TO celebrate an important milestone, Frank Dowling, a mature architecture student at UCC, bought himself a red BMW sports car last August.
“I call it my lifetime achievement award,” says 67-year-old Frank.
He has reason to be upbeat. Glanmire-based Frank has survived five years since he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given eight or nine months to live.
Back on January 21, 2015, Frank, who had been complaining of pains in his groin area, attended the Medical Assessment Unit at the Bon Secours, Cork. After a day of tests and scans, he said the consultant delivered the diagnosis that “would change my life — a large tumour on my left kidney.”
When it was confirmed a few days later, Frank was told to make a will and to make the most of his time left. Removing the tumour wasn’t an option because of its awkward location.
Now, Frank looks the picture of health. The tumour has shrunk considerably and while the cancer hasn’t gone away, it has been stable for the past few years.
But he can remember clearly the occasion when he thought his time was almost up. Frank’s hugely supportive wife, Gail, was with him when he was given the devastating news.
“It was quite a shock, an unreal situation. Aside from the pain, I was a perfectly healthy individual in my own opinion. I had played golf, I swam every morning and went hill-walking. I was fit enough and didn’t smoke or drink to excess. I enjoyed a glass of wine. I thought, ‘why me?’ and then, ‘why not?’
Frank was put on medication but after six weeks, “nothing had really worked”.
He said: “Effectively, the game was up. The oncologist said to me that there was an outside chance that I could be included on a clinical programme but there were no guarantees that I’d get on it or that it would work. But it was a bit of hope.
“I still felt well at the time and was participating in work (at Dowling & Dowling graphic design consultants).”
However, in September, 2015, Frank ended up in Marymount Hospice for symptom control as he had been finding it hard to keep food down and was getting sick. He spent more than a week there and was then supposed to go to the Bon Secours.
“That was because, when I tried to get out of the bed one day in Marymount, I couldn’t support myself. I begged my wife that if I was going to die, I’d prefer to die at home.
“As I was leaving Marymount, my wife had a word with the doctors there. They weren’t giving me long to live — about two or three weeks. I was down to about 60kg and was on end-of-life medication. I was beginning to get very sick.
“I came home and the Marymount home care team came out to me twice a week. I was on a whole raft of medication. My wife and my son, Alan, took over the management of it.”
Frank, who never underwent chemotherapy, got word in October that he had been accepted onto a clinical trial for a new immunotherapy drug called Nivolumab. This two-year trial was given to Frank “on a compassionate basis”.
Infused with the medication, Frank says it began to work very quickly.
“I went for a scan on New Year’s Eve and in January, 2016, I was told the tumour was shrinking. It was very promising.
“I was still feeling very weak, going from bed to the sofa and back again. But in early February, my wife noticed that I had a bit of a lift. I was no longer shuffling. The improvement really accelerated from there. In April, the hospice said they weren’t going to come to me anymore. I was discharged from their care.
“My oncologist was keen that I get back to work or do something productive to keep my mind off (the illness) and to stop moping around the house.”
Frank, who had been a director and senior partner at Southern Advertising for years, opted to resign when the recession hit. He had then resumed working at Dowling & Dowling, which is run by Gail. He stopped working there in September, 2015. Always interested in architecture, he was accepted by the school of architecture at UCC/CIT to do a degree in the discipline. He is now in his fourth and final year of studying for an honours degree.
“I’ll be out the gap in May,” he says, proud to be on track to be awarded with a good degree from UCC.
The clinical trial came to an end. But Frank’s medical issues continued.
“In early 2018, I presented at the Bon Secours for a regular infusion when a scan showed up a shadow on my left lung. I thought nothing of it but the doctors were very concerned about it and stopped the immunotherapy drug immediately. It turned out I had quite a serious infection in my lung. It was bronchial-oriented original pneumonia, an unexpected side effect of the immunotherapy drug. My lungs were compromised anyway. Scarring was a consequence of the cancer so I was taking steroids for that up to recently.”
While on a holiday in Croatia, Frank felt unwell with sciatica. On his return, he went into the Bon Secours for an epidural. But he was no sooner out of the hospital when he had to go back in. A scan showed that his colon showed signs of deteriorating.
“I had major abdominal surgery and spent three days in the ICU. Apparently, the wall of the colon had been weakened by the steroids, as I understand it. So I spent last summer recovering and wondering if I’d be able to hack it for fourth year at college. It’s an intensive course and I have a very competitive spirit. I treat my studies like it’s a job. My wife tells me to get a grip, that it’s only a hobby. She is very pragmatic.”
Frank, a father of four (made up of two sets of twins) and grandfather of three children, is feeling good these days. The illness has made him appreciate life more.
“It has made me greedy for life. It makes me want to do stuff and I don’t postpone anything. I do it now. The bottom line is that the cancer has shrunk down but it hasn’t gone away. There is always the possibility that it could reactivate. I just don’t know.”
Frank isn’t religious.
“I do live by a code, a spiritual code in a way, and I try not to do harm to people. My mother-in-law is deeply religious and I have outsourced the praying function to her! So far, it works. She rang me when she got word that I had reached the five year milestone. She said it’s a miracle.”
These days, Frank is on “soft medication. It’s a maintenance type of thing more than anything. I go to hospital regularly for scans.”
While he is generally positive, “I have my private moments when I say to myself, ‘how long is this going to last?’
“I got four years out of the drug. I have it in the back of my mind that there’s a limit to the amount of years I have. I don’t know what that limit is and, more to the point, I really don’t want to know.”
After his degree, Frank is unsure whether he’ll do a Masters or gain work experience with an architecture practice.
“I’m at the stage of my life where most of my friends have retired or are thinking of it. I hear all about the wonderful things they’re doing. I’m the type of person that has to be active and I’m mindful that I need to be occupied to keep mind off my medical condition.”
Frank believes more than ever in living life to the full.
“Enjoy today and every day. It’s good to be alive.”