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Trish McDonald


Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Trish Mcdonald and you guessed it, I have a Scottish/English heritage which I feel has contributed to me having the BRAF Gene as melanoma runs across my father’s Scottish side. I currently reside in Spreyton Tasmania, along with my husband of 25yrs.  I have two wonderful children, a son and daughter, aged 17 and 21.  My background is in business management and sales which morphed into business/retail teaching.  In 2013 I completed my Diploma of Counselling, before returning to University where I completed my Bachelor of Social Work.  After successfully finishing my degree I am now working for Alzheimer’s Australia Tasmania, where I assist and support persons impacted or diagnosed with dementia (terminal illness).

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

I was first diagnosed with melanoma at twenty-two years of age, Clarke level II..  There were several operations and due to its location on my neck the last surgery included a flap that extended from well above my ear to halfway down my neck (126 stitches).  The dermatologist stated in a letter to my GP “The location of the nodular/superficial melanoma and Patricia’s young age, regrettably make this a poor prognosis”.  Although upset and terrified of the sun I just got on with life, however it was always in the back of my mind.

Twenty-eight years later, I repeatedly went to my doctor stating something very was wrong, although nothing in my bloods indicated a problem.  I was totally exhausted and had severe intermittent upper abdominal pain.  At my insistence CT’s and scans where eventually undertaken, though dismissed as just sludge in my gallbladder.  After my third presentation to the hospital for excruciating pain, emergency surgery was performed, removing my gallbladder.  A week later I was given the news that a large polypoid melanoma tumour was found in my gallbladder and had penetrated the walls and had external blood supply . It had also grown through the biliary duct.  I was very grateful the tumour had been removed though the grim demeanour of the specialist seemed at odds with my relief.  I was blissfully unaware the problem the melanoma tumour presented, nor did I understand that by removing the tumour now made me ineligible for any of the new immunotherapy trials just coming out.  Deemed Stage IV Metastatic Melanoma (systematic – travelled through my blood), I sought the opinions of four cancer specialists to see if anything could be done.  Sadly I was told my life expectancy was as little as three months to a year.  Nothing they could do, just told to go home, prepare my children and get my affairs in order, along with the statement I learned to hate “Just make the most out of every day”.

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

At first I did not want to tell anyone not even my extended family or any friends.  I had just accepted a new fulltime job a month prior to my diagnosis which I started five days after been diagnosis.  I gave my new boss the option of reneging on the contract, though I still had hope that the referrals to Melbourne Cancer Clinic and a top melanoma specialist from the UK may be able to assist me being accepted into any of the new trials.  Sadly nothing was available.  The emergency surgery that saved my life now prevented me having any further treatment.  Oncologists were at a loss, stating there was nothing they could do other than to study, screen and test me.  Melanoma in the gallbladder is quite rare in a “living person” (normally found only in autopsies) so oncologists were very enthusiastic to study my progression for science.  I have been written up in Medical Journals with my CT and Ultrasounds now used as training tools to teach radiologists how melanoma tumours present in the gallbladder.  Although pleased I will help science it was of very little comfort to me.

My core values, beliefs and my faith all were questioned as I came to terms with the knowledge I would not see my children grow up.  I dutifully prepared my Will, funeral, EG, POA and started preparing my children for my impending death.  It was terribly hard emotionally but also mentally in preparing myself and my family.  It was not preparing for my impending death but assisting them to live their life without me, teaching my husband the finances and preparing our 11 and 15 year old children to be resilient.  Just shy of a year and still alive, my family and I took off on a four week Europe holiday much to the horror of the oncologists at the Melbourne Cancer Clinic.  Oncologists were adamant I could not go, not only for my health but the strong possibility of being financially ruined should I became unwell overseas.  I quoted back their words…’I’m making the most out of every day’.

How has melanoma cancer affected your outlook on life?

Being stage IV systemic melanoma has been tough; living in limbo and feeling isolated from the medical model of care and treatment.  I felt very much alone and because I have been tested extensively, I often felt more like a scientific experiment rather than a person living with stage IV cancer.  Melanoma has changed my life, my direction and although I would have preferred not to have had it, it has given me a new appreciation of life.  I have also gained an appreciation for my life long auto-immune disease Crohn’s Colitis, as oncologists believe this has contributed significantly to my survival to date, due to the over-activity of my immune system.

I have always been a person that have supported people going through tough times and volunteered for many Not-for-Profit organisations.  However since my diagnosis I now offer support and education for our local community.  Together with my local skin doctor, I developed a Skin Cancer Awareness and Prevention program that I have delivered to local communities and councils across top end of Tasmania and Melbourne.  I opened up my garden, Rockhaven Relaxation Garden, free to people and their families affected by melanoma offering support, meditation and more importantly HOPE . I hope that one day I will open my own counselling practice, fully funded by Medicare to support those affected by cancer.

Do you have a motto or personal mantra?

My motto is, “Never believe what others envisage for you, you are unique and as such write your own story”.

I’m happiest when…

I am with my family, working on my 2.5 acre garden/vegie patch and supporting people.

Trish provided her story to MPA in August 2017.

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