Fraser Dunlop: Inspiration, jester and miracle man

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” –Viktor Frankl (neurologist, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor) ,

So now you know the story I mentioned a couple of weeks back that I wished I did not have to write.

It was, of course, about the passing of Fraser Dunlop, World Duty Free Group Global Head of Food, Souvenirs, Toys & Electronics.

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If there was such a thing as a travel retail flag for this great ‘sixth continent’ of an industry as L’Oréal Travel Retail neatly puts it, it would surely be flying at half mast this month. Fraser died on 1 April after what his company rightly called a brave and inspirational struggle with cancer over the past six years. He was just 44.

Yet as always when it comes to the loss of a loved one, even the kindest, most well-intentioned words fall short.

They cannot do justice to either the man or the nature of that six-year ‘struggle’. While on the humankind v disease scale it was very often  exactly that, it was also something extraordinary, a caged man refusing to be enslaved, a trapped drowning man bursting free to the surface and reclaiming his life in giant, joyful gasps; a strong, stubborn and resilient man dictating his own reaction to life’s circumstances rather than being dictated to [the Vicktor Frankl quote above was one of his favourites].

I first got to know Fraser Dunlop well one gloriously sunny mid-Summer’s afternoon in 2011 at World Duty Free headquarters at Bedfont Lakes near Heathrow Airport.

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He had agreed to speak to me about his astounding fight against the stage four cancer that had struck him down a little over two years earlier. Despite the difficult subject matter, it was an interview I very much wanted to do and felt I should do. It was less than a year since I, too, had been diagnosed with the disease, in my case stomach cancer, and begun a treatment course of chemotherapy, followed by a full gastrectomy (stomach removal) and more chemo.

Fraser, tanned, smiling, fit-looking, optimistic, was walking talking evidence that this disease, even at its worst, could be stared in the face and defeated.  I’d had a couple of setbacks but here was this man who had taken on much worse and made my own illness look like a common cold. Whereas my oncologist always said I had a shot at beating the damned thing, Fraser had been told his version was “incurable and inoperable”. Given nine to 12 months to live, he was told to “go and say goodbye” to family, friends and work colleagues.

He recalled the specialist’s fateful words. “ ‘Your primaries are nearly blocking your food pipe. The secondary [cancer] is all over your liver. You’ve also got it on your lymph nodes and on your left adrenal gland above your kidney.’

“And he said ‘This is as serious as it gets.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ And he said ‘Well, this is incurable and this is also inoperable, unfortunately, because we can’t take your stomach out, cut your food pipe and then re-attach your stomach – it’s too dangerous. You’ve got cancer in so many places. You would probably die of the operation and also opening a wound with cancer in your blood is not good.”

“When the doctor told me, the first thing I said was, ‘What will I tell my wife… what will I tell my wife?’ It’s the oddest thing… it’s the first thing that came into my head. ‘What’ll I tell her?’ ”

As he said those words his eyes moistened. Fraser recalled the answer. “He went… ‘You’re just going to have to tell her the truth.’

“ ‘What’s the truth?’ ”

“ ‘The truth is…’ ” There was a long silence. “In the nicest possible way what he was essentially and politely trying to say was ‘Go home, tell your wife, tell your family, tell your work… tell them goodbye, really, because you’re not going to live’ .”

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As I wrote in that interview, he did absolutely nothing of the sort. Fraser, the “1% man” challenged the disease at every level, amazing even his oncologists with his degree of knowledge about the cancer and its treatment. He tore back into his work with a vengeance, his jester’s humour not dulled but heightened. And  he embarked on a fitness regime that made the word ‘gruelling’ an abject understatement.

Chemotherapy is a thing of wonder, the ‘silver bullet’ that has pulled so many of us through. But it wearies and ravages as well as cures, attacking the disease but also weakening the body inexorably in the process. In my case I used to work standing up, typing only with two fingers, the acts of sitting down and typing properly simply too much. Fraser, educated, enlightened, challenging Fraser, was made of sterner stuff.

“Probably the most important thing I did (with much encouragement from my wife) was to buy an exercise bike,” he recalled. “I had read about how a lot of exercise can counter the fatigue. And sure enough I would take my drugs, come home and put the kids to sleep and then at 9.30pm jump on the exercise bike. My hands were all sore, my feet were all numb, so the last thing you want to do is exercise. But I did it, for an hour every night.”

What a man. Just how did he find that strength? Tell me that if you will.

In late 2011 he wrote to me just after I returned from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, noting , “While you were away I had the best type of bad news (?). A routine CA19-9 blood marker test gave elevated readings and then again on testing the following week too. PET scan was generally fine apart from a tiny thimble sized bit of activity on the liver. Baring in mind the number of calcified/dead tumours there I guess this was inevitable one day (one very small and old one has sprung back to life).

“Anyway, I feel and look fine, so thanks god for the regular checks!! I go into Hammersmith Hospital for some local (sirtex) treatment in December. Quite a quick (nuclear) injection into that area and then we are all set once again!!

“What a life this is !!”

I usually hate exclamation marks. Fraser’s I always loved as they denoted so much optimism and sheer bloody belief.

Just before Christmas that  year, another e-mail, this time from his native Scotland.

“I had the ‘superjab last Wednesday, so a bit ropey for a day or two and then back to normal. They will scan etc late January to check again. Blue sky and sun shining this morning on the snow covered hills up here, super stuff!”

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That was another thing I and many others admired about Fraser, the way he would treat his disease and its treatment very much as an everyday matter, like weather, work or sport. And even when it was bad news it would be delivered with perspective and deadpan humour.

I hope the following extracts from an ongoing correspondence that I was honoured to have with him capture Fraser’s unique and indefatigable spirit.

March 2012: Hi Martin, Hope you are as good as you look on all your pages… crikey you are certainly globe trotting!!

Just a note to let you know that the ‘super sirtex’ injection (from December)  has only partially worked……! and so until the docs hatch another revised plan of local treatment they want me to do 2 x cycles of chemo (6 weeks cover) starting tomorrow !! (Just to be safe !!! Urghhh !) So I know what I’m in for….that’s for sure !

Anyway, we choose our attitude as you know and we do what we are told !!! (Although I will have a beer tonight and fly back to Scotland after being in the chair tomorrow pm.  !!)

5 April 2012: I feel totally fine and have been doing the usual 30 min run on my lunch break too ! I expect cycle 2 next week to be a bit worse but then that will be it hopefully.

P.S. I have just finished reading Paxman’s (British) ‘Empire’ book which was also on TV recently. One thing that you and I know well came shining through the many chapters……that being,  how “bloody tough and proud” the Anzacs and the Jocks were and are… “ideal for any battle!!!!

7 August 2012: Hola Martin. I did cycle 7 of chemo last thursday. One ‘wee bit’ left on the liver and so in conjunction with a final cycle 8 later this month, the plan is to ‘nanoknife’ the last one.

Feet and hands bad (same as before) but keeping going and in Madrid working on the tenders this week. Had a lovely break up in Costa Brava area between cycles. 

01 September 2012: Chemo finished this week ! Feet and hands bad with nerve damage but glad its over ! (6 months).

I have a local op’ on monday to blitz the last stubborn tumour and then that should be that !

3 January 2013:  I started the year off nicely with a nice wee PET scan this morning at Charing Cross (as you do…!!)

Ps. I read an article over the festive period about the late UK astronomer Patrick Moore,…..laughed out loud at one of his (many) famous quotes: “At my stage in life I do what Mark Twain did. I get my daily paper, look at the obituaries page and if I’m not there I carry on as usual.”

29 October 2013: Bit of a strange one this time. I went in for some regular ‘ablation/(nanoknife)’ of 2 new tumours that were on a pair of lymph nodes near the aorta. Nothing major really as I have had this procedure 7 times before. (Usually when they pop up on the liver and I stay over and go to work next day !)

Anyway. The tumours were dealt with but ever since the procedure I have been unable to sit up/stand up much due to chronic bowel/bladder pain.??? The docs are perplexed and so I have been trying various drugs to take the pain away and to clear this up !!
4 weeks later and still its a problem. Unfortunately this meant missing Cannes. I hear it all went well.

Glad to see you are out and about which must mean a clear bout of health – super !

18 December 2013: I’m ok. Still ‘battling on’. 

Got a week or two of radio’ therapy to look forward to in the New Year!? And hopefully a good gap in treatment again after that.

Enjoying living in Madrid. Although cold (ish) its great to have no wind and plenty of blue sky/sun most days. Flying to Scotland on Friday night so looking forward to the break. Happy holidays.!

30 April 2014: I write to you today on my 5th year anniversary, (since original diagnosis),  so a rather odd day as you will know… although a good one too –  all things considered.

I did some ‘radio’ treatment in January which has worked well and other than that the odd ‘micro-op’ from time to time to ‘shoot down’ and ablate some unwanted tumours that reoccur. Enjoying life in the sun in Madrid I must say,…..good for the bones.!

10 December 2014:  In  for PET scan today. Still on the capcetabine etc but still controlling the disease with the daily ‘meds’. I will send my regards to SB [a reference to another of my friends, popular industry figure Stuart Bull, who was by this time undergoing cancer treatment].

 P.S. I get up each day and read the obituary section in The Times, if I’m not in it I keep going !!

I won’t repeat what I have written elsewhere about the disease’s ultimate, decisive comeback in 2015. But even when it did Fraser remained upbeat, defiant, still the loving family man, the simultaneous ultimate professional and perennial jester at work; still the champion of fund-raising for cancer research (remarkably, in 2013 he participated in and completed the 2013 L’Etape du Tour, a 130km mountain stage of the Tour de France, raising a significant amount of money for Cancer Research UK, an organisation he felt passionate about).

World Duty Free Group (how very touching and deeply poignant to see some of his closest colleagues gathered in Scotland at his funeral in Scotland this month and doing so much to help Fraser’s wife Carolyn) is organising a celebration of his life in a few weeks. That’s exactly the right word for there is so very, very much to celebrate about this man. A miracle man even in his passing.

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  • Martin,

    Thank you so much for writing so sensitively about the battle our dear friend Fraser had with cancer. He was indeed a “miracle man” to have fought so bravely against enormous odds whilst at the same time retaining his sense of humour and humility.

    It was a pleasure to do business with him, he was always tough but fair. It was a privilege to have known him and I truly appreciated the support he gave me.