Melanoma trial offers hope for beloved stock and station agent

Given only months to live

In January 2021, John Robson was celebrating his 60th birthday. Looking at the friendly faces around the tables, he reflected on his beautiful family, the strength of his burgeoning business, the most amazing people he had around him and his health. But less than two months later, John would be facing a very different reality after being diagnosed with stage IV melanoma.

John’s melanoma story began in 2014 when he had a melanoma removed from his arm. Following his surgery, John was diligent with skin checks and took extra care in the sun. As a stock and station agent, John spent a lot of time outdoors, moving sheep and cattle, inspecting properties, and building relationships with sellers and buyers.

Aside from some additional vigilance, John didn’t give his melanoma too much thought as he went about his life. He was busy growing his own stock and station agency. Seven years later, in March 2021, John noticed a huge lump in his armpit that was quickly confirmed as stage IV melanoma, with tumours having spread to his lungs, liver, chest and lymph glands.

“My father was diagnosed with cancer at age 60 and was awaiting the birth of three grandchildren at the time. He passed away from his cancer just four years later, so when I was diagnosed at 60, it felt like history cruelly repeating. My first grandchild was also due but my prognosis was much shorter at only two to six months. Hearing that I had melanoma just took the wind out of me. I had to take out my phone to record everything the doctor said for future reference, because I was in total shock.”

Innovative trial offers chance at survival

After breaking this devastating news, John’s doctor presented him with an opportunity that would change not only his prognosis, but his life. John was eligible to participate in the CHARLI trial: an innovative project testing the addition of a new treatment in addition to standard immunotherapies.

“He was very upfront about it, which was quite comforting. He said if this was even a couple years ago, I wouldn’t have any real options given the extent of the metastasis. But I now had an opportunity for a chance at a longer life – at survival. And even if it was a slight chance, I knew I had to take it.”  

Accessing treatment close to home in regional Victoria

Living in Kyneton, in regional Victoria, John was thrilled to hear there was a clinical trial site in the neighbouring hub of Bendigo where he had previously lived, meaning he wouldn’t have to travel to Melbourne for treatment. And given the awful side effects he experienced, that proximity became integral.

“I had every ‘-itis’ under the sun. I was recommended a double treatment, so the side-effects scaled up too. I’d never taken a sick day in 30 years, so I kept working through it when I probably shouldn’t have because I didn’t know if I would ever be able to work again. Then one winter’s night I was pushing cattle into a paddock and my body started giving out. I thought ‘John, you’ve been given another chance here – what good is that if you work yourself to death.’ So I made the call then and there.”   

As bad as the physical side effects were, the emotional trauma of selling his beloved business was one of the most difficult parts of John’s journey.  

“I was convinced to have a retirement party. It was such a horrible thing to go through that I didn’t want to make a song and dance about it, but I eventually relented. In the end over 150 clients, friends and locals turned up to see me off. That was incredibly moving and made me appreciate that there’s more to my job than just the work – it’s the human connection.”

The battle isn’t over, but tests show an improvement

It’s been over two years since John was given just months to live. And while the side-effects of the treatment may have knocked him around, his latest tests have shown a definite improvement.  

“It’s been a rough time but I’m still here, spending time with my family and making the most of every day. One thing that struck me through it all was the empathy of everyone in our medical system. From the nurse who held my hand while I was having seven huge biopsies in my underarm; the oncologist who called me at 6.30pm on the Friday night of a long weekend just to put my mind at ease with good news before a long weekend; to Dr Sam Harris from Bendigo Health whose honesty and care let me know I’m in the best hands possible, and all the doctors and nurses along the way, it all made such a huge difference. And just as I’m here today because people like my father took part in clinical trials, I hope that this trial can help future generations get more time with their loved ones.”

Learn more about the CHARLI trial, which is now in the follow-up phase.

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