Peter Gourlay

MPA Patient Story - Peter Gourlay wearing glasses smiling

Tell us a little about yourself

Hello! I was born on April Fool’s Day 1952 and grew up in Cheltenham surrounded by market gardens, scrub and lots of adventure. Following school and university, I taught English for a dozen years in regional Victoria which I loved, but then it was time to try new things back in Melbourne, first at Family Planning Victoria and then at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. These days I’m a Civil Celebrant and feel honoured to meet so many people and share the significant moments in their lives.

I am a gay man and live with my partner Bernie in Elwood. We love where we live. Together we enjoy travel, cryptic crosswords, learning French, gym classes, long walks, movies, theatre and wine – all of which are best when enjoyed with friends and family!

When and how did you first find out you had melanoma?

My first encounter with melanoma was in 2014. My partner had noticed an unusual spot in the middle of my back where I would never have found it. I wasn’t too worried, but Bernie was insistent that I get my GP to check it out.

Like me, my GP wasn’t overly concerned but decided a biopsy was the safest course of action. Just as well, as it turned out to be an early shallow melanoma. A local surgeon performed a wider excision, and I began to have regular skin checks with a dermatologist. My surgeon and dermatologist also encouraged me to check my lymph glands regularly for any unusual lumps.

In 2017, as I was reading in bed, I discovered a suspicious lump under my right arm. I always thought any lump would feel like a pea, but this one felt more like a dried apricot! After a restless night, I couldn’t get to my GP fast enough the next morning.

Tell us about your treatment

My GP saw me immediately. She quickly arranged for some scans and referred me to a surgeon who removed and biopsied the lump. A diagnosis of melanoma was confirmed, and I was referred to Peter Mac for assessment and treatment of Stage 111b metastatic melanoma.

My first appointment was with my surgical oncologist who recommended a lymph node clearance from the right axilla. This was organised in the coming weeks, and very fortunately for me no further evidence of melanoma was found in any of the resected lymph nodes.

Following this surgery, I undertook a year of fortnightly immunotherapy infusions as adjuvant therapy to reduce the risk of any recurrence.

What challenges did you and your family and/or friends face after your diagnosis?

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge I faced was deciding whether to proceed with immunotherapy and how. Before and after surgery, my surgeon had described me as a “prime candidate” for an immunotherapy trial that was open at the time. So, when I first met with my oncologist, this is what we talked about.

But the more I learned about the trial, the more questions I had. On the one hand, I knew I wanted immunotherapy; a chance to reduce the risk of recurrence was a no brainer! But I also became increasingly aware of the risks and adverse events associated with at least one of the drugs being used in the trial. Deciding what to do was extremely stressful; it was a no-win situation that only compounded my diagnosis. My oncologist appreciated my dilemma and offered me, not only the latest research, but also his time and understanding. My partner was a critical part of this decision making. It was his shoulder I needed, as well as an extra pair of ears as I took it all in.

Eventually I found a way to self-fund my immunotherapy which allowed me to control which drug would be used. I will be forever appreciative of the support and sacrifice of my partner and mother that allowed me to make this privileged decision.

Tell us about your involvement with MPA

MPA has been an enormous support for me. I remember when I was first diagnosed, and especially as I was making the decision about whether to participate in the trial on offer, the team and resources at MPA were irreplaceable. The Melbourne Support Group offered understanding and friendly encouragement, and the volunteers provided insight, experience and a critical ear.

How has melanoma cancer affected your outlook on life?

It may seem strange to say, but melanoma has not been all bad for me. While it pulled me up in my tracks, it hasn’t stopped me. It was a jolt and created some tough moments, some of which I am still living with, but it has also created opportunities and a renewed approach to life. I have made new friends and learned a lot, and seen in practice how care and wellbeing can extend well beyond treating just an illness or disease. Friendships and positive environments can be truly therapeutic.

Today I am passionate about empowering and harnessing the patient voice and ensuring it is heard at all stages of treatment, research and policy development.

Do you have a motto or personal mantra?

To me, peace is not the goal but how you get there!

I’m happiest when…

I’m happiest on a balmy evening, when the freesias are in bloom, the lawn is mown, the linen is changed, the bread is baked, strangers smile, and friends and family are expected soon.

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