Abbey Talk

Thanks to my friend Matt who is a teacher at Westminster School, I was invited to speak at their Abbey talk which happens twice a week. Basically a whole school assembly but with the added prestige of having them in Westminster Abbey. This is far removed from my school’s once yearly whole school assembly because it was logistically too difficult as the assembly hall wasn’t big enough for everyone to get in to. Then when we did it was in this sports hall and we all had to sit cross legged.

Thanks to Matt I’ve come accustomed to the Westminster atmosphere so I wasn’t too intimidated. When someone is invited to speak, they have to check it for quality and appropriateness prior to you speaking. I’m not sure what some of their more famous speakers think of this, for example the head of the Bank of England. However this suited me because quite simply my first speech didn’t hit the mark, too full of jargon and very grandiose. Fortunately one of the two reviewers, the chaplain of the school and organiser of the Abbey talk was perfectly happy to criticise it. A weird byproduct of being a “Cancer Patient” is that no one wants to offend you at any time. This has it’s benefits because it’s nice to go through life uncriticised but then again I’m quite thick skinned and will take on valid feedback. It’ll be weird if this follows me into the workplace, “Dr Sims you have appeared to prescribed ten times too much insulin”, I cough pathetically and melodramatically.  “oh actually it doesn’t matter. I’ll just change it this time”. Therefore he told me to keep it much more personal and keep the message simple.

On arriving in the Abbey the chaplain went through a quick dress rehearsal. Unlike John Cabot CTC sports hall, there’s places you can’t walk due to their value, such as the 800 year old mosaic which makes up most of the stage, so the etiquette is to creep around the edge. Then like most church services there’s specific times you’re supposed to stand and sit down…. I almost never go to church. Further to this on the podium he got  me to recite certain parts of my speech.

Me: My name is Mark Sims and I was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2003

Chaplain: I’ll stop you there, their is a D in thousand please remember this

This went in for about ten minutes or so. The other tips he gave me only pause on punctuation and sound more conversational. To be honest whilst this was going on I started to wonder what I had signed up for. Nevertheless his quick speech lesson made a lot of difference and I’ll take on his advice in the future. The speech went down very well with Matt passing on an email from one of his pupils saying how good they thought it was. Furthermore the chaplain emailed me afterwards and told me that it was only the second time since he started working at the school, 12 years ago, that their has been a spontaneous round of applause after a speaker. I made a couple of mistakes throughout the assembly I went to sit down whilst everyone was standing twice at the beginning and on the way out.

The full speech, unfortunately it didn’t seem appropriate to film the talk. But thankfully my parents, Dave, Matt, Alice and Bex were all there to bear witness.

“My name is Mark Sims and I was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2003. I never used to care much about my hair as much as I do now, it was always just a short back and sides. I went to the barbers and using the clippers he hit a lump just above my ear. Thankfully I went home and tried and tried looking at this thing in the mirror. Fortunately my Mum came in from shopping  and she  wondered why I was having a twisty head fit in front on the mirror. We went to gp and two weeks later the tumour was excised and I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma the nastiest of all the skin cancers.

This changed my life, I had an older brother going to medical school and thought well if he can do it so can I. I had a thirst to know much more about my disease for self preservation as well as to help others with in the same situation.

I stand here today, because the cancer came back.  Six days before my 27th birthday,  on pancake day, I like most of the country was sat eating Nutella soaked pancakes. Guilt free as I’d run ten miles just two days before. Whilst in chocolate and hazel nut heaven, a pain started in the right side of my abdomen, despite co codamol the pain just kept getting worse. By the morning I could barely walk, being a belligerent doctor I refused to go straight to A&E despite my flat mates best advice. After all I want to be an A&E consultant, I insisted on going to my GP first. I walked to gp got an appointment and went back at 9.20 both times I was getting weird looks from passersby. The gp took one look at me and phoned an ambulance. Both of us thinking I had an infection of my gallbladder. I saw the consultant after twenty minutes on arriving at A&E. You’ve got to get some perks from working in the NHS. He started me on antibiotics and a surgical doctor organised an X-ray, ultrasound and CT scan. Quickly things weren’t adding up the X-ray was strange, the ultrasound didn’t make sense, the CT scan of the whole body put things into perspective. The cause of my pain was tumours stretching my liver. Tumours that had taken 12 years to nestle there.

By the weekend I was transferred to the royal Marsden hospital. I Had a biopsy of my liver on my birthday and started of dabrafenib. Definitely the best present I’ve ever got. It’s a modern chemotherapy targeted  to attack  my tumours without many side effects. There’s two other treatments out there that may just give me a cure.

After an awful night where I vomited over ten times I woke up and poured my heart out on a just giving page. I raised £5000 in five hours, my Facebook went wild. I’ve now raised £27000 for cancer research uk in just three weeks.  This is something I always wanted to do, but never got round to, but as I felt so bad that day it focussed the mind. This is money for the future, for the other 27 year olds struck down in their prime. This money is to honour those who gave their time researching these therapies which are giving me life, as well most importantly honouring those patients who over the last 12 years went into the drug trials. Some whom would have died so that I could live.

£27000 will fund most of a PhD, it was a PhD students project in 1994 which started the research for one of the curative therapies, ipilimumab, I’m due to have. This money will go to these projects. Potentially funding one of your PhDs in the future. Some of you here today will be the scientists and doctors of the future. I ask you to remember me stood here in front of you. I ask you to remember that there is still a race to be won.

Medicine is incredibly full of jargon, and I’m going through “biographical disruption”. This is the term for when someone’s personal narrative has changed. Ask Mr Bradshaw, who’s one of my closest friends, I’m a uncomplicated man, who’s life is now very complicated. Where only a month ago I was thinking, like many doctors at my stage of what to do next. Now my life is uncertain I’m advised against drinking alcohol which I enjoyed in moderation, I don’t know if I’ll be fit enough to carry on with skiing and squash. Can I start dating again? Surrly it would make a pretty awkward first date… “Erm so you might die in 18 months?”.

So  we now have the methods to thoroughly learn about cancers, all we need now is the money and great minds like those I see around the room to beat cancer sooner.”


Are you not entertained?








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