TESS Raak had a breakout year in netball, coming runner-up in the Central Highlands Football Netball League under-15s best and fairest. But the year also brought some other life-changing news – that she had a brain tumour and would need to go under the knife.
"I was worried about how I would look as they will have to take some hair off and I was also scared about netball"
One of her first concerns after doctors found the growth in April, which had caused epileptic-like turns almost all her life, was whether she could play netball this year for Hepburn.
“I cried a lot that night,” the year-eight Daylesford Secondary College student said. “I was worried about how I would look as they will have to take some hair off and I was also scared about netball.”
“And it sounds stupid, but (I was also thinking about) dying, if I was going to get cancer.”
Tess’s mum Annie Raak said Tess had had “staring fits” for a long time, a temporary immobility where she would gaze off into space. These were treated with epilepsy medication, but still became more common towards the end of 2013.
“Just before Christmas last year, she was coming home from school probably every second day (reporting more fits),” said Mrs Raak.
“There was a couple of times where she dropped her books and gave her friends a bit of a scare.”
They went to Ballarat paediatrician Maurice Easton who sent them to the Royal Children’s Hospital for an MRI, which found the epilepsy-like symptoms were not caused by epilepsy but by a benign growth.
“They found a DNET tumour, which is one they can safely leave but she’d have to have medication for the rest of her life,” said Mrs Raak.
But by April, Tess had gone to a neurologist who ordered yet more scans, which just happened to fit in with her netball fixture.
“She did another MRI the day we played Gordon. We were in the car and ready (to go to Melbourne) before the game was even finished,” said Mrs Raak.
A few weeks later Mrs Raak almost stumbled upon the bad news from the scan.
They hadn’t heard anything from the neurologist, so she called Dr Easton.
“I just happened to ring (him). He said ‘haven’t you heard? Bring Tess over’, and that’s when it changed from it’s an OK tumour to one that’s got to come out,” she said.
“At this stage it’s not cancer, but it’s the sort of thing you can’t just leave there.”
The family has not faced anything like Tess’s condition before, and her nan Carol Bones said it had taken them completely by surprise.
“It was a real shock actually, (we thought) it was epilepsy, and then they said ‘no, sorry, she’s got a brain tumour’,” she said.
The DNET – a Dysembryoplastic neuroepithelial tumour – is not uncommon in people under the age of 20, and can be managed if it does not become ‘malformed’ like Tess’s has.
After the diagnosis from Dr Easton, Tess began working out how it might affect her life, hair and netball team.
She comes from incredibly strong sporting stock with dad Clive senior coach and club legend at Hepburn and cousin Libby Purtell a former fixture of the Victorian Netball League team Ballarat Pride.
Tess has impressive credentials after only a few years playing netball, winning Rookie of the Year in her first year, Rising Star in her second, team best and fairest last year and then the league runner-up this week.
“I was shocked (about the award) because it’s my first year in under-15s, and the girl who won it plays state,” said Tess.
“(My brother) Adam picked up one vote from footy, and he said he should have passed it on to me, because he didn’t need it.”
Her favourite game this year was against Daylesford, because she had friends in the team.
“I liked playing Daylesford. Most of my friends play for Daylesford, and they were all like ‘we’re going to beat you’, but we won,” she said, also taking the three votes from that game.
Her mum said the awards ceremony on Monday was emotional, because presenter and club president Kristi Pedretti was close to the family.
“She said ‘Tess is a fighter on the court and off the court, and for that reason I’m not looking at her mother.’ I thought to myself ‘pull it together, not everyone here knows what’s going on, they’ll think I’m being a big sook’, but that was nice. It really summed it up, she’s a fighter,” said Mrs Raak.
The support of the football and netball clubs has been important, and Tess said she’s been surprised by people reaching out.
“Someone sent me a onesie, I’ve got a package from some people who work with my aunt, it’s really nice,” she said.
Her friends from Daylesford Secondary have also made clear how far they will go to make her feel alright about the surgery.
“They said they’ll shave their heads for me,” said Tess.
The family has also had strong support from the players and coaches from Hepburn’s football teams, where her elder brother Adam, 15, plays.
“All the boys have been fantastic,” said Ms Bones, well known for her vocal support of the Burras.
Moving on from the diagnosis, the family is now preparing for the surgery, which will take place at the Royal Children’s Hospital in the next few months.
Tess knows she will be in good hands, with her neurosurgeon well-known for leading the six operations to separate Bangladeshi conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna in 2009.
Dr Wirginia Maixner told Fairfax Media in 2009 about 70 per cent of her surgeries involved removing growths to reduce epileptic symptoms.
“Certain epilepsies we know start in a particular part of the brain because there’s a malformation there or a tumour or they’ve had a stroke … in those children, if you can remove that, you can cure them,” she said.
“She’s also assured us she’s a good hairdresser,” said Mrs Raak.
Even before the surgery, Mrs Raak wanted to make clear how thankful she was for the community’s support since Tess was diagnosed.
“Everyone’s been fantastic. Just so kind,” she said.
There will be a final set of scans done before an appointment after the uunder-15s grand final (September 20), when the surgery will be booked in.
Tess is meanwhile looking to next season, knowing she was leading the count for this year’s best and fairest until the last two rounds, when her team was beaten by Beaufort and she didn’t pick up any votes.
But next season, many of her rivals for the best and fairest will be moving up to under-17s.
“My team wants me to move up as well and just skip the next year of under-15s, but I’m going to stay there,” she said.