Georgina’s Tribute to Neil – 22 July 2021

I met Neil on 6 December 2017 when he came to see me at Melanoma Institute Australia.  Days like that I never forget – a young 44 year old man at the prime of his life doing well in his career, diagnosed with what we called Stage III melanoma. It had not spread beyond a nearby lymph node from the primary skin site, but there were features of the melanoma that, as his Medical Oncologist, gave me great cause for concern.  It was aggressive under the microscope. 

Our goal together was to eradicate the melanoma early with a state of the art clinical trial of the very best treatment at Melanoma Institute – what we call combined immunotherapy. This drug therapy has been a penicillin moment in the history of cancer and has cured so many with melanoma.  But for all the success we have had in our research with melanoma and eradicating it, in approximately 30% of people,  it has very little or no impact.  This is where our team at Melanoma Institute has focussed our energies, and not just in the clinic and clinical trials but also in the laboratory. Regrettably this 30% of people who are not helped by our modern drug therapies tend to be young, fit and in the prime of their lives.  Melanoma does not discriminate – it is the most common cancer in young people in Australia. 

Neil spent the next three and a half years being treated under my care at Melanoma Institute Australia, battling melanoma in some shape or form with Sonia at his side. Neil explored every possible option.  He was resilient. He was persistent. He quite rightly and appropriately approached this as a problem that would be solved. Our whole team worked with Neil and Sonia tirelessly towards that very same goal. Neil’s attitude inspired us all. It continues to inspire us now.

There were times during his journey where in exploring all options possible Neil paid thousands of dollars to access a drug that had not been approved for melanoma but had some clinical trial data in humans to show it had a chance of working. Unfortunately this is not an option for every Australian and Neil was well aware of this. In the ultimate act of strength and resilience Neil and Sonia spoke with me in his final days about his wish to set up a foundation.  On several occasions he had remarked how fortunate he felt that he was able to access novel drug treatments because he had the resources. It was incredibly inspiring and most appropriate when Neil said he wanted to raise money to give patients who cannot afford it – access to expensive novel drug treatments – so that they too can have a chance. 

Both Sonia and Neil were gracious, and although the drugs may not have worked in him, he was hopeful that someone down the track in his position may actually benefit. At Melanoma Institute Australia, our goal is a simple one – zero deaths from melanoma.  We are clearly not there yet given what is being celebrated today – the life of a man taken away too early by this dreadful disease called melanoma, Australia’s cancer.  Melanoma Institute Australia is continuing to work hard to solve this problem so that in our generation and the generation below us we do achieve zero deaths from melanoma.  Neil’s foundation will be an important part of this journey. 

Professor Georgina Long AO
Co-Medical Director, Melanoma Institute Australia