Marc's Quest For Life - A New Approach To Cancer


I have a dear friend, Marc Garside. And unless a miracle happens, he is dying. But his illness — and his quest for life — have not been in vain. The epic rollercoaster of a journey he and his family have shared over the last year has been one that has touched many hearts and raised much needed awareness about Immunotherapy, an "alternative" cancer treatment that is having many successes where the outlook was otherwise hopeless and is changing the way we look at treating cancer.

"Immunotherapy is more than a new weapon in our armoury in the war against cancer. It is a whole new battle-plan." SMH

Marc and I sat at one of the local parks less than a year ago and while our daughters played together we chatted about how he was feeling about his impending test results that would indicate whether or not the cancer he had overcome years earlier had returned. He shared some of the frustrations he was experiencing with the medical system, such as how the oncologist had gone on holidays so he "just had to wait" an extra couple of weeks to get his results... and to think before our conversation I had been worried about a financial investment that we had lost...

The day came when he found out the heartbreaking news the cancer had returned and it was rampant. To hear the doctor tell him the news 'you might as well pack your bags because there is no hope' while not even looking up from his notepad and then told to make another appointment — only to have the secretary explain that the next appointment available was after his predicted D-day were just some of the examples of the gaping holes of emotional support given to Marc - and the majority of patients given such news. That afternoon as he picked up Willow from our home, while grappling with the news, Marc calmly explained to me that he wanted to do something about that, because after working with Petrea King, at the Quest For Life, he knew that emotions are just as important when it comes to treatment of illness.

Marc didn't pack his bags.

He had beat the odds once and so damn he was going to do everything in his power to do it again but this time the fight had to look different. If traditional treatments like chemotherapy and surgery were not going to heal the cancer, then after doing a mammoth amount of research, Skye and Marc decided they wanted to access Immunotherapy - a new approach to cancer that oncologists are calling the most promising in decades.

Immunotherapy works by triggering the immune system’s ability to seek out and destroy invaders, just like it does for other infections, but normally doesn't with cancer because of the healthy cells mutating to outsmart our built-in defences. So immunotherapy works by strengthening the bodies ability to fight cancer cells — it doesn't work on the cancer itself — which means the rest of the body remains intact unlike the horrific side-effects with chemotherapy.

"Killer T cells are actually restrained from targeting and destroying cancer cells, but by releasing this restraint, so-called checkpoint inhibitor drugs allow immune cells to attack the now exposed cancer cells–and not normal cells." TIME 

After years of testing and ongoing trials and treatments, now between 10 and 20 per cent of people treated with these immunotherapy drugs are having a complete disappearance of all tumours that can be seen on scans, with higher numbers with those treated with lymph or blood cancers. There is now significant financial backing, including a big chunk of the billion dollars being spent by the US government on their "moonshot program" but still the drugs are extremely expensive and spots in trials are limited and individual making treatments hard to come by. With a few very high profile cases of miraculous healing with immunotherapy getting the news out there, such as former US president Jimmy Carter and Australian production designer, Steven Jones-Evan there are questions about why it isn't more available and the ethical questions around pharmaceutical companies profiting billions of dollars last year from the immunotherapy drug Keytruda. Read SMH story, Fight Club, for a deeper insight and some fantastic video's into immunotherapy.

“I wanted to tell other patients, ‘I’ve had this miraculous response. You could possibly have it, too. You should be trying this.’ ”Jones-Evans

As it is only in stage two clinical trials here in Australia and is limited to who gets to access the trials, it meant Skye and Marc had to get to a clinic that is administering the treatment —  Germany has moved beyond the clinical trial stage and are actively administering these treatments and drugs in hospitals and private clinics. Many of the treatments are fully integrated and covered by the German national health system, which means that German nationals can access the treatment without cost. Yet since Marc is not German, the treatment was a hefty price and since they had used up all their saved funds the last cancer-face-off, this time they needed help.

Skye, also one of my closest friends, and I have been doing Brene Brown's work on the power of vulnerability... and never was there a time for her to be able to lean into this sometimes uncomfortable space by opening up to the greater community to ask for support and to explore the path less travelled.

While Marc did what he could to treat the cancer traditionally and went through a series of brutal chemotherapy treatments to buy time, they firstly set up an online outreach sharing their story and via the power of the internet, friends branched out to friends, who branched out to their friends — and they raised over $80, 000 and with each email and conversation, spread the word about the developments of Immunotherapy.

Then a group of parents from the school and Marc's friends met weekly to organise a mind-blowing gala event to raise the final needed funds to get them to Germany. This itself was such a bonding experience and through overcoming hurdles was a lesson in holding space for miracles, as everything from the insanely gorgeous space overlooking the opera house, to the drinks and food and auction items were donated. The whole Eastern suburbs of Sydney got behind the Garside's and their plight was shared in the state and local paper. Each time people spread the word for Marc, it meant the sharing hope, sharing the story of a community rallying behind a family, sharing the knowledge that there are other treatments out there — and with seven million people dying per year of cancer, we need to know about the possible avenues, because, frustratingly so, what works for one, doesn't work for all.

After lots of hard work and the rest of the money needed raised, it felt like a blink of an eye the Garside's were on a plane heading to Germany and we all crossed our fingers, preyed and hoped.

Sadly after three months and two Immunotherapy treatments, Skye Marc and Willow were forced to return two weeks ago due to Marc's health rapidly decreasing and needing more support. In Skye's own words,

"It is fair to say that the treatment in Germany did not work for Marc. Would it have worked had he got there earlier or been able to stay longer? It is impossible to say... maybe. Whilst there was never any guarantee, there was always well-founded hope; we know that it can work, because it did for our friend Kate who had stage IV brain cancer and is now cancer-free and thriving, 4 years after receiving dendritic cell therapy. But as the clinic in Germany shared with us, they still don't know why some people respond and others don't."

"...It is remarkable and a credit to Marc's determination and strength of mind that he has made it this far (seven years), blowing all of the medical professions expectations and predictions so far out of the water that he continues to amaze them with his constitution and positivity. By all accounts, he should be much sicker than he is, even now."

"...I too have shed many tears in the last two weeks as my nervous system readjusts from hope to acceptance and processes the grief that comes with that. Not that I am without hope, I am not and I will share more about that shortly. But hope has to have legs and there is a sense that, right now, there is nothing more to do, nowhere else to go. That the quest is no longer about life over death, but about finding peace with whatever is."

My heart breaks and tears flow at what my friends are going through but it swells with pride at seeing the courage Marc, Skye and Willow have shown with the cards that have been dealt. I share their story because we all know someone who is suffering with cancer — and while Immunotherapy didn't cure Marc, it may help them.

And because the bravery they showed by reaching out may have not given them what we all hoped for - Marc's health — but it has shown me what is possible when we come together for a common cause and the gift of love that flows both ways when we are able to let our barriers down and receive.

"Hope now is that we can go through this — not over it, not under it — with as much peace and grace as we possibly can." Skye