situations where guys have been watching porn on their laptops. When you are just sitting between them in class that feels really horrible, to know that they are watching that.
A crucial part of consent education is letting young people know when they have crossed a line. So many young people don’t realise that consent is on a spectrum – if you consent to kissing, you don’t also consent to sex. Informed consent is different to being frozen, or being persistent, or getting upset. It’s not asking someone five times, informed consent is what we were taught and what every teenager should be taught. You have to know that they are definitely into it, every step of the way.
Doing the work that I do, I get a lot of messages on social media from people who have experienced sexual abuse and don’t know who to talk to. That’s why I’m working to make support services that are more accessible for young people. There are no guidelines at school for a situation when the survivor and the perpetrator are at the same school. It can be very trapping: you don’t want to tell teachers because they’ll tell your parents, you don’t want to tell the school guidance counsellors because they are obliged to share with teachers and may get the police involved. It’s just an ongoing cycle of silence.
That’s not to mention the other huge barriers for young people getting help: transport, money and having to lie to their parents. There’s an online service for young people currently being run in the US by a charity called RAIN. People who have been trained to respond can talk it over with you, as well as refer you to someone in your area if you want it. The first step to disclosing is to just have someone listen to you and believe you. Young people need to trust that they can talk to someone who won’t judge them and they’ll never have to see again. That’s what we need.
This is my wish. I just want to help young survivors of sexual assault as much as I can – and a lot of that is through raising money. We’ve already raised $30,000 so far, but we aren’t there yet.
People often ask me about how I keep finding the motivation to carry on, and I’ve never had a real answer. I’ve never been without the motivation. When I found out about the cancer, I thought “do I give up or do I just keep going?” One of those options was much nicer than the other. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, or wouldn’t do this.
Of all the time frames we’ve been given, I’ve exceeded each of them. The treatment I get now is only to prolong my life, and take my pain away. Everything I do requires a lot of energy. I can’t eat, I have a tube that goes into my stomach. I’ve been able to nibble things recently. I’m plugged up to a machine every night. It’s a big impact on my everyday life.
Sometimes it’s hard thinking about all the things I’d imagined myself doing one day. But, at the same time, none of this has completely sunk in. It just hasn’t hit me as hard as people think it would. I say that now, because where I’m at now is a lot easier than sitting in hospital and being in so much pain. I don’t seem to be as angry as all of my family. To be honest, I’ve got the better end of the deal than they have.
There are still things I would love to do. I would love to go back to the town my family comes from in Ireland. Mum and I just went to Australia recently to go snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. That was my Make-A-Wish. I mean, I’d love to meet my favourite actress and all the rest of those cliché bucket list things. A lot of people go bungy jumping, but I don’t like bungy jumping. #EvasWish is it for me.
If you are reading this and want to help directly with the cause, there is a givealittle page, and you can also sign up to run a fundraiser of your own. But beyond that, I just want people to stand up for what they believe in. Believe in yourself, be proud of yourself and the things you do. Make it your priority in this life to be good and nice.
As told to Alex Casey
If the issues raised in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:
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