When Captain Hugo Toovey takes to the Adams Auditorium stage at UNSW Canberra on Wednesday, he will be only metres from a plaque honouring his late best mate, Pete Bach.
Hugo has delivered presentations about the importance of caring for your mental and physical health to audiences all over the country, but perhaps none will be so meaningful as when he returns to ADFA.
Peter Bach was a midshipman at ADFA, studying alongside Hugo until he tragically took his own life in 2012. He was 22 years old.
Hugo often starts his presentations by talking about Pete, and on Wednesday he will pay a visit to the spot overlooking the Parade Ground, where Pete’s plaque rests alongside others commemorating those who died while serving at ADFA.
He will show it to his wife Amber and take a moment to remember his best mate and reflect on his journey over the 11 years since his death.
Hugo’s story is remarkable; he’s overcome two different types of cancer, withstood all manner of surgeries and medical interventions, and forged a career in the Army, all before the age of 30.
Along the way he has learned difficult, albeit incredibly valuable lessons about health, both physical and mental, resilience, the power of positive thinking, and the need to surround yourself with a strong support network. Lessons he wants to pass onto as many people as he can.
“It all sort of stemmed from when I lost my best mate Pete to suicide. Well before I was even diagnosed with cancer and went through my own mental health struggles,” Hugo says.
“[Pete’s death informs] my messaging around the difference between physical health and mental health, and understanding the impact that something like suicide can have on people and when people are in crisis.
“I think it's a really important message that I try and get across. Firstly, for those who have never experienced mental illness, the pain that people are often in, when they're in the depths of crisis or very poor mental health, can be extremely painful. But it's not necessarily as obvious as when someone is physically unwell.”
This is something he learned first-hand all too well.
In June 2013, at the age of just 21, Hugo’s life drastically changed when he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer. This resulted in surgery to remove his testicle, months of chemotherapy, and very invasive surgery to remove all of his abdominal lymph nodes.
After receiving the five-year all clear scan in June 2018, Hugo was cancer free, happy and living the life of a 26-year-old Army Captain. But his excitement and relief were cruelly cut short, when only months later he went to the doctor with pain in his stomach and after some tests was told he had bowel cancer.
What was to follow was a harrowing few years of surgeries and treatment, which culminated in Hugo needing to have his colon and rectum removed at the end of 2019.
He recalls that four-week stint in hospital after surgery, when he couldn’t eat or drink and lost 22 kilograms, as his “darkest days” where he would be in tears most nights.
“I found it fascinating that the pain that I was in when I was in the depths of depression, when I was really struggling with my mental health, was more painful than some of that physical pain I was experiencing,” Hugo says.
Hugo admits to feeling extremely guilty about the pain that he caused his family and friends, who were unwavering in their support during his cancer battle.
“I felt like I had to be that strong, positive person all the time because I felt if I'm strong and positive, then you know, that's one less thing that my family has to worry about,” Hugo recalls.
“But as I learned, the longer you try and do that, put on that brave face and wear that mask, the worse it eventually gets and then it's a lot harder to treat.”
Hugo says he “learned the hard way” about the consequences of not addressing both his physical and mental health symptoms early on and pushing things to the side.
He wants everyone he speaks to or who is aware of his story to take home one message – don’t wait until it’s too late. Seek professional help at the first signs of any health problem, physical or mental.
That is why Hugo launched 25 Stay Alive and began sharing his story. He also became a Movember Ambassador, supporting the charity that highlights men’s health each November by encouraging men to grow a moustache. And he launched a podcast called Behind the Uniform which discusses mental health and the barriers people put up or ‘uniforms’ people adopt to hide what they’re really feeling.
Despite all of his health challenges, Hugo has continued his work in the Army and will be promoted to the rank of Major at the end of the year, recognising the work he has done in the health and welfare space.
“People talk about the cliché of finding your purpose in life,” Hugo says.
“And I know UNSW is all about fulfilling the study aspect of doing what you love and finding your passion.
“For me, I found that in a very unconventional way.
“I wouldn't recommend people to go down this path to find their passion and purpose, but that being said, it's still pretty cool that I've now embarked on this part of my life, and I've found that purpose and passion in helping others.”
If nothing else, Hugo wants others to realise that "life is precious, don’t take it for granted.”
The UNSW Canberra University Lecture delivered by Captain Hugo Toovey will take place at 6pm on Wednesday 13 September and will be livestreamed for free. Register to view the lecture here: https://www.events.unsw.edu.au/event/captain-hugo-toovey-dont-wait-until-its-too-late