Cancer facing tough opponent

By Myles Edwards                 17 December 2007

November 2006, aged 64, Mel Edwards underwent a MRI scan for lower back pain.  45 minutes later he was diagnosed with Myeloma, an incurable but very treatable form of bone marrow cancer.  After numerous treatments and minor disruptions to work, 8 months later he was back to full-time work as a chartered road safety engineer and running over 20 miles per week.

On one hand, this is just one of many cancer survival stories but what makes Mel stand out is his positive attitude and dogged determination to get the best possible outcome from everything he does.  His reaction following the diagnosis typified these two personality traits.

Following the MRI scan, Dr. Frank Smith of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary asked Mel to view the result with him.  He identified a herniation of the lumbar 3 disc, but what concerned Dr. Smith greatly was the presence of white spots all over Mel’s skeletal frame.  “Those are malignancies, cancer” he said.  Much to Dr. Smith’s amazement, Mel said that his immediate reaction was not to be shocked but “I’ve got a big cross country race coming up soon.”

It is this attitude which has served Mel so well throughout his life and during the treatment.

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Mel Edwards

Born in Aberdeen on December 2nd, 1942, Mel graduated in Civil Engineering from Cambridge University and has enjoyed a great deal of success in the world of distance running.  Renowned for his training regimes of around 100miles per week, his Marathon personal best time of 2 hours 18 minutes 25 seconds would place him high up the British rankings of today.  In a running career which has spanned over 40 years, Mel has run over 100,000 miles and is a former Scottish international athlete at distances ranging from 6miles to Marathon.  He now coaches and advises athletes of all abilities.

Mel said: “It has not been too onerous to be fully back at work.  The only disruption was the main treatment in June and July.”

The treatment involved 4 weeks of isolation as high dose chemotherapy was administered to kill off malignant plasma cells in the blood and then transplantation of Mel’s own stem cells which had previously been harvested.

Mel ensured that he remained as physically and mentally active as possible during his stay in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.  He said: “During this time I was determined that I would not allow myself to get bored and succeeded in this although I was very keen to be released.  I returned to work the day after I left hospital.”

Mel’s eagerness to return to ‘normal’ life is evident in his work and running.  “Although running is not that easy (mainly due to Thalidomide drugs used during treatment), I am doing just under 20 miles of running a week.  This keeps fitness and ability to challenge myself physically on board.  As a human I feel 100%, as an athlete I feel 80%.”

Fraser Clyne, a close friend and former rival of Mel’s said: “Mel is so enthusiastic.  He was one of the toughest competitors of his generation, and I believe most of his success to be down to his determination to succeed at everything he encounters.”

Ellen Watters, Myeloma Information Nurse Specialist, Edinburgh, stressed the key role which an active lifestyle plays in terms of ‘prehabilitation’ and recovery.  She said: “Exercise helps to tone muscles which, in turn, support the bones.  This is vital when tackling bone marrow cancer”.

She said: “Athletes are generally more surprised when they hear the diagnosis, but they are typically more driven because of their desire to compete again following treatment.”

Although Mel may not fall into the first of those categories, he certainly epitomises the latter.  Whilst in hospital, he was continually, meticulously planning work, family and social events for after his release.

“By being totally positive I feel it makes things easier for others in their dealings with me.  They are not at all apprehensive about approaching me and discussing how I am doing”, he said.

Myeloma is a form of cancer arising from plasma cells, which are normally found in the bone marrow.  Each year, in the UK, more than 2,400 people die due to myeloma and around 3,800 people are diagnosed with myeloma.

Professor Mike Greaves, Head of the Medical School at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, identified the introduction of Thalidomide as a treatment in having a positive effect on Myeloma sufferers.  He said: “Myeloma one year survival rates have increased to over 85%, a 20% improvement on 2004.”

Myeloma incidence rates are on the rise.  Myeloma survival rates are on the rise.  These trends are most likely down to advances in diagnostics and an overall greater awareness of the disease.

Technology alone is not going to conquer Myeloma, nothing is.  But it is attitudes such as that of Mel Edwards which are going to give the disease the toughest of battles it is likely to ever come up against.

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