Friday 14 December 2018

Michael and Melissa were living their dream until doctors broke the news he had six months to live

'Look for that silver lining' - Irishman with Harvard scholarship on his battle to stay alive

FIGHTING ON: Melissa watches over Michael during hospital treatment
FIGHTING ON: Melissa watches over Michael during hospital treatment

Alan O'Keeffe

Michael Mullan had the world at his feet as he took up his scholarship at Harvard Law School.

Four months later, doctors told the young Irishman he had cancer and had only six months to live.

He and his long-term girlfriend Melissa Murphy had moved from Co Kildare to Boston when Michael was accepted into the Ivy League college. The "death sentence" crushed their dreams.

Almost three years later, Michael is still here and still fighting. Known as Mick and Mel to their friends, they chose to remain in the US because of new life-saving treatments that are not available in Ireland.

Michael (26) has the heart of a warrior. He beat cancer twice in the past.

As a law student at Trinity College, Dublin, he underwent renal cancer surgery to remove one-third of a kidney. A few months later, he sat his finals and earned a first-class honours degree.

His graduation at Harvard
His graduation at Harvard

As a baby, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer affecting his adrenal glands and stomach, and was given a one-in-four chance of cheating death. He survived.

In the US, Michael chose to fight this third onslaught of the disease and managed to earn a master's degree in law at Harvard in the midst of his cancer struggle.

He continues to battle stage four cancer, which had spread through his lungs and abdomen. It is his greatest challenge and Melissa (25) is his full-time carer.

"Mel is always there to show me the silver lining to every problem," he said.

The couple still find time to help others
The couple still find time to help others

They live in a one-bedroom apartment thousands of miles from home but have strong support from family, friends and entire communities back in Ireland.

Fundraising in their native Kildare and around Ireland is helping to sustain them.

Michael is from Eadestown and Melissa from nearby Ballymore Eustace. They met at a GAA match in Ballytore. Michael was 16 and on the subs' bench when he noticed 15-year-old Melissa watching her brother's team.

They started going out and will celebrate 10 years together later this year.

Michael’s big day at Trinity
Michael’s big day at Trinity

They had great fun together as young adults and enjoyed healthy lifestyles. Melissa went on to complete her studies for a career as a secondary teacher while Michael studied law at Trinity.

They became known as fundraisers for cancer research during their student days. Michael had a particular awareness about the need for cancer research, being a survivor of child cancer.

The couple helped organise the Kildare Relay For Life events in 2013 which raised more than €30,000 for the Irish Cancer Society. In December 2013, Michael started feeling unwell and his doctor sent him to Tallaght Hospital for a scan. He was diagnosed with renal cancer.

Melissa said: "That was pretty tough. I was to start teaching practice that January but then this massive curve-ball came along and I threw everything aside. All that mattered to me was Mick's health."

Michael underwent surgery to remove a third of a kidney. Later, scans did not show any trace of cancer remaining. He was able to resume his studies and sat his finals in August and got first-class honours.

Michael as a toddler
Michael as a toddler

"I was studying law and business and had wanted to go into a commercial law firm to 'follow the money' but when I got sick, I re-evaluated. I decided I would concentrate on disability law to help people with disabilities," he said.

In his scholarship application to Harvard, he wrote about his cancer experiences and his aim to do what he could to help give a voice to people with disabilities.

After winning a scholarship to Harvard, he worked for a year in Dublin to raise money for their American adventure.

Before travelling to the US in July 2015, Michael asked that a scan for cancer scheduled for August be brought forward but he was told, as previous scans were clear, there was no need for another so soon, he said.

The couple travelled to Boston, filled with dreams of a wonderful future.

Michael entered the glittering world of Harvard. Mel later took up a job in Boston as part of her J-1 visa.

That November Michael developed a cough and he went to get it checked out. Scans showed his cancer had returned.

Melissa said: "It was on a Monday and I was in work when I got the news. I was to go to the hospital and that it wasn't good news. I ran out of work and I ran all the way to the hospital."

Tumours had spread into his lungs. It was stage four cancer and he was informed he may have only six months to live.

"Our whole future and our dreams came crashing down. We didn't know whether to go out and have fun for six months or fight it. Michael chose to fight it," she said.

His parents, Pat and Patricia, moved to the US to be with their son for the next nine months.

His studies were put on hold with the support of the college as he endured several difficult months fighting the grave illness. As it turned out, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston was one of the best cancer hospitals in the world. Michael's doctor was Dr Toni Choueiri, who had a global reputation as a kidney cancer specialist.

Michael was placed on a new immunotherapy, which succeeded in stopping the spread of the cancer. A side effect was liver damage, so he was switched to a new targeted chemotherapy, cabozantinib.

Eventually, as his condition improved, his parents returned to Ireland and he re-started his studies.

Michael would attend lectures while Mel waited outside the lecture theatre with a sick-bag and a wheelchair as he was often overcome by nausea during lectures.

"I'd have to run out of some of the lectures to vomit. I found it hard to concentrate at times. But I had to keep up the studies in order to keep my student visa and health insurance," he said.

"A master's degree in Harvard is difficult at the best of times. Chemo and the opioids pain medication affected my concentration," he said.

But he succeeded in graduating in May last year.

"I was lucky I was in the right city at the right time to get this treatment," Michael said.

"The treatment, which kept me alive, would not have been available in Ireland.

"I would not be alive today if I had not got this specialised treatment. I was lucky too that I had health insurance because I was a student," he said.

"As long as I am a student I can retain my student visa to remain in the US and I can keep the health insurance to continue my cancer treatment."

The couple now live in Washington DC where Michael is enrolled as a PhD student in the law school at the American University.

He can get emergency hospital care locally and travels to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston every two months for ongoing treatment.

His work as a student is ensuring he continues to receive life-saving treatment.

He must pay $15,000 a year to study at the university. Even with health insurance, there are substantial extra medical costs for specialists, scans and drugs, which cost them $3,000 a month over and above what the insurance covers.

Michael said: "The busier I am in college, the better I feel. It's good not to be solely concentrating on cancer all the time.

"I have my tumours but I'm on medication that keeps them at bay. I'm on oral chemotherapy every day and I'm on about 40 tablets every day as well. It's anti-nausea medication and pain medication. It's going to be a long-term battle," he said.

"In the past year, me and Mel have become a bit more spiritual. The greatest support for me is Mel herself. Without her, I wouldn't be able to get through every day.

"While I find having a spiritual belief does help, having Mel is even better," he said. "Mel is so strong. Any time I'm down or feeling a bit depressed, I can always talk to her and she can talk me through it.

"She's always there to show the silver lining to every problem," he said.

"Hope and positive psychology are so important. It's easy to let things get on top of you but if you can find the silver lining, that's certainly half the battle," he said.

He likes to remember something he read in a book somewhere: "If you can solve it, don't worry about it. If you can't solve it, don't worry about it." They both believe that Irish people who get bad news from doctors should not hesitate to seek a second opinion from another specialist like people do in the US.

Michael and Melissa said they deeply appreciate all the vital fundraising work being done by friends and communities in Ireland, which is crucial in enabling him to continue to battle cancer.

More than €70,000 has been raised to date and a golf classic will take place at Craddockstown Golf Club on September 13.

Melissa said: "We just keep on going and with every setback we just have to say that we are lucky to be here and that we'll get through it. Find a silver lining, I suppose."

A gofundme fundraising link set up by friends is at gofundme.com/michaelmullanscancerfund and their website is michael mullancancerfund.com.

Sunday Independent

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