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Don Watson

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Don Watson. I am from Ballarat in Western Victoria, aged 59. I was an ex Plant manager for a Componentry Plant in Ballarat and Project manager for apartments in Melbourne. I was retrenched from these positions once the company decided to part close the plant and leave the high rise apartments to our customers. So I decided to take a trip around Australia to start a new life. So I did and it  was a new life.

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

Well this is probably a little different to most people. I can recall it was the day I was in ICU at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne quite a few hours after surgery on my brain to remove a large melanoma on the left front of my brain. I came out fighting.

Brief background to set the story. I was travelling around Australia with my ex-partner. At that stage I can recall travelling from Ballarat up the west coast spending around 6 months in Broome casually driving a refrigerated van delivering to the local food outlets and local communities. Once the main holiday makers left Broome we headed towards Darwin. And probably that’s about all that I can remember apart from a few little things along the way.

I believe we travelled from Darwin to Alice Springs, Uluru where I like I climb the rock or tried to.  Can recall catching up with an old supply rep at Longreach or around that area but a little unsure. From there across to Hamilton Island and then up to Townsville to catch up with an old friend from Ballarat who I had known since I was a young school boy kicking the footy in the local streets. He has told me later that I wasn’t the same person that he knew. Not being able to put two words together during a conversation.

I then travelled up to the tip of Australia (I have the pictures) and returned to Cairns where I started a new job (I think) but could not pick up a pen on the 2nd day of work. I believe I spent the next few weeks just sleeping in my caravan until I received a phone call from my cousins husband Mark saying to be at the Cairns airport in 2 hours to pick him up. From there he brought me back to the Gold Coast to stay with them which I did, again I think. I was told by Mark that when I drove the car and caravan from Cairns I would only drive about 60KPH so after about 5 minutes he would take over and I would sleep. But I left there after about 6 weeks and drove to Echuca to another cousin’s home. Again can’t remember much, but I can recall going to the local doctor who sent me to the Echuca hospital for a CT scan. The next thing I can recall was getting onto an air ambulance to be flown to Melbourne.

Tell us about your treatment.

I had a Melanoma removed from my brain in January 2015 and then had a series of spot radiation at Peter Mac on a few small spots still left on the brain. I was then requested to have both MRI and PET scans every 3 months to follow up on my treatment. The first 3 months after the radiation I was given the all clear of melanoma in my body. I felt my life was improving. Then 3 months later they found another 5mm ball of melanoma on my left chest. Then after another set of scans in September 2015 they decided to remove the melanoma from my chest. The next set of scans where in late December 2015. Over that period of time on Christmas Eve 2015 I received a phone call from my oncologist that I needed to urgently start a combi of two drugs, Mekinist (Trametinib) (one per morning) and Dabrafenib (two per morning and two at night). I struggled through using these drugs but fell to the side effects having continual hot and cold fevers over a period of about 2 months. I was admitted to the Austin Hospital as I could not control the fevers. They generally happened of a night time but then was happening all day long. Didn’t really get any answers so I requested I be let out of the hospital and I would just keep struggling on. There was a forum at the Oliva Newton John Clinic the following week which I decided to attend. I made a lot of notes from each speaker which I found to be extremely helpful. But I decided to pick out 2 of the leading oncologists and approach them with my problems. The first doctor I spoke to said get off the medication to give your body a rest for a few days. If that helps then you will need to look at the amount of medication you are taking and the periods I was taking them. He told me talk to my oncologist and if you do not get a suitable answer then to call him. I then had a change of oncologists and he was straight on to it. I now am on one of the Mekinist (Trametinib) of a morning and one of the Dabrafenib both morning and night for 5 days then have a break over the weekend. I have continued on with my 3 monthly scans only to find a sign of melanoma in my Lymph glans under both of my arms (which now has disappeared), another growth on my left groin, a sign in my spleen and now some spots back of the brain where one is growing slowly but is stable but need to be watched.

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

It was basically my family who seemed to take things over after discussions with my surgeon. Due to the loss of memory for the previous 4 months he was concerned that I may come out of the operation with some high mental impairment such as not being able to speak, walk or would regain any memory. Due to the size of the melanoma, which virtually grow double in size from the first detection at the Echuca hospital to the day of the operation?  So there wasn’t much time and I did not know. I can remember talking to my doctor in Echuca and seeing on a computer screen a round blot on the brain but I cannot remember. I remember then getting onto the air ambulance and laying in the bed but nothing till I awoke in recovery for a few minutes. I recall nurses talking that two would stay back till I was able to go back to the ward. I had two of my brothers there at the Austin while I was being operated on. But they were not much good as they both hate anything to do with hospitals or doctors. It had to be decided who would take care of me either as a fit person or someone who would need care. At this stage I was fully unaware of all of this.

I am still living with one of my brothers and sister in-laws as they have a house that my room is in the back end of the house with my own bathroom and toilet. So I hope that it be the same for the future.

I am very unsure of my future as I have had many people I known personally that have passed on, many of those through MPA and personal friends who have all lost to a cancer or Melanoma. This would be my greatest concern. Not knowing if I will ever see my boys get married (they are career minded at present). Not to see a grandchild and the enjoyment from them as this has always been in the back of my mind of how I could play a part in their lives.

The other issues for my family and friends is that I am still alive (hard to explain) but I look fit and well. They do not see me on my bad days. I struggle to get out of bed, trying to go to sleep with massive headaches. You have to try to sit up in bed so to reduce these headaches. High blood pressure you say, yes that could be true but I keep a close check on this especially when I have these headaches but my readings are OK (not great but OK).

One of the biggest issues is the loss of friends due to my highly contagious disease as I have been asked “you are sure I will not catch it”. That’s where the friendship ends. I generally walk away without answering.

How has melanoma cancer affected your outlook on life?

It has affected me in many ways from my personal outlook on life to day to day life and being not able to control my life the way in which I controlled it to suit me. I was always a very active hardworking person to now a person who struggles a little with daily work. I went back to work after 10 months but found I was struggling each day and found I didn’t have the patience with people any more. I knew what had to be done but trying to get people to do it the correct way and not short cuts was hard for me to take.

My outlook at this stage is to plan ahead to do the things I want to do. I continue to plan trips away to places I have not been or lately back up to the Cape. It will not happen this year but I will plan it for next year. I have to plan around doctors, scans, tests and blood samples. I just feel I need to see the Cape as I have been there but it was during my memory loss so I just need to do it for myself to remember.

I worry about forgetting things as I know I leave my keys or phone and cannot find them. But it’s the places I leave them in, strange places or along the path I have just came or the worst I have them in my hand but still look for them. Ever one around my age, tell me they do it as well but coming for a 4 months of memory loss I worry myself.

Do you have a motto or personal mantra?

I suppose I have a few it depends on what the issue is.

GET IT CHECKED……  many people I talk to about this wonderful life threatening disease as they have a spot they are concerned about my answer is get it checked. Funny they keep saying I must do that but I know some have and the others maybe are still too scared.

I suppose my motto is “If I feel I need to do it then I will”.  This goes for things I would like to do or places I would like to go, if I need to then I will do it or go there. People are always concerned because I tell them what I’m planning to do or to go to. Can you get someone else to do it for you or they are just too scared to ask. I may have done the smallest of jobs hundreds of times before but they are concerned that I cannot do it now. Yes sometimes it takes me a little longer but it will get done. People get concerned about me going here and there and travelling around. One issue is that I feel they get concerned NOT for me but they might have to do something that will put them out. I love to travel and to see the things I have not been able to see before but I will get there. Even if it is by myself.

I’m happiest when…

I get the results of my scans or tests. This is always a trying time for many people with a melanoma or cancer. It’s the time you must wait. I know that it does take time to get your results but it is never easy. I take a digital recorder in with me to all my oncology meetings as at times you just tune out either because it was good news or bad news. I know I try to keep focus but if its good news you sometimes tune out or if its bad news you totally tune out. Yes take someone with you but I find they hone in on one part but cannot remember the other important parts. Or maybe I ask too many questions (yes I do have a page of questions to ask).

I am also extremely happy when you can talk to people who care and try to understand. Even if I have told them the same thing the last time we spoke. It is a big relief just to talk in general to them and they understand to a degree.

Also I’m happy when I can talk to others or those in a similar situation who are looking for “that” answer. We are all different in your melanoma diagnoses but the treatment is basically the same but we have all different outcomes or side effects.

I have just received my latest scan results showing that things are still stable. So there is another thing to make me happy until we fix my blood pressure that was OK but now is all over the place. But in the last 5 days I have had the high and low fevers again. These have laid me up for a few days. Generally they last two to three days but these have been intense so a phone call may be required.

Don provided his story to MPA in August 2017.

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