Cancer sufferer's tip: don't give in

By Sandra Fischer

Aggressive leukaemia almost robbed two small boys of their dad.

Dave Cotton with Christopher, 8, and Samuel, 6. Photo / Michael Craig
Dave Cotton with Christopher, 8, and Samuel, 6. Photo / Michael Craig

Five years ago, Dave Cotton was meant to die.

He looked at his sons, Christopher, 4, and Samuel, 1, who would have to grow up without their father. "I remember thinking, 'They don't deserve this'," reflects Cotton.

Five years later he has outlived several death sentences and gets to celebrate his 46th birthday with his sons, officially cancer-free.

Cotton was 41 when his life changed forever. A highly successful businessman, he had also smoked for 20 years when he went to his doctor, about minor chest pains.

After blood tests, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, a very aggressive type of leukaemia more common in children, who have a good chance of recovery. Generally, for males over 40, the prognosis is not good. Only around 20 per cent of patients survive the first five years after diagnosis.

Within three days, Cotton underwent chemotherapy, although the aggressive treatment didn't have the desired effect.

Cotton didn't go into remission, a search of millions of bone marrow donors could not provide a match and he was sent home. Six to 12 months was all doctors would give him.

Cotton changed his lifestyle and diet. He ate mostly raw food and lots of fish and had bi-weekly intravenous doses of vitamin C. He had acupuncture, massage, homoeopathy and also began studying naturopathy to understand his disease.

His efforts seemed to work and the unthinkable happened - he went into remission and had only 5 per cent residual disease left in his bone marrow. Ten months on, the disease returned. This time his doctor gave him only three-to-six months to live.

Fate had other plans. A classmate on his naturopathy course saw a current affairs show about a German cancer trial using antibodies. Cotton was accepted for the trial and went on a gruelling 30-hour trip.

The disease and the plane's air conditioning made him bleed from his nose, sinuses and internally. But he had to keep his head down. He couldn't afford to be put off the plane and miss his last chance.

"If I had stayed here, I would be dead now."

After an initial toxic reaction, which led to heart failure and almost killed him, Cotton did well on the trial. He spent nine months in Germany, keeping in touch with his family via Skype from his hospital bed.

Cotton came home in May and has just had the all clear. He is now cancer-free.

Cotton's haematologist, Dr Leanne Berkahn, is delighted with her patient's complete remission. "When David's leukaemia did not respond to multiple different chemotherapy drugs, his outlook was very poor, so it was unexpected and unusual to find he was in remission some months later.

"Unfortunately, the leukaemia did eventually return and became very advanced."

She remembers his treatment options were very limited. "We heard about a clinical trial that was being conducted in Germany using a highly specific antibody that improves the body's immune recognition of this leukaemia.

"David was fortunate to have access to the study. The fact that he is now in complete remission following this very sophisticated but single-agent therapy is remarkable," said Berkahn.

Meanwhile, Cotton is extremely grateful for the help he got from his family, friends and countless supporters during his battle for life. "It's a journey one cannot do by himself."

He says he will never forget the words of an admission nurse at the haematology clinic: "I have seen many people come and go and you can just tell who is going to survive. You will be one of them."

- Herald on Sunday

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