Wednesday, 30 April 2014

My Toughest Event - Master Swimmer Barry Young talks about his battle with Melanoma

First Signs

2009 started out as a really good year.  I turned 70 in January and immediately got stuck into breaking some records in the new age group. At the World Masters Games in Sydney I broke four world records and although FINA refused to recognize records broken at those games – even though they were swum under FINA rules – it was a sign of things to come.  By the end of that year I had broken 13 world records and held every long course New Zealand Masters record in every stroke in my age group.

The first signs of the bad news came in December 2009 when I noticed that an old mole on my left thigh had changed colour at the edges. That’s all it did, it just became slightly reddish around the edges.  It grew no bigger, it did not change shape nor did it become thicker. The mole itself was about 5mm in diameter – quite small - about the same diameter as the eraser on the end of a pencil.

I made an appointment to see my G.P. and he immediately cut the mole out and sent it off for a biopsy. The results were bad.  It was a melanoma.  There are two ways of “grading” the seriousness of a melanoma mole, one is by giving it a number on the Clark scale of 1 to 5 – mine was a 4.  The other is to measure the depth the melanoma extends below the skin surface – mine was 1.9 mm deep.  The higher your Clark number and the deeper the melanoma, the worse your prognosis is and the harder it is to win the battle against the disease.  They can also get some idea of just how rapidly the cancer cells are dividing (multiplying) by identifying newly divided cells.  This is known as the Mitotic count – mine was 23. Typical counts were 5 or 6 and I was told mine was “off the scale”! Not good.

My G.P. sent me off to see a Surgical Oncologist at the Melanoma Unit and he decided, as a precaution, to remove an even larger area of flesh from around the original mole site – a wide area excision.  This involved an overnight stay in hospital in January 2010 and left me with a 17 cm. scar extending from my left knee towards my groin.  My wound healed well and I was soon back to my daily training sessions.  The follow-up visit to the surgeon went well so I just assumed I had had a close shave and resumed my life - with no changes to my diet, work-load or exercise regime.  I assumed that all the cancer cells had been removed and that I had nothing to worry about.  I was told nothing different.

In September 2010, with the help of NZ Masters Swimming and the North Shore Masters Swimming Club, Suzanne and I flew to Dallas, Texas for my induction into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame. It was a great honour for me and for NZ Masters Swimming to be the first Kiwi swimmer to be inducted. Danyon Loader is in the open section – the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Round Two

In July 2012, almost exactly two and a half years after that last operation, I noticed a small lump in the Lymph node in my left groin.  I visited the surgeon who took a sample with a needle and sent it off for a biopsy.  Bad news again.  The melanoma was back and had spread to that lymph node and possibly beyond.  The next step was to have a whole body Pet CT scan to see how far the cancer had spread.   To do the scan I was given an injection of radio-active sugar.  Cancer cells love sugar and the scanner detects the “hot spots” in the body where the sugar accumulates.  The scan showed three tumours on my left side: one in the thigh, one in the groin and one inside my pelvic cavity.  The tumour in my pelvic cavity had spread out of the lymph node into the surrounding area. The scan also showed inflammation in my liver and lungs but fortunately further scans showed no tumours there.

On the 18 September 2012 I was operated on to remove the three tumours and my lymph system was removed on that side. My new half-meter long scar was impressive.  It extended from my lower chest to my left knee.  This time I was in hospital for a week and my recovery was a lot slower.  It was two months before I could walk and swim properly.

I was advised by the surgeon and a radiation oncologist to begin radiation treatment as soon as possible after the operation, in an attempt to kill off any remaining cancer cells. So, in mid November daily doses of radiation began. These continued for six weeks until Christmas by which time the radiation burns on my torso and leg made walking difficult and swimming impossible because of the risk of infection.

Healing

At one of my post-operative checkups, I asked my surgeon what I could do to help prevent the cancer from returning for a second time. “Nothing – just go and lead a healthy life.”  he said.  I was not comfortable with this advice.  My lifestyle was already about as healthy as it could be.  I have never smoked or drank and thought I was one of the healthiest seventy year olds on the planet. But I now felt that there must be some way I could make some contribution towards my own future health.  So I went to see another specialist and asked him the same question. His reply was even more emphatic! “There is nothing you can do to change the progression of your disease – except that, on the negative side, you should not smoke or drink alcohol.”

Clearly, the medical profession did not believe that lifestyle (diet, exercise, state of mind) had any effect on the control or prevention of cancer.  I was amazed. I felt helpless.  It sounded as though I should simply carry on as before and wait for the cancer to return again, or at best, hope that it stayed away.

At that time I knew very little about cancer as a disease so I set about reading everything I could get my hands on in an attempt to better understand just what I was dealing with.  I was determined to do everything I could to prevent the melanoma from taking hold again.

The Gawler Foundation

Fortunately, at about this time I was introduced to a young mother who was the daughter of family friends. She had melanoma – also originating from a mole on her left thigh – and had managed to prevent it from coming back, in part, by completely changing her lifestyle.  She had been cancer free for sixteen years.  She gave us several books to read and suggested that my wife and I attend an eleven day live-in course at the Gawler Foundation in the Yarra Valley just outside Melbourne.  

Attending that course was one of the best things I have ever done.  It was quite literally life changing. For eleven days the 26 attendees – made up of cancer patients like myself, their partners and caregivers - were taught everything we needed to know about our disease and what we could do to help conquer it.  The people at the Gawler Foundation were amazing.  We were shown how to prepare and cook the plant-based meals we ate every day. We were shown how to meditate - how to relax our minds and bodies.  We were taken on regular bush walks through the beautiful grounds and we were taught Qi Gong (pronounced “chi gung”), an ancient Chinese breathing exercise. We were never given false hope, nor were we promised a miraculous cure. What we were given was a clear set of guidelines aimed at keeping us as healthy as possible so as to give each of us the best possible chance of remaining alive.  But perhaps the greatest gift I received from that course was the companionship and encouragement of the other participants. 

We learned that cancer cells love refined sugar and salt.  Cancers are anaerobic – they don’t need or like oxygen. Cancers like an acidic body and they like inflammation. Meat is acidic as it decomposes and passes through the intestines. With a few simple lifestyle changes, you can make your body an uninviting place for cancers to grow or develop.  Everyone has some cancer cells in their body so you also need to keep your immune system in tip-top shape so that it can deal with any cancer cells which it comes across.  The Gawler course taught us how to do all of this.  At no time did the Gawler Foundation suggest that these changes to lifestyle should be made instead of medical treatment. They are all changes you can make to complement the normal treatments. It all made such good sense to my wife Suzanne and I, and that was reason enough for us to give it a go.   

On our return to New Zealand we adopted the Gawler diet and lifestyle completely.  It is not easy to make a plant based, whole foods diet taste good.  Suzanne spent weeks researching and trying out various herbs, spices and vegetables.  My job was to eat everything she prepared for me.

I think the greatest triumph of the Gawler course is not so much the end result, but that it gives cancer patients the knowledge and skills needed to take control of their lives again. 

Round Three

In December 2013, four years after the removal of the mole and just over a year after my last operation, I
went for an eyesight test for my driving licence renewal. This revealed that I had lost some peripheral vision in my right eye.  I passed the test but was advised to have an MRI scan of my brain.  Two brain tumours showed up on the scan.  The melanoma was back – big time!  A whole body Pet CT scan showed the two brain tumours and, in addition, another three tumours in my back and torso.

The larger of the two brain tumours was surgically removed in Auckland City Hospital on New Years eve 2014 and I was discharged on 4 January. The surgeon and hospital staff all commented on my rapid recovery and healing and said it was due to my swimming fitness.  Six weeks later, at the annual Cambridge long course meet I broke five New Zealand records in my new 75 – 79 year age group and was beginning to feel good again.
The smaller brain tumour was deeper in the brain and was dealt with by a series of ten radiation sessions.  The radiation oncologist advised me to keep swimming throughout all of this, so every day I would swim 3.5km in the sea along the line of yellow buoys at the Takapuna beach.  I was told not to swim alone because of the risk of a brain seizure so every day one or more (some days all) of my swimming buddies would accompany me.  These master swimmers: Robert Redford, Russell Jones, Janusz Kordonski and Ian Gunthorpe represented the true spirit of masters swimming in the way they supported and encouraged me through the last four years. My son Chris swam with me whenever he could do so, so I was pretty much guaranteed a companion every day.

So, what have I learned from my experience so far and more importantly, what can I pass on to you readers to prevent you from repeating my journey?  Swimmers are prone to skin cancers simply because we spend a lot of time in the sun and because we live in New Zealand, the melanoma capital of the world.  We all need to be particularly careful to cover up as much as possible when out and about, wear a good sun block and have your skin checked regularly.  Like most cancers, if you can catch it early, there is a good chance you can beat it.

Next week-end is the King of the Bays race from Milford to Takapuna.  It is also the NZ Masters Open Water Champs.  These days I am never sure whether my next event is also going to be my last,  so you can be sure that I will be giving it my best shot.

April 2014


Barry completed the King of the Bays in 47.59 and finished 2nd in his age group.  Well done Barry you are an inspiration to us all!

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