Every year around 200 adolescent and young adult (AYA) kiwis are told that they have cancer, with many treated at CCDHB. Navigating the complex and sometimes messy terrain of a cancer diagnosis is challenging for anyone, and it is especially so for young people who are just emerging into the independence of adulthood.
When you first meet James Depree his broad smile, cheeky sense of humour and observant wit, belies the major health struggle he’s faced.
At 23 he was suddenly diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. With tumours in his chest, a heavy collection under his left collar bone and a small spot on his spine, it was a bolt out of the blue to the incredibly fit and healthy young builder and personal trainer – “I do remember thinking, bugger!” he told us.
Exhaustive treatment followed with 6 months of chemotherapy flowing through his veins. Five months in to this he met his partner Tasmin, but she wasn’t at all phased by his diagnosis and has been by his side ever since.
While the initial chemotherapy worked on his lungs, the other tumours were more stubborn and a further round of chemo was necessary, along with stimulating, harvesting and transplanting his own STEM cells, which unfortunately also led to a nasty infection. Radiation followed to try and blitz the stubborn mass on his spine. But after a break of about 6 months James and his family were devastated to learn that the cancer had returned and was now aggressively invading his neck, lungs, liver and abdomen. “To be honest this was the worst I had felt in my life, hands down, case closed! The main issue was that I had exhausted all the chemo drugs that NZ had to offer.”
Just when things looked their bleakest, James was fortunate to be accepted in to a privately funded drug trial and received the first dose of this magic drug on his 26th birthday. After only three doses, they’d “… kicked the stowaway right overboard with a scan showing no visible signs of cancer. To say that we were ecstatic is an understatement. For the first time since being told ‘you have cancer’ I had no cancer and I can’t express the emotions of hope this brings forth.”
The only down side was that a further STEM cell transplant was needed, but this time instead of using his own cells they needed a donor. A match was eventually found in Germany during the first days of NZ’s Covid lockdown.
While everyone was optimistic that this treatment would put him in to full remission, sadly just before Christmas 2020 James was shocked to learn that the cancer had returned with further nodes appearing in his lung and abdomen. With characteristic determination James refused to let this setback upset his high octane Christmas plans to Skydive and Zip Line in Rotorua!
Fortunately, there is another treatment plan which involves James receiving a lymphocytes infusion from his German donor. This will stimulate graft vs host disease (GVHD) and hopefully cure the cancer once and for all, so that he and Tasmin can look forward to a much brighter future.
“Overall this situation changed my entire life. I had realised I defined myself as a man through my perceived actions of what a man was. Strong physically and emotionally, with the definition of strong meaning this is not an issue and I can do this alone! I quickly realized that cancer takes things from you. My freedom to do what I wanted like lift weights or more importantly who I thought I was and were I fit in society. Your ability to earn money and ‘progress’ in life.”
James is a remarkable young man who has met each new and evolving set of results, scans, biopsy’s and treatments with grace, grit and good/often black humour. Liz Sommer, AYA Cancer Specialist Nurse explained that “It is difficult to find words that fully capture the attitudes of these young people – resilient (yes, incredibly so), brave (in my view very, but I am often told by AYAs that they do not like being described like this!), dogged, determined, accepting, uncomplaining, hopeful and often still with an incredible capacity to continue looking out at the world to see how they can remain fully engaged despite their circumstances. Without doubt, every one of the many AYAs I have met over more than a decade now has left me feeling extraordinarily privileged and humbled to work alongside this unique and inspiring group of human beings.”
With our donors support the Foundation is privileged to fund Patient Record Books for all patients treated through the Wellington based Radiation, Oncology and Heamatology services.
Following a cancer diagnosis there can be an overwhelming number of appointments to keep track of, and this booklet assists patients like James to keep information from multiple people and health providers together in one place.
To further support the wonderful work of your hospital’s Blood and Cancer teams, please donate HERE.
We thank James for sharing his incredible story with us, and wish him all the very best.