Driving to work, it was one of those blissful days. The radio was blaring and I was singing along badly, thanking the universe for my wonderful life. I’d been married to my hubby, Scott, for 25 years and we had two beautiful daughters, Morgan, 19, and Remy, 16. To top it off, the sun was shining and the company director was taking me and my friend out for lunch.
Could it get any better? I thought, happily. But when I walked back to my desk that afternoon, something strange happened. When my colleague asked what I’d had to eat, I couldn’t answer.
‘I feel weird,’ I muttered.
The next thing I remember is opening my eyes and being surrounded by paramedics. I’d had a massive seizure and was rushed to hospital. Scott was by my side when I was given a brain scan.
‘You have a brain tumour,’ a doctor told us afterwards.
With that, everything began to spin. More tests showed the cancer had spread to my liver, lungs, pancreas and lymph nodes. This can’t be real, I thought. Just five days earlier I’d celebrated my 50th birthday with a party. I didn’t even feel ill. Back home, I broke the news to our precious girls.
‘I will do everything I can to fix this,’ I promised them.
After a biopsy, I was officially diagnosed with stage four, advanced metastatic melanoma.
‘There’s no cure for what you have Julie,’ a specialist said. ‘I’m very sorry.’
In a daze, I was given a brochure on palliative care – and a death sentence. In the car, I lost it.
‘Please don’t put me in the ground, I’m claustrophobic,’ I sobbed to Scott. ‘I want you to be happy, so you have my permission to meet someone else.’
Then something snapped inside me.
'I take that back!’ I said, with a renewed determination.
The thought of him, my favourite person in the universe, cosying up with another woman made me feel sicker than the cancer. I couldn’t let that happen. We decided not to tell the girls I was terminal. I was going to get through this. I had surgery to remove the tumour, then I began radiotherapy and chemo.
‘This will not change your life expectancy,’ the doctor warned.
I had nine months to live at the most. Refusing to accept it, I took up yoga and running.
‘I am happy and healthy and all my organs have healed,’ I sang out loud, as I pounded the streets.
I also made a vision board with pictures of places I planned to visit – and of kids playing, to represent my future grandchildren. It was a devastating blow when I was told I wasn’t eligible for any clinical trials in Australia. But I didn’t let that stop me and we scoured the internet for trials overseas.
One stood out from the others – an immunotherapy drug called PD-1. Unlike chemo, it only attacked the cancer cells, not the healthy ones. It had just a 38 per cent response rate, but to us, that was hope. The heart-wrenching downside was I’d have to move to America for two years.
Immediately, I called the nurse in charge, Daniel Jackson, and left a message. When he didn’t ring back, I called again, then Scott sent an email. Finally, Daniel phoned.
‘This is a very unusual situation,’ he said. ‘We’ve never had anyone applying from Australia before.’
He said he’d speak to the team and get back to us. But it wasn’t good news.
There would be a lot of complications for you to take part. Sorry we couldn’t help you, he wrote.
Well I wasn’t having that!
I can’t accept your decision, I fired back, begging him to reconsider. Desperate, I sent another.
I don’t have much time. Daniel, you are my only link to a chance at life.
I knew I was being annoying and pushy but I didn’t care. I was also aware it was emotional blackmail. I couldn’t make it easy for them to say no though! So I asked Scott to send one too. When Daniel replied, he told us the trial was at full capacity – they already had 70 patients. This time I phoned and left a message so Daniel could hear my voice.
‘It’s the serial pest from Australia,’ I said. ‘Please, I don’t take up much room.’
Eventually, the team agreed to look at my case files. And when they saw I was eligible, I was invited to take part. After three months of nagging, I was now patient 71.
In March 2013, Remy, Scott and I set off, while Morgan stayed home for work. At the Providence Cancer Centre in Portland, Oregon, I was introduced to Doctor Walter Urba, who was heading up the trial. He explained I’d have the drug every two weeks.
After a month, Scott flew home with Remy for her HSC exams. He then came back and forth and friends and family took turns visiting when I was alone. Thankfully, Scott was with me when Doctor Urba called with my first set of results.
‘You’ve responded,’ he said.
There was no guarantee the drug would keep working. But it did. My next scan showed all my tumours had shrunk. Six months on, they’d shrunk again.
It was the most amazing news, but it was torture being away from my family. So Scott sent another heartfelt letter – this time to the drug company, begging them to let me receive the treatment back home. A few weeks later, I cried with joy when they told me I could.
Five years on, I’m cancer free. I still have a monthly infusion of the drug, now known as Nivolumab. Due to its success it’s available in Australia. I’m so proud to be part of the science behind it.
I kept the promise I’d made to my daughters and I’ve written a book about my experience. Don’t wait for a death sentence to start living. I was given just months to live – look at me now.
A wife to Scott and a mum to Morgan and Remy – that’s all I wished for.
*Patient 71, by Julie Randall, is published by Hachette.
*You can find out more on Facebook, Julie Randall - Patient 71