An intrepid explorer embarks on his biggest journey

John Mason spent much of his life outside in the sun, including 13 years of constant fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and then a decade living on a cruising yacht in sunny Queensland and the Northern Territory. When his doctor found a malignant tumour below his left ear, John felt that removal and recovery would be a routine process.

A month after having the lump surgically removed, John, aged 72, made the long journey from his home in regional Bundaberg to Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, where he was scheduled to begin chemotherapy.

But when a doctor John had never seen before sombrely ushered him into a small consultation room, he realised something was wrong.  

Merkel cell carcinoma - a rare form of skin cancer

“The doctor told me that I had a Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer. I had never heard of it before, so – still reeling from the shock of the diagnosis – I asked what the survival rate was. He looked me square in the eyes and said earnestly “Frankly, the numbers aren’t good, John.’’

The doctor who saw John that morning was Dr Wen Xu, head of the Australasian Merkel Cell Carcinoma Interest Group (AMIGOs) and Study Chair of a new clinical trial investigating a promising new treatment involving the immunotherapy drug, Avelumab, in earlier stages of Merkel cell carcinoma.

“When Dr Xu told me about this exciting new clinical trial that he was leading, I could hardly believe it. Not only would I get free access to an otherwise prohibitively expensive treatment, but I’d get regular monitoring and support. In the space of minutes, I’d gone from the crushing low of my diagnosis to realising how lucky I was to meet Dr Xu and receive the treatment that I’m getting.”

Immunotherapy drug trial offered in regional town

After a few formalities were completed, John was soon enrolled in the I-MAT trial and, after a course of radiotherapy, commenced immunotherapy.

John was able to receive the treatment in Bundaberg, as the I-MAT trial has several regional sites to ensure more Australians can take part in the trial.

 “I was so grateful that I didn’t need to travel to Brisbane for immunotherapy, as that would have been a huge complication. When you are going through something as stressful as a cancer diagnosis, you just want a bit of normality: to stay in your own home, spend time with your loved ones, that sort of thing. Being able to access the treatment locally has been hugely positive for me.”

An incredible support team and inspirational heroes

John tolerated the trial treatment well, experiencing very few side-effects. Now, having finished the treatment, he is focused on completing the PhD he commenced before his diagnosis. John is researching sustainability issues amongst volunteer firefighters.

“I’ve long been intrigued by what motivates these local heroes to put their lives on the line, and through my treatment I’ve had the opportunity to meet some other inspirational heroes. From Dr Xu through to everyone at Genesis Care and Cancer Care in Bundaberg, and knowing I am in the best possible hands at every step has made the journey easier.

“Most importantly, I’d encourage everyone to be more careful in the sun. I certainly wasn’t careful enough and it’s caught up with me. But if you do get a bad diagnosis or a scary prognosis, it doesn’t have to be the end – and thanks to modern medicine and research, it can actually be a new beginning. Hold fast, be brave, and have faith in the skills of the incredible health professionals assisting you.”

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