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The Fight of his Life

Written by courtney Barnes

It is the weekend and most of his friends are out partying or playing sport, but John Maunder is flicking through the pages of a medical textbook while undergoing chemotherapy in a bed at Brisbane’s Mater Private Hospital.

For Maunder, a 21 year old medical student at The University of Queensland, receiving the lifesaving cocktail of AVBD chemotherapy drugs is a fortnightly ritual.

In December last year he received life-changing news. After a routine check-up with his doctor, he was told he needed a lump removed and sent off for testing.

“They said it was likely to be nothing. The general surgeon said he does this stuff every day of the week,” Maunder recalls. But the results came back and he was diagnosed with nodular lymphocyte predominant Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare and incurable blood cancer.

“It’s unlike other cancers where there might be a 50 per cent chance of curing it; with me it’s treatable but not curable,” he says.

But it is how Maunder has responded to his diagnosis that is turning heads. After recovering from the shock of his diagnosis, he decided the best way to tackle cancer was the same way he approaches everything in life, with a good sense of humour.

Having already lost his hair as a result of chemotherapy, shaving for a cure was out of the question, so he recruited 20 of his hairiest friends for the cause and announced he would wear a mullet wig that would make Michael Bolton blush around campus.

At 195 centimetres tall, Maunder is an imposing figure and the sight of him sporting a glorious shoulder-length mullet is equal parts hilarious and terrifying. “It was itchy and I certainly got some looks. I was pretty keen to get it off but it was all for a good cause,” he says.

It may have been embarrassing, but it certainly paid dividends. Expecting only a few thousand dollars if he was lucky, Maunder was blown away by a tsunami of donations. “It was incredible how crazy it went. I remember at the start I thought $5,000 would be amazing. And then 20 hours in we already had $10,000 and the same time the next day it was at $20,000. I guess a few smiles go a long way.”

A long way is right, his team in The World’s Greatest Shave have raised more than $90,000 so far. To his friends, Maunder is known as a larrikin, which might help explain the overwhelming support he has received since being diagnosed. Peter Thornton, friend and fellow fundraiser, says he is inspired by Maunder’s response to the disease. “His motivation and determination are crazy and how committed he is to getting things done.”

“Everything he puts his mind to do he completes and it’s astonishing how he does it all. He’s touched so many people throughout his life and now we can return the favour… It’s fantastic how everyone’s got behind the cause and it just shows that adversity brings out the best in people.”

The son of a cattle farmer from Wallumbilla, a small rural town in south-west Queensland, “quit” is a word you will never hear Maunder say. He admits being diagnosed with lymphoma was devastating but, rather than submit to the disease, it has changed his outlook on life. “It’s actually really motivating. It makes you realise that you can’t afford to keep stuffing around all the time, you need to just get in and get things done and do the best you can. It makes you want to be the most incredible person you can be.”

Motivation is a necessity when you are cramming for your medical exams in between debilitating bouts of chemo. “The hardest thing is the four days after each treatment. If I push myself too hard, even just reading for too long, I get really sick and crash for like 12 hours,” he says.

“You feel sick the whole time. You feel horrible, fatigued, exhausted and then there are all the other things: nose bleeds, hair loss, eating problems.

“For each week following treatment, I feel like I am fighting the worst hangover of my life… whilst being seasick… with the flu…” He wrote on Facebook.

As if the after-effects of chemotherapy are not enough, Maunder also suffers an extraordinary side-effect known as “anticipation nausea” in the lead up to each treatment.

 

“For my first few treatments I was studying while receiving the chemo, but the treatments started to get harder because I would get more and more anxious. By the end I was taking anti-anxiety tablets before each treatment, otherwise I would work myself up into such a mess that I would get sick before we even started,” he says.

“I like coffee and during the first few treatments I had a couple of cups and now I can’t think of anything worse. Even the smell or the thought of coffee is almost enough to make me throw up.

“And when I start psyching myself out about it the veins in my arms start to retract because that’s where they put the cannula in.”

Maunder says the support of his friends and family has been crucial to his recovery after each bout of physically and emotionally draining chemotherapy, but the news has taken a toll on his tightknit family. “Mum and dad are very supportive but it has hit mum hard,” he says.

“I’m close to my mum but like any guy you don’t really confess all your inner feelings, I keep my emotions to myself so mum doesn’t really know what’s going on and she doesn’t get to talk about her emotions and that’s hard for her.”

His three brothers have also been on hand to lend their support. But being boys from the bush, breaking through the blokey barriers has been hard yakka. “They’re all being extremely supportive. We don’t ever have like emotional deep and meaningfuls or anything like that, but they’re doing what they can.”

Maunder’s initial diagnosis was made harder by the lack of information. “It is frustrating because if you look up any other cancers you can see the facts, they can give you the numbers,” he says.

“You would be surprised; there is very little information about it. It’s a type of Hodgkin lymphoma but it’s only Hodgkin lymphoma by name. There’s only an eight to nine in 10 million chance of catching it each year so it’s pretty rare and there’s hardly any case studies because they can’t get big enough samples.”

This is where The Leukaemia Foundation steps in, raising $138 million in the past 14 years to fund research and help support the families of patients with blood cancer. But the shave does more than just raise money, it gives patients the opportunity to break the news to their family and friends.

“It’s really hard to tell people about it. The shave gave me the opportunity to just throw it all out there. It’s a hard thing to say, especially starting back at uni and you’re like ‘Hi, I’m John, I’ve got cancer.’ It puts people in an uncomfortable position. But the shave gave everyone time to let it all sink in,” Maunder says.

Maunder has responded well to chemotherapy and his cancer is now in remission but he knows it is only a matter of time until it returns. “It will go away but it will just be sitting there dormant. So in 10 to 12 years it will come back and each time there’s less chance they’re able to treat it.”

As far as he is concerned, this is 10 years of improvement in treatment options. “My oncologist is switched on and he said there’s no point worrying about what we’re going to do in 10 or 15 years because by the time it comes around cancer treatment will be completely different. He was saying that all the future of cancer treatment is individual based whereas at the moment they just give everyone a load of chemotherapy.”

Professor Maher Gandhi, a senior haematologist at the Princess Alexandra Hospital and researcher at the Translational Research Institute, echoes Maunder’s optimism. “What I’ve seen in my time has been amazing,” he says.

“I’ve seen a lot of illnesses which were incurable now either be controllable or curable. The other revolution has been the understanding in the biology of cancer and that’s meant that we’ve had huge technological advances and new treatments. There are a lot of new drugs in the pipeline.”

According to Professor Gandhi a major roadblock in the path to improved cancer treatments is the limited funding available to researchers and hospitals. “We already have the ability to individualize their treatment but we can’t translate that nearly as much as we like because of funding problems and health cuts. A lot of the information we could find out about patients’ tumours we can’t and therefore we can’t tailor their therapy as much as we’d like.”

Along with Maunder and thousands of other patients, Professor Gandhi is thankful for the work done by the Leukaemia Foundation. “It’s the simple things like giving patients the ability to live in regional centres while they’re undergoing treatment, but also providing accommodation, transport costs, information and giving them access to counsellors, social workers and patient support groups.”

As an aspiring doctor himself, Maunder’s battle with cancer has given him insight into being on the receiving end of treatment and reinforced his ambition to pursue a career in medicine. “It has made me a lot surer that this is what I want to do,” he says.

“I’d never really thought about oncology before but I’m definitely interested in it now. Before I just wanted to be a surgeon like every kid, but now I’ve got a prac at the end of the year and I hope to do that with my oncologist.”

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 4300 Australians are diagnosed with lymphoma each year. Cancer is a terrible disease for anyone to suffer through, but there are those unique individuals among us who find the positives in even the worst situation. John Maunder is one of those people.

“You’ve got to make the most everything,” he says with a certainty that leaves no doubt that he will.

|By Stuart Wilkinson

John Maunder | Photo by Stuart Wilkinson

John Maunder | Photo by Stuart Wilkinson