Almost seven years ago, Antoinette Sulfaro discovered her sister-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given six weeks to live. At the time, neither she nor her family had the slightest idea how much of an impact this diagnosis, and all that followed from it, would have on their lives.

Ms Sulfaro was working with her husband, helping run their family accounting business. She was also involved with a charity made up of a small group of local mums who were raising funds for the Cancer Council. She decided to become a full-time carer for her sister-in-law, an experience that changed her forever, redirecting the course of her life.

“When she passed, I was lost… I couldn’t stop being a carer after losing my sister-in-law. I felt like I still had to be a carer for the women around me,” Ms Sulfaro said.

Ms Sulfaro saw a need in her community and felt that funds should go directly to patient support in the southwest Sydney region. She knew she could make a difference for women fighting cancer and started a not-for-profit called Ladies Like to Lunch. Her goal, above all else, was to continue to care for people the way she cared for her sister-in-law.

Ms Sulfaro said, “The charity used to be my passion, but now it’s my purpose.”

Her fundraising partner, Grace Newcombe, bonded over their shared experience caring for family members with cancer. She said, “Grace was a big part of my healing journey.”

Their unique partnership and shared passion have allowed them to increase fundraising numbers yearly. Ladies Like to Lunch raised $53,000 in 2023, an almost $20,000 increase on the previous year.

Ms Sulfaro’s impact on cancer patients in the Liverpool region has been nothing short of transformative. Her experience as a carer gave her intimate insight into the kind of support that makes a difference for patients, their families and their carers on their journeys fighting cancer.

Looking for a way to help cancer patients feel more supported and empowered while easing the financial and mental burden for families and carers, she designed care packages with products that help to ease the side effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

She now works closely with the Liverpool Cancer Therapy Centre to organise the regular delivery and distribution of these care packages to patients who are recovering from treatments.

Ms Sulfaro is eagerly looking forward to the upcoming renovations to the Liverpool Wellness Centre – part of the Cancer Therapy Centre – as she believes there is an urgent need for upgraded facilities.

“The Wellness Centre is where you used to go after you had your radiation, your chemotherapy, to have acupuncture, oncology massages, meditation classes, yoga classes, gardening workshops… but all that got taken away during Covid, a lot of the funding got taken away,” she said.

“We now fundraise for that Wellness Centre. I have full access to where I want the money to go, and we are heavily involved and know all the patients, all the nurses, and their needs.”

In 2 years, the Wellness Centre will be upgraded. It will include a kitchen for cooking workshops, a gym, a gardening centre, oncology massages, acupuncture therapy, and meditation and yoga classes to help with the mental health side effects of cancer.

Left: With Greg Webb, Manager of the Wellness Centre at Liverpool, handing out care packages to patients and nurses. Right: With Grace (right) at the 2023 Pink Ribbon Luncheon 

While Ladies Like to Lunch has always focused on the importance of supporting and empowering women facing cancer, Ms Sulfaro wants to raise more awareness for the unique struggles men face.

Watching her father grapple with the mental load of prostate cancer after a diagnosis late last year opened her eyes to the importance of male-specific support to help men overcome the barriers that prevent them from speaking up when they are struggling.

Her hard work has not gone unnoticed by the community. Ms Sulfaro, and Ladies Like to Lunch, has been recognised four times in Parliament. She was also awarded Leppington Local Woman of the Year for 2024 by the State Member for Leppington, Nathan Hagarty.

“I couldn’t believe it! I had never won an award before… then the impostor syndrome set in… I kept asking Nathan, “why me?!” she said, admitting that she has never been comfortable with receiving recognition.

When she was only 18 months old, Ms Sulfaro dropped a kettle full of boiling water on her chest and suffered severe burns. As she grew older, she became quite self-conscious of her scarring, and it took her a long time to rebuild her self-esteem.

“I hate receiving recognition. I was such a shy kid, I wanted to be under the radar and I never wanted to be seen. Because if you see me, you see my burn,” she said.

“And my sister-in-law… I wouldn’t be here unless she went through what she went through. I have a little bit of guilt in a way because I would give it all back to have her here, and now she’s not here to see it.”

Her poor self-esteem as a child, coupled with the complex guilt she feels that her sister-in-law never got to live to see what she helped build, makes her feel unworthy of praise to this day. This is a barrier she is still working hard to overcome.

Ms Sulfaro is now shifting her focus to securing state and federal grants to support the Liverpool Wellness Centre by helping to pay for expenses that will not be covered by the government when it gets upgraded, such as gym and exercise equipment.

She is also invested in helping women get back into the workforce and rebuild their confidence after recovering from cancer.

“So many women I meet lose their confidence. They have to give up their jobs because of how sick they are and the treatments they’re getting. Then when they’re better, they have no confidence to get back into the workforce,” she said.

Ladies Like to Lunch has just announced this year’s Pink Ribbon Luncheon will be held on Sunday the 27th of October to raise money and awareness for cancer survivors. For more details, visit https://www.ladiesliketolunch.org.

–  Emily Kaine

Antoinette Sulfaro receives her Woman of the Year citation from State Member for Leppington Nathan Hagarty