Janelle’s story: campaigning for change

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Janelle McMillan’s artworks are not only impressive but serve a purpose. The 42-year-old with cerebral palsy is helping raise funds for breast cancer research and advocating for more cancer support for people with disability.

Janelle is non-verbal, uses a wheelchair and requires assistance with bathing, toileting, dressing, walking and eating, but focuses all her attention on helping others.

“There are so many people who are worse off with lots of real problems and issues out there than me,” she explains.

“I am one of the lucky ones who can make a difference to help make other people’s lives better, even if it is in a small way.”

After reconnecting with a former school friend who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, Janelle realised she could use her artwork to bring a smile to the faces of those fighting cancer, while raising funds for breast cancer research.

“I became her support person outside of her family,” Janelle adds.

Now creating an impressive range of artworks including calendars, greeting cards, Christmas cards and t-shirts, the proceeds from Janelle’s artwork sales have gone to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Love Your Sister and Breast Cancer Network Australia.

“Art is fun for me. I love to create. I am just doing what I love and helping others along the way wherever I can.”

Janelle also participates in the Leukemia Foundation’s World’s Greatest Shave each year.

“It is just hair to me, it is not a big deal shaving it off if I can help to find a cure for blood cancer, so people don’t have to go through the horrible treatment.”

But Janelle’s efforts don’t stop with fundraising only. Recognising a lack of focus on educating people with disability on the signs of cancer, and breast cancer in particular, she has become an advocate for cancer awareness among people with disability.

Cancer doesn’t discriminate and affects people with disability every year, each presenting with their unique challenges.

Janelle fights for more to be done to include people with disability in conversations about health and recognising changes within their bodies.

“There needs to be more information developed on a range of cancers and the treatments for the different types of disabilities,” she explains.

“People with disabilities have the same right to be educated on deadly illnesses and on cancer prevention as able-bodied people.

“It is about empowering people with disabilities to be in control of their health and the treatment they want to have.”

Although making friends with people on their cancer journeys is difficult, according to Janelle, she wouldn’t change it for the world.

“It has made me into a better person with their honesty and friendship,” she explains.

Janelle says her friends also tell her she has made them better people.

“I do get a laugh out of this because they have been through hell with treatment.”

She is also a strong advocate for non-verbal people, being non-verbal herself.

Through this experience, Janelle started up ‘Mindbook, What’s Non-Verbal?’, a Facebook page dedicated to educating people on how to communicate with non-verbal family, friends and strangers.

“I felt very isolated from people [during school] because I couldn’t talk,” she adds.

“People were scared if they had conversations with me, they wouldn’t understand me and I would get upset.

“A lot of people advocate about a significant kind of disability, but no one has looked at or talked about how being non-verbal can impact on people’s lives.”

She likes to think her Mindbook Facebook page has helped others learn the acceptable way to communicate with non-verbal people.

“I want the general public to understand that talking on behalf of, or over the top of a non-verbal person is not appropriate.”

Advocating aplenty in the disability space, Janelle has also written and illustrated two children’s books.

“I like a challenge and I like to show other people with disabilities what they can do when they feel empowered to ‘have a go’.”

Janelle was recognised for her hard work in 2013 when she won a Disability Achievement Award as part of the Tasmania Community Achievement Awards.

A compassionate and kind woman, Janelle will continue to advocate for change and ensure people with disability are better supported in both preventing and fighting against cancer and giving those who are non-verbal a voice through her Facebook page.

Janelle says she gives with her heart.

“I give with no expectations. The greatest gift is helping someone. I believe all people should help others.”

Breast Cancer Network Australia has a range of information and resources for people with disability on their breast cancer journey. If you have been recently diagnosed or want to find support call Breast Cancer Network Australia on 1800 500 258 or email [email protected].

How do you campaign for change? Tell us in the comment section below. 

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