Bring me sunshine! Living with a Melanoma called Melvyn
Guest Writer, Harmer Parr, provides an update on his adventures with Melvyn the Melanoma, since his last article for our website in 2019.
‘In 2017, he’d come back for a third visit, seemingly on a ten-year orbit. This visit was my invitation to the departure lounge, as he’d sprinkled his stardust into a couple more locations. Life expectancy seemed to be about 18 months. Time for a coffee or two, at least, before heading for the exit. Perhaps even a Danish pastry …’
Two years ago, I wrote an article for this website about my adventures with Melvyn the Melanoma. In 2017, he’d come back for a third visit, seemingly on a ten-year orbit. This visit was my invitation to the departure lounge, as he’d sprinkled his stardust into a couple more locations. Life expectancy seemed to be about 18 months. Time for a coffee or two, at least, before heading for the exit. Perhaps even a Danish pastry.
I’d had nearly two years of treatment when I wrote the article, in July 2019. The first treatment didn’t please my liver at all. I was introduced to a character called Billy Rubin, whose readings in the blood tests went off the scale while I turned bright yellow. After a three-month break in treatment, I was introduced to Liz, aka pembrolizumab, infused at
three-weekly intervals. This seemed to work so well that, just before writing the article, I was invited to join the Dante project, where half of the participants, me included, stopped treatment altogether. A set of scans and a blood test, initially every three months, now every six, with results by telephone, removes the need to plan ways of getting a parking space at the hospital. So it seems, so far, that my immune system has learned to keep my tumours ‘stable’. In summary, I am at present strong and stable, which is working a whole lot better for me than it did for Theresa May.
The title above is not, as you may think, a comment on the British summer, although obviously it could be. It is more the result of listening to readings from the biography of Morecombe and Wise on Radio 4, and reflecting thereon. The reflection was also stimulated by reading Bill Bryson’s excellent book ‘the Body’, and finding a reference to the fact that
fitness and a positive attitude can be as effective at keeping cancer at bay or preventing its spread than many actual treatments. Now I’m pretty naïve, but no, I don’t think that those factors on their own will surround me in a protective suit, or that they necessarily would protect others in a worse position than me, but I’m at least convinced that they can’t hurt.
Anyway, it suits me, more by luck than judgement. In 1968 I was at school in France for six months before going up to university. In my first philosophy lesson, I found that the class had been doing a questionnaire designed to sort their character into broad categories. Back then, France really was a different country, with clothes, cars and street furniture not yet homogenised into European sameness. I was therefore of particular interest to the class as a representative from the planet Zog. How would my results compare with theirs? Completing a questionnaire surrounded by an excited crowd does not pass many of the tests for scientific objectivity, but the result was nonetheless sobering: I was ‘apathique’, apathetic. If self-esteem had been invented then mine would have been lower than a snake’s belly.
I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on this finding, which certainly has a grain of truth. I’m often described as ‘laid back’. I can live with that, obviously because it’s not, per se, pejorative. But if you look at the same set of facts through a different window, I suppose you might choose apathetic or another less favourable adjective. I certainly do find it hard
to worry, and I do see the funny side of most things. Those two factors, when put together, potentially make me an ideal cancer patient, particularly when combined with the philosophy I started to learn in France and have continued to dip into ever since. We strut and fret our hour upon the stage then are no more, as Shakespeare put it. Had he been alive today, he might have said ‘it is what it is’, which would have been much less memorable. We can regret this bleak fact, but there really is no point in worrying about it.
Of course, it’s all very unfair. We get dealt very different hands in life, and just getting through is much harder for some people than for others. I’m at the lucky end of the spectrum. I’ve always loved sport and been an active fitness fanatic, and it emerges that that is almost certainly an advantage in battling cancer, or at least my version of it. Many people would be faced with a choice when asked what is the worst thing that ever happened to them. I’m not. My brother David was killed on the last night of the Falklands War, aged 19. That was easily the worst experience of my life. This tragedy has made me feel that any years I’m having beyond 19 are a bonus. In terms of the cancer I have, it makes
it easier to think ‘why not me?’ than ‘why me?’. Most of the time I’ve been a lucky devil. Even with the cancer, as I’m now well beyond the projected 18 months.
I’m conscious that all this may not be much help to anyone else. Reaction to cancer is a personal thing. I’m also conscious it sounds very smug, and those whose suffering is much worse than mine will be spitting into their muesli. But the point is that you can only play the hand you’ve been dealt, and map your own way through. Bringing a little sunshine to your own life and, with luck, to that of others is surely the best policy wherever you can manage it. As we say in Norfolk: ‘yew hetta larrf, if yew can’. Even through gritted teeth. Bring a little sunshine, in fact.
About Harmer Parr
Harmer is a former teacher and Ofsted inspector. During his time at Ofsted, he held national responsibility for the development and quality assurance of school inspections, and for leading the work on assessing the impact of Ofsted on the education system. His first blog can be read here on our website.