On Being Without Mark

Before February 2015, Mark  was just getting on with his life, he rang now and again, came to stay sometimes and I went to see him but that was it. I never wanted to be the sort of mother who needed to know what he or any of his brothers were up to moment by moment. I was happy to have confident sons who simply got on with their lives, had adventures, rang or visited now and again . I knew I was always welcome for the occasional visit to see any of them and having four sons, it never really meant that any got more attention than they wanted. I had my life, writing poetry, doing some counselling, running a small publishing venture and Chris and I were enjoying being a couple again after bringing up the boys. If anything all four have probably spent more time with Chris in their adult years as he likes to organise  walks and football matches. My sons were, and are an important part of my life but not the only thing I had in it. In fact Mark used to joke sometimes that I was often difficult to reach on the phone.

But all that changed with the advent of secondary cancer for Mark. We became very close, closer than I ever thought I would be with a son. On bad days we’d often curl up on the sofa with a video and I attended almost every hospital appointment, often with other family members, sometimes  just me and Mark. Between appointments there were games;  Ticket to Ride or Camel Cup when there were lots of us, Bananagrams or Scrabble  with just the two of us. Long hospital days in London came to mean visits to museums, the cinema, and once a lovely guided tour round Chelsea Physic garden with a keen volunteer. It got us out of the hospital environment between appointments and passed the time in a lovely way. Some nights when I could not sleep I would check my phone and find Mark was also not sleeping and wherever we were, we’d connect and play Word Feud. Even in those last days in The Royal Marsden, Word Feud continued until he could no longer see and the last game we played expired on January 9th, ten days before he died.

The last mortal remains of Mark William Sims were delivered to us from the undertaker in London, arriving in a green plastic screw top container as I knew they would . I was prepared with a shiny red steel urn and on the kitchen table poured the almost white ash from one container to another, at one point, letting it run through  my fingers like slightly gritty sand. Is this all I have left now?  I carried the shiny receptacle upstairs to Mark’s room, placed it carefully  on his shelf amongst his souvenirs. Later we will follow his wishes and scatter the ashes at sea. Yet for now it’s right to have the red urn on his shelf in the room he slept in all through his teens, the room he always came home to whenever he stayed. We won’t make it a shrine for ever, but for now it feels right.

It is twenty five days now since our beautiful son died. Our lives have been filled with the love of  family, friends, neighbours. I get a lot of joy from holding babies. We had a small intimate family gathering for Mark in London and we  have looked at hundreds of photographs, watched videos, listened to his voice on radio recordings. We have marvelled at how incredible he was and feel comforted to a certain extent to know how much he was cherished. But it can never be enough. It is so hard to not speak with him most days, so hard to come to terms with never again seeing that gorgeous smile in the flesh.

This week we are preparing  for Mark’s memorial event at Leicester University and looking forward to seeing many of you there. It starts at 2.30 in the Peter Williams lecture theatre but arrive a little earlier for a tea or coffee first.


Of Memorial Service

Leicester University have kindly agreed to host Mark’s Memorial Service on Saturday 18th February 2017 at 2:30pm in the Peter Williams Lecture Theatre, in the Fielding Johnson South Wing. This service is to celebrate the life of our fantastic son, brother, fiancé, cousin, nephew and dear friend.

This is an open invitation for anyone who wishes to celebrate Mark’s life to come along, even if you have not met him in person. Please note the dress code is smart-casual (don’t feel like you have to wear black).

For anyone travelling from the Bristol area Baker’s coaches have kindly provided a coach. For the coach an optional ticket cost will be donated to Mark’s fund, please private Facebook message Chris Sims to let him know you are interested as we need to have a minimum number of people.

Please see wrestlingmelanoma.com for further updates.

Information about the Peter Williams Lecture Theatre and Campus Map can be found here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/services/rooms/fielding-johnson/fj-sw-pw


Update 15/2/17:

Parking Information for Saturday:
Service Starts at 2:30pm in the Peter Williams Lecture Theatre in the Fielding Johnson Building South Wing
For anyone driving on Saturday, please go to Entrance 1 on University Road. Parking is free on Saturday, the nearest car park is The Sports Hall but there are others nearby. We aim to have signs out on the day.
The coach to Bristol is scheduled for 6.30 return but can be earlier if everyone ready. The coach will drop you off outside the venue.

Of Final Days

Mark ended his account of his tremendous and inspiring battle against advanced malignant melanoma with his last optimistic Happy New Year post.

I now need to tell you the desperately sad news that Mark died on Thursday 19th January 2017.  The last 16 days of his life were spent at The Royal Marsden Hospital where he received superb care.

On the 4th January Mark was given the news that there was no more treatment that could stabilise his cancer.  When asked by one of his consultants if he would like to stay, he said confidently:

Why not? This is the best hospital in the world and I am your favourite patient. Why would I go anywhere else?

Mark always had the ability to draw people in and even in the last days of his life made a huge impact on everyone who met him for the first time having already had a profound effect on the melanoma team who have looked after him for 23 months. His closest friends came in to see him and between us all we made sure he never had time alone.

We as a family are in awe of Mark’s courage and selfless attitude until the very end when he was losing both sight and hearing. As a final example, Mark made a brave announcement on social media telling the world he was about to die and setting a target of raising £100,000 for Cancer Research UK. Within 24 hours the total rose from £73,000 to well over this figure and the fund is still rising.

I know he would want me to thank all of you; his friends, wider family and followers who have lived each minute of this with him.

Mark died in peace and dignity surrounded by love.

We, his family and Georgie are so grateful for the way the staff at the hospital enabled us to do something I never thought possible, to come away with beautiful memories of this final chapter of Mark’s life.

The blog will remain online. Mark worked hard in the last few months to write a book based on his blog entries and to also tell more of his story prior to February 2015. Please look in from time to time for updates. The book will be published by Poetry Space, my own company by the end of this year and I plan to do a great job for Mark. He wants the book to continue to enhance the message about cancer and melanoma in particular.

Sue Sims (Mark’s mum)

Georgie has asked for this message to be included here:

Watching my 28 year old fiancé cruelly robbed of his sight, hearing, swallowing, walking, speech, along with any chance of a future was heartbreaking and wrong. He still managed to be so caring of others around him, worrying that he had not replied to messages or that we would hurt our backs when we stretched his legs.

In his final hours he was surrounded by all of us, we held his hand and kissed him. He passed away and we sang his favourite songs to him with the music therapist and his guitar. These were songs that Mark had sung with the therapist when he was admitted to the Marsden in early January. Mark had requested ‘our song’, You and me by Lifehouse the song we would have had as our first dance to at our wedding. The music therapist learnt it and it was the last song we sang to Mark. This meant so much and I did not want to let go of his hand. We are devastated and it has not sunk in that I’ll never see him again.

Thank you so much for your messages, they mean the world to me and I am trying to reply to all of them.Mark really appreciated you all, and I am so proud of him and feel so privileged I got to spend the time with him that I did.We had amazing times and he would have had a beautiful future with a great career as a doctor. Cancer stole this from him. He was determined to raise as much awareness as possible to beat Melanoma (an aggressive form of skin cancer that affects too many young people) He has donated his body to research to help them find answers to beat this disease. He has written a book and he’ll continue to raise money for Cancer Research UK. I’ll never forget the memories and he will always be my hero.


Of Engagement 

Happy New Year everyone. A year ago today I proposed to Georgie and just wanted to share these videos. It has been absolutely amazing and she has been the greatest support for me over the last year and beyond. We’re one of a few couples who have been engaged longer than they were going out and probably one of a few couples who got engaged on the Royal Marsden steps. Georgie gave up everything to be with me, she could have gone out with anyone, someone much easier, she’d already made her life tough giving up on her already successful career as a Speech and Language Therapist in London and switching to do a medical degree. Going out with me put a lot of stress on herself and her ambitions. I love you Georgie, I’ll never forget how much you’ve given me…because you’ve given me life. 

Below are two videos. The first I showed Georgie before proposing. My Dad sent me the second video about a week after the engagement. Enjoy.



Of Pete Tong

I’m going to start this blog describing the events of the last week or so and then take you back over what has been a difficult two months. The last blog was quite optimistic, however things have not continued that way. On Saturday 26th November I went to my cousin Jenny’s wedding. I felt it was going to be difficult because just two days before I had considered going to Bath A&E due to how bad I felt. But I managed, with my family’s help, to control my symptoms of vomiting, restlessness, no sleep and a headache that was so relentless and severe; that I felt suicidal. Friday was ok, but Saturday was particularly cold and in the church I was tired, freezing and miserable. I felt out of place. This was supposed to be a happy day and I was very pleased Jenny was marrying her nice chap Dave. It took wearing three warm coats to finally make me feel a tiny bit warmer. Dad grabbed he and I a lift from a total stranger amongst the wedding guests, and I arrived at the reception feeling reasonably composed. Arnos Vale Cemetery has surprisingly become a popular wedding venue in Bristol and the meal was in a beautiful and grand chapel building. As the afternoon and evening progressed I got considerably worse despite self administering an arsenal of medication: morphine, paracetamol, ibuprofen and some anti-sickness tablets. Unfortunately due to the lack of toilet facilities in the building and having nowhere to run to when I had an urgent need to be sick after the starter, I found myself  unintentionally aiming my stomach contents on a gravestone. I felt humiliated and quickly explained to onlookers that it wasn’t alcohol, it was cancer.


I slept through the speeches, afterwards I spoke quickly to the happy couple and my cousin Ann, cried a lot and left in an Uber taxi with my mum. I had so wanted it to be a positive day yet it just got more and more of a struggle as the day went on. This was a shame as I know a lot of work went into creating a beautiful wedding. At home, I rang Georgie (she was unable to make the wedding), sobbed a lot, then went to bed. Mum piled on a duvet and blankets and put an electric blanket beneath me but my teeth were literally chattering with the cold.  I must have slept about an hour before spending the rest of the night very restless, with severe vomiting, headaches, neck pain and right sided abdominal pain. Mum and Dave looked after me in the night, making me sip water, and in Dave’s case making himself up a makeshift bed on the floor beside me for the last few gruelling hours and putting compresses on my head. At seven in the morning Mum dialled 999. The paramedics were great. With a fentanyl patch already on it still took around 40 mg of morphine (half IV and half orally), IV Paracetamol, Ondansetron and Ibuprofen to get my symptoms under control and I was high… very high.  That was probably the pinnacle of this episode but most of the days before and after this have been very bad. Just a couple of days earlier I had to stop playing pool with Jack and Kieran because my head was so ferociously hurting. How has my quality of life capitulated? In other words why has it gone so Pete Tong?… Wrong?


24th October

Going back to October it started in a little known tube called my right ureter. Urine flows down these from each of the kidneys into the bladder and out of the more well known urethra; definitely a part of the human anatomy that I hadn’t given much thought to before. On Monday 24th October, I had woken up in quite a bad way. I was feeling rather well having been to the Body Balance class at the gym the night before. After the class Dad, Paul and I played a new board game, Tzolk’in The Mayan Calendar; a somewhat complicated game but thoroughly engrossing. I went to bed feeling pretty well still unaware of what was to follow. In the morning at about 8am abdominal pain started and a few minutes later I vomited a lot. (This is a pattern that has continued with the urge to vomit coming on really quickly and usually a few full vomits being followed by excessive amount of retching). I had some breakfast an hour after being sick and hoped it would stay down. I took my Prednisolone afterwards and it came straight back up. Now for most people not keeping tablets down for one day wouldn’t be a problem, depending on the tablet and their own condition. However with steroids this can be a disaster, especially as I know from recent tests that my adrenal glands are not yet ready to start making enough cortisol to counter this. This state of affairs has been brought about by my prolonged period on a high dose of steroids. Without corticosteroids the body goes into a state called an “Addisonian Crisis” basically due to the lack of cortisol and cannot maintain a blood pressure and eventually organ by organ will fail. Being a doctor I was very aware of this problem so we got into the car and headed to Bath Hospital, with Dad driving and Mum in the back seat. I had gone home to my parents for a few days. They have a Bristol postcode but Bath is their nearest hospital, about twenty five minutes drive away. On the way Dad stopped the car for me to be sick. On arrival I explained the situation and we went straight through to a bed space in majors. I wasn’t in a critical position but I knew I would be unless I got some steroids in the next half day or so…


After receiving the intravenous steroids (100mg Hydrocortisone) which perked me up quickly and having had blood tests coming back normal I was discharged. The next day Paul, Mum and I went to Cardiff. Dad was working in Barry and dropped us on the way. We went to the Doctor Who experience, which started with a little interactive adventure. We had to find these crystals on different sets, a few less shy children got their chance to shine and take the crystals from the Daleks. Unfortunately adults were discriminated against so I missed my chance to save the universe! Surely I’ll get the award for that someday. The museum was an entertaining hour and a half, finishing with a walk through different sets and countless monster costumes.


Georgie rang while I was outside and I told her what a brilliant day we were having and just then I noticed a bike hire place, where you could hire cycle golf buggies. We felt energetic and just about got the very heavy contraption moving down the side of Cardiff Bay. After that we had food in Wagamamas, followed by the cinema to watch the film Inferno (the film inspired by the book of the same name by Dan Brown). That night I went to bed feeling content; only to be woken up about midnight with severe right sided abdominal pain. Despite Ibuprofen and putting on some Fentanyl (morphine like) patches, as I didn’t have any Oramorph I could not get the pain under control. I had got to the point where I started to feel so confident about my health I stopped carrying Oramorph on me. However, I knew at this moment that I’d let my guard down, and in this horrific game you can’t ever forget.


That night was horrendous, I just couldn’t calm the pain down enough to sleep. I saw on What’s App that Georgie had just been awake at 4am so I rang her. It helped to organise my thoughts, calm me down, and put a fentanyl patch on. We told each other how much we loved each other, then I woke my parents up, via the toilet to vomit. This resulted in my holding a hot water bottle next to my pain and being read a bedtime story by Mum. I fell asleep but I still woke up with the pain. After vomiting again and a bit of umming and ahhing, we called an ambulance. A good call as the two guys that arrived were very good and got to the crux of the matter quickly; I needed pain relief. Morphine was pushed into my veins, life got much better and we went back to Bath A&E for the second time in three days. They rang the Marsden and the plan was for Bath to admit me for pain control, to administer steroids and get an urgent CT scan. I had a lot more morphine that day; giving me a warm bath of hope in my mind.


I was so tired I drifted off despite the noisy medical admissions unit, the snoring guy across the bay and the near constant beeping sounds from around the ward. I must have woken up about ten times drifting off and dreaming vivid opioid dreams over and over again. A young Senior House Officer came at 6.10 am. I repeat 6.10am. Very, very early. She had two pieces of paper in her hand, despite being bleary eyed the paper looked like the CT scan report. She proceeded to go through the findings, pointing out there seemed to be a new site of metastasis, my right ureter, whilst also reassuring me that my renal function was okay, therefore clearly still draining enough urine. However in hindsight I thought peeing had perhaps got a little more difficult to initiate and was slightly painful. I’m not quite sure that she did the right thing in giving me bad news, of a new tumour when everything had been stable, at a crazily early hour. I have to admit she was very thorough, but because she was so early, I had assumed that the news was going to be good and therefore it came as a shock. Who gives bad news after waking someone up? Surely not great practise. It was too early to contact anyone and I was left totally alone with terrifying news. I wouldn’t recommend it. Please doctors, wait until 9am and give the patient an option to have someone there with them. This SHO was lucky that I am better able to cope than most patients and do prefer to know as much as possible as soon as possible, but I still would not advise it. I then couldn’t get back to sleep.


I managed to get hold of Mum out of everyone I phoned. She knew it was bad or I wouldn’t have called right then. Later she came to the hospital with Dave, Paul and Dad, delayed a little bit as she felt it was better Dave and Paul had some sleep for what was going to be a long day. Dave was already in Bristol from the day before with compassionate leave as he’d had some intuition that bad news was on its way. Georgie and I had a chat at about 8am before the others arrived. I hadn’t cried until then and I blubbed and blubbed. She cried probably even more than me. We’d had such a great few months and this seemed to signal the end of it. Chaos had seemed to be ending, but now it was back. In truth it was never that far away.


Knowing the diagnosis early was useful. I asked the doctor to prescribe “Diclofenac PR” a drug stronger than Ibuprofen which works particularly well up the rectum. My rationale was that it is particularly good for the pain associated with renal stones and therefore might work for this.  After taking it regularly I did not need to have extra morphine other than the Fentanyl patches that I’d already put on. By the time the family got there I was actually feeling quite well, pain free and in the mood for a game of Camel Up (in fact several) which lasted most of the day. There were of course some emotional moments about the gravity of the situation. I was discharged that day awaiting a plan from the Marsden. Due to scans not being able to be sent electronically to the Marsden, somehow we’d negotiated taking a CD of the images of the scans from Bath home with us. Thanks to Paul and Dave for helping me work through this process and a helpful person in radiology.


I got home and wanted to see the scan. It was eerie, I was actually so intrigued that emotionally it didn’t affect me. However Dave, and Georgie (who saw the scans over Facetime) found the whole thing more troubling. As interesting as they were; the harsh reality was that they hated the fact that it was my body, Georgie saying ‘I wish this wasn’t of you’. We spent quite a bit of the evening trying to find the ureteric tumour, taking advice from Georgie who’d just done Special Study module in Radiology. Eventually we found what they described in the report.


1st November

On the 1st November everything became a bit clearer. There was a mad panic after discharge from Bath to organise immunotherapy as fast as possible if that was necessary. Lavinia (my registrar) who was about to go on maternity leave, pulled out all the stops and I had it lined up for Wednesday the following week. On Tuesday I had an MRI of my head to check for any progression there, (thankfully there was not) and a urine sample to look for cancer cells. I saw Dr. Larkin in clinic; the rarity of my case was exceptionally interesting to him. He explained, as I expected; (after Mum found a case study of an Australian patient), that this was an exceptionally rare event. He and the Prof who have about seventy years of experience between them, had never seen melanoma spread to the ureter. He went to speak to their urologist who looked at the images and felt it could be either a benign tumour,  a new primary cancer (transitional cell carcinoma) or a melanoma. Edward, the new specialist registrar, who was taking over my case from Lavinia did a remarkable job and organised a urology outpatient appointment very quickly.


After the melanoma appointment I went back to Bristol for a few days. By Thursday at noon we still hadn’t got a time for the urology appointment, which was going to be at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I was starting to get a bit disappointed, so Dad organised going to the theatre that night. They phoned just forty minutes later, Mum and Dad had gone to Aldi. “Er, Is that Dr Sims?” “Yeah” “I’m not sure you’re aware but you have an appointment with Mr Attar at 15.30 today”… obviously I wasn’t going to turn down the appointment. Despite the appointment being over 100 miles away in just a few hours. Mum and Dad arrived back whilst I still was on the phone and I shouted we had to leave now. Mum and I both grabbed our bags and raced to get there, with Dad dropping us at the station in Keynsham, changing at Bath for London Paddington and thanks to Uber for the final leg, we actually arrived twenty minutes early.


The consultant Mr Attar was efficient and had a kind attitude. After the consultation he was desperate to fit me in on his surgical list as quickly as possible. He went to pre operative assessment himself to get me seen and added me to his Monday surgical list. (Remember this is Thursday now) He explained that as he was overbooked and as I had extensive cancer it might not turn out as planned. For example there may be a paucity of time or the anaesthetist could potentially have a problem anaesthetising me.


I felt exhausted by the consultation and the events of the previous two weeks. I was so well and yet the stability was over. I discussed it with Mum, Dad and Georgie, as there was some suggestion that it might not be melanoma, that was good news right? But I still needed a reasonable sized operation. By that I mean somewhere between the expressions ‘minor op, and a ‘major operation’. This op involved insertion of a plastic stent (a JJ stent) from the kidney to the bladder and hopefully if the ureter doesn’t spasm, remove as much of the tumour as possible. All under a general anaesthetic. However I couldn’t help thinking if this was a normal person they’d be devastated by the mere mention of an operation. I phoned Georgie whilst having dinner with my mum. Talking to Georgie always reminds me how much my survival means, we cried a lot, Mum booked a hotel and we stayed overnight, neither of us feeling like going far. The next day the results of the urine sample came back suggestive of malignancy but, admittedly, inconclusive. Was this the end of the miracle?


We didn’t need to wait long to find out for certain. Two days after the operation I started getting headaches again, along with occasional vomiting and neck stiffness. As I had very recently had an MRI head I waited a few days just to be sure that I thought something was going on. The headaches were particularly severe after waking up in the morning. By Saturday (12th) I had decided that I needed to been seen ASAP. So I went from Georgie’s in Leicester to London on the Sunday, with Dave and Paul picking me up by car. Then emailed Nikki at 8am the next day to be top of her email list. She readily replied and Mum and I met to get an Uber to the Marsden.


The Marsden was an efficient machine and by 11 am I had had a range of blood tests and crucially an MRI of my head (another patient hadn’t turned up). Fortunately the Acute Oncology team seemed to have toned down their “Grim-Reaper” attitude and didn’t mention a Do Not Attempt CPR order or any talk of withdrawing treatment. Instead they were very surprised by how well I was, just under a year on from when I was incredibly unwell. But at around 3pm I heard them uttering my name on the nurses station. Albeit I couldn’t really make out what they were saying but the length of discussion implied it was bad. It was. I already knew I had melanoma lesions in my meninges (the lining of the brain and spinal cord) and two of them were growing. Awaiting for the biopsy result of the ureteric tumour seemed unnecessary now. Restarting immunotherapy was almost guaranteed.


18th November

On Friday 18th I went to the Marsden with Mum. The day had been set up for immunotherapy. Nivolumab and Ipilimumab, the combination of drugs that had been stopped due to my hepatitis (liver inflammation). I saw Edward and Nikki in clinic. It wasn’t much of a consultation but more of a chat and thoughts. The only medical benefit of the appointment was to find out definitely that the ureteric tumour was a melanoma (which was obvious by then because Mr Attar told me the tumour was black), a discussion of potential further radiotherapy, which was unlikely and to get a prescription. Other than that it was a motivational talk. We all knew this, and I used the term “shit or bust”. Nikki mentioned how much better I was than before starting immunotherapy last time and that my steroid dose was lower and my liver function was back to normal… I suggested a reduced dose of the two drugs and was told that wasn’t possible and even if it was, it would be ill advised as the current dose is the best tested. He went further, albeit not repeating my crass language, he felt it was either do it properly or not at all. I understood I needed a quick response, so full steam ahead but I have never been so terrified. This was a conscious decision to potentially kill me or have hideous side effects with a small chance that my disease might be controlled again. All these thoughts stemmed from the limited experience that the team had. I’m a guinea pig and I know it. The Prof came in afterwards to wish me ‘good luck young chap’ and to say ‘we are all rooting for you’. I thanked him warmly and Nikki too on behalf of all of us. Whatever happens we will be very grateful that they had given me time and more importantly a lot of very precious quality time to enjoy life with Georgie, my family and my friends.


As the cancer was growing… it was now or never. It was a journey into the unknown and as I watched the first drips of Nivolumab enter my veins that afternoon; I knew only one thing I was terrified.


The following weekend was mostly undramatic Georgie and I went to Winter Wonderland after having a short cycle ride through Regent’s Park. The next day going to The Wellcome Trust for its exhibit on “Bedlam”, apt because our lives were chaos once more. I went to see my brother Matt and spent the rest of the week in Bristol leading up to the wedding.


Back to now as described at the beginning of the blog. Every day the headache and the symptoms are getting worse, which has led me to feeling as I am now.

Of Ownership 

I don’t really play computer games anymore, however as a teenager I did quite frequently. The geeky phrase to say when you successfully beat another person online is “owned”. It’s saying that you are so much better than that person that you literally possess them. The only game where I’ve played enough and practised enough to really “own” someone was Command and Conquer Tiberium Sun. Playing it most nights when I was 12, mostly online as long as the connection held out (good old dial up). I got to the point of being so good at it that I would be accused of cheating after my disrupters had very quickly landed next to an opponent’s construction yard. But to get to that game winning point so quickly there were many things you had to do as fast as possible, and many tasks simultaneously. Everything was well thought out, every small gain sought after and achieved. 

So how is this relevant?
A computer game is a reasonably pointless thing to succeed at. But lots of things in life require you to focus on those small margins which improve the outcome. Take the British Olympic Cycling Team, a team at this year’s olympics in which every single person won a medal. It got to the point where as a spectator you still cheer, but you expect victory. What makes them so much better than the other teams? It is because they’ve focussed on every little margin. Every marginal gain they can think of they have done, I’ll give you some examples:

  • They had their facilities reviewed by a sleep expert the consequence of this was that on average they sleep 40 minutes more a night. 
  • They’re all taught good hand washing techniques to prevent the spread of infection.
  • They’ve all seen a sports psychiatrist to work on their individual “thoughts of failure”. 
  • After events and training they wear heated hot pants to prevent their muscles seizing up afterwards.
  • They also record all sorts of data from the bike so they can thoroughly assess each cyclist. This is formulated into a ‘power curve’ for them to aspire to. 

All this leads to more effective training and a culture of success. Giving that little bit extra, each little bit added together to give an increased chance of success. 

I don’t know why I am still alive, but my cancer nurse specialist, told me recently that the team are very impressed at how well I am doing at the moment. However she went on to say “we had quite a few young men on our list who were really ill about the same time as you at the beginning of the year and… that they’re all not here anymore.”  I took this as motivation. It strengthened my resolve to keep focussed and to keep going. No one wants to be defined by their cancer but for someone like me who had an exceptionally large amount of cancer and the most ruthless one at that, lifestyle sacrifices were necessary. Giving up meat and alcohol, taking Bifidobacterium pills, exercising, eating less and taking vitamin D and calcium supplements. Furthermore I’ve ended up under the best melanoma team in the world, fallen in love, I have an exceptionally supportive family, and I’m on the Melanoma Mates Facebook page. As the team have seen the most melanoma patients they’ve in effect got the most data either from trial or some anecdotal, but when treatment is so new you need that anecdotal experience. Despite having had countless appointments, I’ve only gone alone twice and these were both recently when they all know I am fitter and able to manage. Loneliness is a huge cause of stress, and thanks to Georgie, my family and friends I’m definitely not that. What better way to supercharge your immune system? Lastly the Melanoma Mates Facebook page is full of success stories (and lots of awful ones too) but it shows that it is possible despite it being very hard, that success is contagious and increases collective positivity. What you don’t need is any negativity in your life. 

I’ll clarify the loneliness point, what I’m referring to is the “Roseto Effect” named after the town in Pennsylvania after a cardiologist who moved there in the early sixties. He noticed he was not very busy. He worked out that the rate of heart disease was half of the American average by looking back at old records. A large study team came to the town  to find out why. They found that they were actually more unhealthy in terms of higher rates of smoking (typically cigars), obesity and sedentary lifestyle. They compared the results from two other nearby towns too. As it was largely an Italian community, they thought it could be the Italian diet but no, they ate more fried food than the other towns. They whittled it down to just one factor being the most important, people in Roseto weren’t lonely, they lived in multi-generation homes and had a great sense of community. This was confirmed as time went on and the town became more “American” i.e. More single parent homes, the younger generation moving to big cities… the town subsequently got more unhealthy and it took until 1971 before the first Rosetan below the age of 45 died of a heart attack. 

There are things I could be better at such as having a more stable routine and sleeping better. I accept that some of these margins I’ve done lack real clinical data, so as a caution check with your doctor first, but there must be a reason why I’m still here. I’m not just stage 4 I’m stage 4+++. There are very good reasons why my case been presented at two conferences and is being submitted to a very prestigious medical journal. That reason is that I am currently achieving the impossible. My case has literally broken all the rules. My ongoing survival could be for a simple reason; Ipilimumab. Somehow I’ve had success despite my immune system being decimated by high dose steroids and mycophenolate mofetil, both immunosuppressants. Moreover my tumours have not grown anymore despite not having had any active cancer treatment since April. Immunotherapy works by unmasking the cancer from the immune system so it can recognise it and attack. Theoretically this shouldn’t have happened due to the large amount of immunosuppression. I repeat, this was scientifically very unlikely. I feel that the lifestyle changes have given me these small marginal gains and have helped me to achieve and maintain stability. This is confidence boosting. I can feel that I did something to achieve that… I’ve taken ownership. Instead of being defined by my disease I’m defining it. I feel in charge. Obviously I know that this could all change overnight and melanoma could ruin life again.

It’s too easy to be defined by your disease, I’m a cancer patient therefore I am. I don’t buy that. If you are a patient please make an extra effort to understand that your enemy, this disease (whatever it is) is just an opponent and therefore there must be ways you can more effectively manage the disease. A good insight into disease I admit is easier for me, being a doctor, but it is vital for everyone. For example when I had manic episodes on steroids at the start of the year the insights Georgie and I had into what was happening made them less scary. The best example of this is someone with chronic pain (please see on IPlayer “The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs” as an example of this). A lot of people suffer from daily pain every day and despite many investigations and specialist input no cause is found. This pain is completely debilitating. What’s happened though is they’ve let the pain define them. Many patients get obsessed with wanting a diagnosis and the pills they take. Yet taking pills and being heavily investigated reinforces the feeling that they are sick. What they actually need to do is learn about their disease, have the insight to accept there is nothing that needs fixing and that it is an awful self fulfilling cycle. For example, your shoulder hurts so you stop moving it, it becomes stiff, so you move it less, you overuse the other arm and then that gets sore… Eventually everything is in pain and that’s all you can focus on. What needs to be done is to be less medicalised, take your disease by the scruff of neck and really own it. Move through the pain, understand that by moving you are not causing any damage, just pain, and be determined to carry on. When you realise you are a month down the line and you are taking less pain killers than ever, that’s an outcome you’ve achieved. In effect you’ve taken ownership of your disease and you’ve stopped being a slave to it. I hope you agree what I’m doing is not “cheating death”. Like the computer game Tiberium Sun, there is no “cheats”, my opponent has fought me to the brink, but I’m owning it, for now.

A couple of additional points

  1. Georgie and I watched the next episode of Grey’s anatomy, series 6 episode 1. It turns out Izzy actually survived her melanoma despite going into cardiac arrest (the heart stopping). An entirely implausible outcome… but that’s Hollywood. 
  2. Shout out to Sandeep. 

Of Summer

Georgie and I had been waiting a long time for this. Her holiday. Four weeks away from Leicester Medical School for her and hopefully a bit of time away from the Marsden for me. It seemed to be set up for us. My ALT (liver enzyme) was finally falling again. The bloods were repeated on Thursday 28th July and the trend continued. From the Marsden, Mum and I went for lunch and I went on to meet Georgie for a day out in Oxford. We started with some Chinese food and then a punt. We were punted (is that even a verb?) by a sixth form student. Later Georgie had her nails done; a big deal because she’s not allowed during placement. This was the perfect chance to do it.


From there our road trip continued to Marsh Baldon, to see Matt (my brother) and his girlfriend Alexia in their new house, for the first time, along with their cat Tom. I’d pre warned Georgie that he might be out and about, (she’s obsessed with cats), but fortunately he made some time for us during his busy schedule scaring birds and chasing rodents. Marsh Baldon is very English. The local pub where we went for a drink even had Morris Dancers and the village itself has the largest village green in Europe. It is verging on too big to the point where it almost looks like a field. Alexia cooked us all a great vegetarian lasagne and we finished the night playing bananagrams, a board game I describe as “Scrabble on acid”.


The next day we headed to Donnington Valley Spa Hotel, a very splendid place indeed and we got their Friday night deal. The leisure facilities were modern and the massage was good. The food was excellent and our stay ended with a pretty decent breakfast. After that we headed to Bristol to celebrate my mum’s 57th birthday at the Harvester. During the meal I was surprised to see Dave, Paul and Dad sweating around the table. They had all made the same mistake with the salad bar and put the extra hot sauce on their salad (which was meant for the chicken). Being male they insisted on carrying on despite their obvious discomfort.


In the evening we had an engagement party to attend for my old friend Olly who is marrying Kirsty. It was a brilliant evening, again a chance to see and catch up with old friends, reinforcing for me how glad I feel to have lived until wedding season. On the Sunday we headed down to Devon to see Tim and Roisin (my friends from medical school). Tim’s parents have a very amazing converted old farm and barn on the edge of Dartmoor. So old in fact it’s listed in the Domesday Book (1086). They literally reap what they sow and grow a lot of plants and look after animals including a large number of chickens living in Fort Chicken. When we arrived we walked around the grounds, petted the pigs Mabel and Brenda and spent the rest of the early evening in the fire heated hot tub and ended with a lovely meal. The next day the weather had changed and it was raining a lot, (a firm reminder of trudging through the rain on one of the many hikes I have done across Dartmoor, either for training or for the ‘Ten Tors Challenge’), so we all went to the Princetown Prison Museum. It’s a bleak place. The 200 year old Prison is right in the middle of the moor with it’s unpredictable rain and relentless fog. There was a very old video (90’s) of former prisoners. Having been on TV quite a bit now, I’ve started to get more into analysing video footage particularly documentaries, because Georgie and I watch loads of them. Apart from the footage looking obviously dated, it weirdly zoomed in on various body parts to hide the identity of the prisoners, however it chose things like hands on crotch and their left shoulders. Afterwards I filmed Georgie’s impression of this. After that we went to Tavistock to see the market and later on for a pub quiz. We came overwhelmingly last, as it was intended for an older age group, and all of us being medics means our knowledge is quite focused and we only excelled in the Science and Nature round.


Tuesday was our last day in Devon and I needed to have some blood tests to keep up the monitoring of my liver. This I felt would be a difficult task. However thankfully, Roisin had worked in Derriford A&E over the last year, and knew the people to talk to. She found someone willing to check the test, whisked me into the department and actually took my blood herself. I am very grateful to her and Tim who, after this detour, headed to North Wales to start their new jobs. Wednesday 3rd August, was the big doctor change over day. Georgie and I headed along the south coast stopping in Bournemouth, where we did the zip wire down from the pier to the sea. Then in the afternoon we cycled ten miles along the coast. The first five miles were very pleasant, and it felt like a very romantic date with the prevailing wind pushing us comfortably along. The second 5 miles i.e, the way back, was quite an endurance event and was the complete opposite. Overnight, we stayed in the Wessex Hotel which was rather tired and in need of refurbishment. On Thursday Georgie drove us back to London, stopping in the New Forest and Winchester on the way. The first stop was at Furzey Gardens “A haven of peace and tranquility in the heart of the New Forest”. It lived up to its name and we had to avoid the kids looking around for fairies. Georgie tried to make friends with the resident feline, it seemed to be enjoying it at first but quickly it became unrequited love. I’d heard good things about Winchester and I was suitably impressed. It’s lovely, full of medieval style architecture and decent cafes. We went to a very trendy vegetarian only cafe and had a stroll around.


Friday was a particularly great day. I had scans to go to. I met up with Dave prior to meeting up with Georgie (she’d gone to see her Dad who was recovering from a spinal operation). We met up afterwards, (having been told by email provisionally that the scans showed stable disease), I was ecstatic. Due to an ongoing cold, with each cough my scanxiety had built and therefore I was very pleased and relieved by this news. We went to eat at a Thai place, Rosa’s in Victoria which I’d highly recommend then cycled along the river. The next day we visited Kevin (Georgie’s Dad) again along with her Mum, Gillian. We arrived at 2pm to find he hadn’t been out of bed yet. After sorting him out a bit and helping him get up Georgie and I went to meet Vikki and Craig for a day out. We tried to go to a mini golf place called Swingers but it was full. Instead we cycled with our favourite former mayor nicknamed bikes to Shoreditch for food and to play table tennis at Bounce, a ping pong bar chain. It was girls vs boys and the competition was high. We ended at a diplomatic 2-2 on games then headed to free comedy in the Camden Head by Angel. It’s a good cheap night out and one I’d highly recommend. The comedy is usually very good, with the occasional act being a bit ropey especially if they’re a comedian just starting out. It started a few years ago just on a Thursday night, now it runs every night of the week. Also they have now bought a pub down the road from their normal home of the Camden Head, and just by chance they were using it on that Saturday to test it out before it formally opens in October. Fortunate, as we were too late to get a seat in its traditional venue round the corner.


The next day we arranged to meet Dave and Alice in the Four Thieves Pub in Clapham Junction. We had booked an Escape Room experience called Lady Chastity Reserve, this being my second and Georgie’s first. They are good fun and it’s an hour to get really engrossed in something as a team. You get locked in a room and you have to follow clues to get out in one hour. The storyline was intriguing and suitably difficult, albeit more clues would have been helpful as we were very close to completing it when the hour was up. The event was also mostly in the dark which got frustrating and having to find clues by torchlight added (I thought) an unnecessary layer of difficulty. The pub itself was a playground complete with a small mini golf course, table tennis tables, a remote controlled car race track etc. After getting a roast, (well it was Sunday), we headed to the race track, and by then Dave and Alice’s friends had arrived. Georgie guaranteed starting first by an exceptional bit of stupidity. She told the lady that she couldn’t do it because there were lamps in the way of the screen (just a scoreboard) . She responded “but you don’t really need that” followed by Georgie saying “I can’t see the track”. She actually said “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” then pointed to the big track and Georgie’s remote control car below and in front which she hadn’t even noticed. This conversation bore fruit though, because she was insistent that Georgie needed a helping hand and put her first. Overall she finished third and I a woeful seventh.


The next day we went to the Churchill War Rooms. It’s next to Downing Street and Georgie and I cycled there. It was good, although it had far too much information, requiring at least two visits to get it all in. However you quickly get a good feel of what Churchill was all about. We then went to a pub quiz in Leytonstone with Matt, Rachel, and Siobhan. Georgie and Matt collectively came up with a great Olympic themed drinking game which was thoroughly judged and gave us nine bonus points.


The following day we had clinic to attend to. Georgie, Dave, Mum and Dad came along with me. Prof. Gore and my Clinical Nurse Specialist Nikki were in good spirits. He started by asking me if I knew the results of the scans. Fortunately I did, otherwise his presence would have frightened me. In medicine you quickly realise that you mostly only see the boss when things are going wrong. This time it was good news (things were stable) and we discussed the plan for the next few weeks. A decision was made to reduce the steroids, to only monitor the liver enzymes and hopefully at some point to restart some combination therapy. An appointment was made to see them again a week later. We all celebrated with a meal at ASK restaurant. Alice joined us for this. The next day Olly and Kirsty came to see us in London, I met them at Victoria Station as I finished breakfast with my parents there only half an hour earlier. We spontaneously decided on a musical called Exposure. Georgie caught us up and the four of us watched it. All of us agreed that it wasn’t great; the plot was confused particularly in the second half, but it was entertaining and good value for money. From there we went to mini golf in Putney, conveniently located near the pub quiz we were going to later. Olly won and was particularly good, Georgie came second as I was expecting, she has a natural flare for sport and always beats me at mini golf, and Kirsty came last. The quiz was at the Queen Adelaide pub. It was the first time Georgie and I had been since her bout of sepsis (the day after her last visit). We came fifth and Dave and Alice turned up halfway through. I quickly caught up with the quiz master Tom who I’ve got to know a bit over the years, if their was a competition for the best pub quiz host, Tom would be hard to beat.


The morning after we headed down to the South Coast, stopping at Petersfield for a Thai meal and then on to Chichester, which is a truly fantastic place. It’s kind of got it all, an attractive section of canal, a city wall to walk around, a couple of museums, a bit of tourism and a university to keep it trendy. As well as this, it has a fancy high street, it’s near the sea and the South Downs. We had a walk around the walls, and stayed in the Premier Inn near the cathedral. The next day we visited Chichester Harbour which was a struggle to find, due to a lot of expensive properties blocking access to the sea. However the part we did see, was probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. Georgie’s flip flop broke, it was going to be hard for her to walk back, until I suggested tying my sock around it, with that she had the epiphany of putting the sock over the top. With sandal secure we walked back to the car. We then stopped at the Crown and Anchor pub for a late lunch, before meeting up with everyone else at the house in West Wittering. Abby and Tom were there when we arrived along with their baby Florence who was just about eleven months old. I would like to have a kid at some point but I know it’s completely impractical at the moment. It doesn’t help that Florence is a lovely little girl. We cooked fajitas and played Mafia. A lovely time at the beach and a round of crazy golf the next day was followed by a very competitive game of flip cup. Later on that evening we went to the beach and stared up into the night sky watching shooting stars. As the meteorites broke up in the upper atmosphere the whole night felt particularly magical. The weekend was finished off with another pub meal at the Crown and Anchor which overlooks Chichester harbour, so is justifiably expensive. After West Wittering we headed to Kent, to stay with Georgie’s parents. I’m pleased to say that Kevin was significantly better than a week before when I saw him post his spinal operation. A day later I headed to London for Pentamidine (the drug that if you remember went all over me the first time I had it), and a clinic appointment on Tuesday. Between these I played four matches of Squash against Dave and two of his friends. I beat Dave and Diaga.


Appointments over, I returned to Kent to celebrate, mostly Gillian’s (Georgie’s mum) birthday though we also noted my eighteen months of survival from diagnosis of stage 4 cancer. We went to an excellent restaurant in Royal Tunbridge Wells for a three course meal and a walk along the Pantiles, a great high street which has live Jazz every Thursday evening throughout the summer. I headed to Bristol the next day for the funeral of Andrew Manning, my friend James’ Dad. He made James’ wedding which was great but lung cancer took his life only a few weeks later. It was very poignant for me going to this. I could not help thinking ‘the next time I’m here in Westerleigh Crematorium better not be in a box’. The ceremony was moving, more religious than I expected, James did a very good speech and somehow kept it together.


On the way from Kent to London we stopped at Vikki and Craig’s flat, we got a takeaway and played “The Humming Game”, where you had to hum various famous songs. Having the musical talent similar to the the most delusional X Factor competitor you can think of, I was suitably bad. My mixture of humming and seal laughing left me woefully last but nonetheless very entertaining.


The following days found us back at the same pub quiz with Matt (Snowshill) and Layla, and also included a trip to Fulham Palace. At Fulham Palace, it was my turn to be the stupid one, whilst in the building, specifically the Fulham Palace museum, I asked Georgie where the palace was… not aware that I was in fact, inside it. Fulham Palace has very attractive grounds, it was an ideal place to hang out and it was a good cycle along the river for us, however the palace itself, as even the museum video points out, is not particularly impressive or grandiose. Hence why I didn’t realise I had walked into it.


We finished Georgie’s summer in style, with a trip to Center Parcs in Woburn Forest which is near Milton Keynes. It is very new, only two years old. This has the benefit of it being smaller, everything looking clean and new, and everything working. We had a room in the hotel with a kitchenette and self-catered all weekend. Along with having a lot of fun, I wanted to maintain the diet and exercise. The water slides there are the best I’ve been to in this country. The Twister literally did just that and had me turning on my face a couple of times, much to Georgie’s amusement when I got out at the bottom. The Tornado has a very large drop and the experience was made complete with Georgie doing a good impression of the shocked emoticon on the other side of the rubber raft to me.


We also started watching Grey’s Anatomy from where Georgie had left it years ago. This was at the end of series 5 and the episodes were from 2009. I wouldn’t usually tell you the precise year of a TV series, but in this case it’s important. Bizarrely, in the episode we began with, one of the main characters (Izzy) had just been diagnosed with stage four metastatic melanoma with tumours in the brain. Her brain tumour was symptomatic and giving her hallucinations. As Izzy is a young doctor with my diagnosis obviously it hit home. The difference however is that she was in America, where cancer treatment is notoriously aggressive (for dubious gain) and it was 2009. 2009 doesn’t seem that long ago, but shows the progress that has been made. Hopefully I can say this without seeming callous but part of me wanted her to die. I’ll explain. Early in the story arc she was told there was a five percent chance of survival, which was probably inaccurately high. She received extensive surgery, traditional chemotherapy (Dacarbazine) and interleukin-2. I was anticipating that she would survive, because it was for TV and if you judge the medical authenticity of Grey’s Anatomy’s by the quality of the actors’ chest compressions then it would be woefully inaccurate. The chest compressions really are terrible. However she did die after having a lot of unnecessary surgery, including taking out her hippocampus, the area of brain responsible for memory. So she had a few days longer alive but some of those days she had awful short term memory loss to the point where she kept repeating conversations. What is life if you cannot remember it? As the whole series is about surgeons Izzy elected to have the surgery after some debate with most of the characters, and her oncologist who didn’t want her to have the surgery but wanted her to wait for the IL-2 to work, like one of her ‘miracle patients’ that Izzy had got to know. The miracle patient actually died, as did Izzy. As sad as it was I wanted Izzy to die as that was a very much more likely outcome. Prior to Ipilimumab, IL-2 was used to manipulate the immune system to attack the cancer again. It worked well in a very small number of patients, and gave many patients a lot of side effects. I didn’t want the story to give patients false hope. It does however show how far cancer treatment has come in such a short space of time. It is also a reminder how futile persistent surgery is, fraught with potential side effects. Primarily it’s a waste of time, therefore I would recommend that most patients only go down this route after a very thorough discussion with their oncologists. We packed up the room at Center Parcs on bank holiday Monday, and headed to Leicester. I got the train to London in the evening. Neither of us were wanting the summer to end. But I had a 9am blood test to attend to the next day at the Marsden and Georgie was starting term . As I was walking from St. Pancras station to Dave and Alice’s flat, I thought to myself after months and months and a very difficult 2016, here I am very happy, and I feel 95 percent. Not bad considering I was at 1 percent at the end of 2015. Not bad at all.