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What would you do if you were told at the age of 38 that you had just a few months to live?
What would you do if the doctor sitting opposite you used words such as “incurable” and “inoperable” to describe your medical condition?
What would you think in such circumstances if you had a wife, a two year-old girl and a six-week old baby daughter?
What would you think if you knew that your chances of making it were rated at 1%?
Tell me. What would you do? What would you think?
Most of us will never have to answer such terrible questions. Fraser Dunlop did. April 30, 2009 is a date scorched forever into the memory of WDF-Aldeasa’s Global Head of Category – Food & Souvenirs.
“That was D day,” he recalls. “After many tests and scans, a colonoscopy and endoscopy, everything… they said ‘You have stage 4 advanced cancer; you have multiple tumours all over your liver – inside, outside and on the surface – and the bad news is that it isn’t [primary] liver cancer. That’s just the secondary.’
“They couldn’t find the primary for another week and they eventually found it at the corner of the food pipe and the stomach.”
The doctors could hardly believe the diagnosis, given the lack of symptoms. Nor could Fraser, a healthy, very fit, young man. Yes he had lost some weight but he had put that down to a busy lifestyle, especially being a new father.
The findings were belated – and bad. Very bad. The primary cancer was almost blocking the food pipe, the secondary was “all over” the liver; and there was also extensive spread into the lymph nodes, the left adrenal gland above his kidney.
“ ‘This is as serious as it gets,’ they said,” Fraser recalls.
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’
“They said, ‘This is incurable and inoperable, unfortunately…”
At a subsequent meeting, Fraser pushed the doctors for a more precise prognosis. “They said that the normal life expectancy is nine to 12 months and in your case it’s probably much worse because you’ve got so much of it,” he recalls.
He remembers in absolute, stark detail the events of 30 April. “My wife had been with me at the very first appointment but the day I found out I was on my own. Disbelief…”
He pauses, the re-living of those emotions taking hold. “I drove my car the short drive back to the house. I phoned my wife who was in Sainsbury’s [supermarket] shopping and told her very top line what the situation was and she came back straight away.”
There’s a long silence. Fraser’s eyes moisten at the memory. So do mine. This is close to the bone for interviewer as well as interviewee.
“You know, when the doctor told me, I didn’t say anything initially. And then the first thing I said was ‘What will I tell my wife?… What will I tell her?
“He said, “You’re just going to have to tell her the truth.” And in the nicest possible way he was saying to me, ‘Go home, tell your wife, tell your family, tell your work… tell them goodbye really because you’re not going to live.”
But wait. Today, nearly two years on from that awful prognosis, I sat and chatted with Fraser for an interview we will publish in coming weeks. And here’s the thing… he has lived; he looks in fine health; he is in fine health; he has defied all of those early prognoses; he is holding down and prospering in a demanding international role; and he shows every sign of living a long and fulfilling life. He is a remarkable man.
I’m not going to tell you the rest of this incredible story right now. You’ll have to wait for the full interview to hear how Fraser made it through. And I want to take my time in getting it right.
Fraser has stared down his own mortality. It’s not an easy thing to do. Or to revisit.
Even listening back to today’s transcript and writing these few words is draining. But it is also thrillingly, marvellously, wonderfully life affirming.
Fraser Dunlop’s story and his innate, deeply human resilience should gladden the hearts of all of us. And in its power to inspire and help others, it should be told and told again.
[The interview with Fraser Dunlop will appear on The Moodie Report in coming weeks].