A proud mother to a cancer survivor, Gaylene knows what it means to be fighting hard for what you believe in.
Gaylene Meeson is a woman of many trades. She graduated as a civil engineer and worked in building roads, sewers and water-reticulation systems before discovering her love for skiing and cooking! After making a business of both, the next career switch saw her move into project management. It was only after she became a mum that she quit her job to concentrate on this full-time and most challenging role. But her work was far from done. A cancer diagnosis for her then 4-year-old daughter, Hannah, made her plunge into the world of volunteering and awareness activism. As with everything she has done, she puts her heart and soul into it. Gaylene talks about how and why she finds the time to give back, fund-raise with Hannah’s Heroes and build awareness for causes she cares deeply about, all while bringing up her beautiful special-needs child.
Tell us about the places you lived in before moving to Hong Kong.
I graduated from University in South Africa with a BSc Engineering (Civil) in 1988 and worked in the townships outside Durban, before moving to England in 1996. The first winter in the UK I decided to get a job as a chalet girl in France to learn to ski. For the next eight years, I ran my own ski chalet company in Meribel, France in the winter months and a small catering business in the summer months. My passion to be successful inspired me to study accountancy and for the next few years, I went to night school studying for an ACCA qualification. In 2003, I changed career and took a job in Jersey in the Channel Islands. In 2007, I resigned from my job to get married and move to the Cayman Islands, where Hannah was born. I spent the next few years focused on being a full-time mum.
We moved to Hong Kong in September 2015 from the Cayman Islands when my husband was transferred. It was a temporary move for a year or two but we’re still here!
When did you find out about Hannah’s diagnosis?
In 2012, Hannah was diagnosed with brain cancer and our world was turned upside down. I had no idea that childhood cancer was so common and that funding for research was so scarce.
In 2013, while Hannah was still in treatment, I decided I had to do something and it was around then that I found St Baldrick’s Foundation on social media. I decided then and there to shave my head along with Nigel and attempt to get sponsorship. We set up a hero-fund “Hannah’s Heroes” and were very fortunate to have two friends who worked in marketing and media. The first shave in 2013 raised USD $70,000. Roll on to 2021 and we have raised USD $2.5M. Spreading awareness and raising funds for childhood cancer is my number ONE passion.
How and where was Hannah’s cancer treated?
Hannah’s cancer was detected in July 2012 in the Cayman Islands. There was no treatment available there so we were flown by air ambulance to Miami, Florida. She had an emergency resection to remove a 4.5cm mass in her cerebellum. This was followed by six weeks of proton radiation at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas. After that was a 6-month course of chemotherapy in Houston, Texas. We were very near the end of the course when Hannah relapsed, with a less than 5% chance of survival. We embarked on a different chemotherapy regime which hadn’t actually worked for anyone, but there wasn’t anything else. At best, we hoped to delay the inevitable.
There were times that we thought we had sentenced Hannah to a non-life because she was so gravely ill. My husband was working in the Cayman Islands and visited as often as he could. For a lot of the time, Hannah had no immunity whatsoever, being wiped out by chemo. She was gravely ill so we couldn’t go anywhere. Miraculously, 660 days after we started the journey, she was declared to have “no evidence of disease” and has remained that way to date.
How have you and your husband changed your own lifestyles after your daughter’s cancer was detected?
Our lifestyle has changed dramatically. We’ve become a lot more spontaneous and living in the moment. We’ve travelled all over Asia and embarked in as many adventures with Hannah as we possibly can, knowing that at any time cancer could come back. It’s the only way to beat it. To not let it have the last word by dictating how we live.
What about Hannah?
Hannah doesn’t remember life before cancer. She was only four years old. She has huge cognitive impairments, is partially deaf, partially blind with absolutely no balance, but you couldn’t meet a more determined, positive, passionate, kind human being. At 13 years old, she has endured more than most adults would ever experience. She is only 133 cms with no further growth and almost no hair on her head, but those who judge her by what she looks like miss out on getting to know a remarkable person. She is a lesson for us all in how to approach life and relate to the world.
Is it easy to have a healthy lifestyle in a fast-paced city like Hong Kong?
We have always been pretty healthy and continue to be so. Hannah still doesn’t eat candy! She may still take part in trick or treat but she gives away all of it.
One challenge in Hong Kong is that the city is very unfriendly to the mobility-impaired and so getting around on public transport or in the street can be very difficult sometimes.
What charities and NGOs are you involved with?
I also spend a huge amount of time helping cancer families, both here in Hong Kong and online. I set up a WhatsApp group and also a Facebook group (Children’s Cancer Support Hong Kong) when I arrived to try to connect families together. There is still a stigma here and people are battling through the most gruelling treatment all alone.
My other passion is Girl Guides and making the world a better place. I discovered my love for this by accident. At that time, I was struggling to find a place where Hannah could be with other girls with no judgment and possibly even make a few friends. With her disabilities, I knew that it wouldn’t be possible unless I was there too so I signed up to volunteer. The opportunity to inspire others to be great leaders is such a privilege as is being part of a girl-led organisation. Watching girls transform over the years and change to a “can do” attitude is the greatest gift of all.
How have you been involved in spreading awareness about childhood cancers in Hong Kong?
We have had some small fundraising events here in Hong Kong, raising money for the Children’s Cancer Foundation who is a St Baldrick’s partner in Hong Kong. Hannah’s school and several other schools go gold every September (childhood cancer awareness month). I use every available opportunity to share our story and spread awareness. I’ve also in the past supported the St Baldrick’s Shave event in Lan Kwai Fong (LKF), Hong Kong and also at Hong Kong International School (HKIS).
How aware is Hong Kong society about childhood cancers?
Awareness is not high unless you know a child personally diagnosed with cancer. But it’s no different to anywhere else. It seems that every cancer parent becomes an advocate because we have no choice, so if you live near one you’ll know something. In Discovery Bay, we’ve had a few kids diagnosed with cancer so there is more awareness than other areas, but we can always do more.
I always feel I should and could do more but the Annual Big Shave in the Cayman Islands takes up a huge amount of my time. I’m on the organising team (and we are only four ladies) and it has over 100 shavees raising about USD $250,000 every year. One of the big challenges in Hong Kong is the huge number of competing charities. Childhood cancer is a tragedy which most people would rather not know about until it touches them personally. I just wish I had more time and more resources.
How has COVID-19 affected your family?
We used to travel all the time, every school holiday and every long weekend. We love Asia – particularly Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Japan and Cambodia! It’s been over a year of not going anywhere. Hannah’s immunity is still compromised so through the last 12 months we’ve mostly just stayed home, going for quiet walks with our dog. But we’ve been very fortunate not to lose any family members to COVID and we haven’t had it.
How and where did you meet your husband?
We met on a sailing trip from Gibraltar to Sardinia in 2005. He was the skipper on the yacht doing a practical exam for the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Ocean Yachtmaster. I was one of the crew on the boat to complete a passage for RYA Yachtmaster. We managed to sail continuously for eight days and nights with only a sextant for navigation. We were totally reliant on the position of the sun at midday every day and the stars in the early evening. I fell in love with him because he didn’t get us lost!
You have two grown step-daughters. How often do you meet?
They are both in the West Country in England (Somerset and Devon). We used to see them every summer, both in England and meeting up somewhere abroad, but we haven’t seen them for 18 months now. Only one daughter has been to stay in Hong Kong with her fiancé about three years ago. The other was supposed to come last year, but COVID has prevented that. Our blended family is very close and Hannah adores her big sisters, and they, her.
How do you and your husband divide parenting roles?
The majority of parenting has fallen on my shoulders because I have been at home full-time, but we share the same goals and aspirations. There is rarely conflict over what is best for Hannah. The cancer diagnosis has robbed her of many opportunities most people take for granted – choosing a college and the likelihood of ever being fully independent. Our parenting style has adapted with time and counselling, as has our own personal growth with more patience, acceptance and understanding.
What part of your volunteer work is closest to your heart?
It’s hard to say. I am hugely committed to Girl Guides and inspiring the next generation to care more and be more kind. We had five girls in our Brownie pack also cut off their very long hair and raise thousands of dollars for St Baldrick’s. The more advocates we have the more awareness we spread and the more we can spread the more funds we raise the more research can happen. The Brownies this last year raised $14,000 to help communities without safe drinkable water in Africa and Nepal. The delight on their faces knowing that they are “being the change” not just talking about it is priceless.
At the same time, helping cancer families with words of encouragement is hugely rewarding because they know that I understand what they’re going through.
But I think in the end, knowing that there is USD $2.5M of research that’s happening as a result of Hannah’s Heroes has to be at the top of the pile.
Which achievements are you most proud of?
The success of Hannah’s Heroes and raising so much money for childhood cancer research.
Also, turning a tragic cancer diagnosis into something positive. It really did transform me into a person who just wishes to give back and inspire others to do so. It also taught me that family is the most important thing and standing by and supporting each other is paramount.
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong? Do you like bringing up your daughter here?
We love Hong Kong. The diversity, the opportunity for travel, the wonderful school (Hong Kong International Learning Academy) that Hannah attends where inclusion is reality and the wonderful people we’ve got to know who we think of as family.
What do you enjoy most about being a mum?
The reward of seeing Hannah grow and thrive despite all the challenges she faces and has to overcome every day. She brings out the best in me and teaches me more than she will ever know.
What is most challenging about being a mum?
Navigating the world with a special needs child that sees her differently to how she sees herself. I wish that people were more accepting of differences and that there was less discrimination everywhere. Why is it still so wrong to be different?
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
Watching a good drama series on the Television or reading my Kindle.
Any inspiration for those looking at volunteer in Hong Kong?
Volunteering is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I’ve got far more out of it than I ever thought possible. The volunteers you meet (many of whom you may not have met in any other circumstances) are the most extraordinary people. They have one thing in common – the desire “to serve”.
The opportunity to inspire the next generation (like the Brownies age of 7 to 11 years) to give back and care about their community gives meaning and purpose to your life. I never realised was missing. The value is priceless.