TONEY RIVER, N.S. – Doctors told Duncan Searle he had stage 4 lung cancer. They told him he had three to four months to live.
Searle thought of his grandchildren. He had three at the time, all under the age of three.
“If I die,” he thought, “none of them will remember me.”
Three years later the Toney River resident, who spent much of his life working as a teacher at CEC in Truro, said he’s happy to have surpassed that initial prognosis thanks to cutting edge cancer treatment that has slowed the cancer spreading through his body. He calls his medicine “magic pills.”
Searle’s medical story began when in 2013 he took the routine FIT test given to adults over 50 in Nova Scotia. It showed something was wrong and further testing revealed he had bowel cancer. The surgeon was able to successfully remove it, but testing to see if the cancer had spread showed he had advanced lung cancer. As someone who had never smoked and had lived a healthy lifestyle he said it was a shock.
His prognosis was grim, but molecular geneticist Dr. Wenda Greer conducted a molecular genetic analysis of his tumour, which found he had a certain mutation that, fortunately, a new drug had just recently been approved to treat. For Searle it seemed like magic. He had seen the scans before and the scans after, which essentially showed the cancer had disappeared. But testing showed there was cancer that spread to his brain. The effectiveness of the first drug he was taking was waning.
“That was a terrible experience,” he said of the brain cancer. “It was kind of like a starfish cancer that was going all through my brain – not a tumour – more of a creepy, crawly thing.
Once again modern research and targeted treatment saved him. Another analysis found another mutation that had also just had a drug approved to treat. Doctors have stopped giving him a life expectancy.
“If you’re good tomorrow, you’re good tomorrow,” one doctor told him.
Thanks to these personalized treatments, Searle has been able to enjoy several more years of quality life during which he’s been able to go to Florida for a couple of weeks vacation and was able to visit his wife’s family in Newfoundland and go salmon fishing.
But most important, he’s been able to get to know his grandchildren better and has peace that even if the worst should happen now they will have memories of him – playing at the hobby farm in Toney River and driving on his tractor with him.
“Those little things are huge,” says Duncan’s wife Leslie, tearing up as she thinks about all her husband has gone through. “The big things are small, but the little things are huge and I embrace those.”
With pride, she tells of Duncan’s speech at the recent launch of the Molly Appeal campaign, an annual Maritime-wide public fundraising campaign of Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation
People in the audience laughed at times but also wept as he talked of his family. In the end he was given a standing ovation.
“To survive what he’s gone through, he’s a warrior,” she said.
Duncan said he’s thankful for the experts who have made all this possible.
“It’s saved my life so far.”
He’s also thankful for the caring health professionals he’s had since the beginning from the doctor who did his first bowel surgery to MRI technician Doreen George at the Aberdeen Hospital who encouraged him during the hour-long tests and his family doctor in Truro who has supported him along the way, Harold Berghuis.
“I feel very fortunate to be here,” he said.