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Graduate of ‘myeloma school of hard knocks’ awarded 2017 Australian of the Year

Publish Date: 8/2/2017

The Leukaemia Foundation congratulates world-renowned trailblazer in cell transplantation, Emeritus Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, on receiving the national honour of 2017 Australia of the Year for his ground-breaking advances in stem cell research on repairing damaged spinal cords.

Prof Mackay-Sim

Prof. Mackay-Sim has an unquenchable desire to make a difference and help change lives.

Despite his retirement, the international leader continues to bring hope to thousands of people - those living with a spinal cord injury through his collaboration with Griffith University - as well as Australians living with a life-threatening blood cancer diagnosis.

“The 2017 Australian of the Year Award is an incredible honour,” said Prof. Mackay-Sim, “made even better after my experiences in the last few years.”

In 2015, after recovering from a lifesaving stem cell transplant for his shock diagnosis of myeloma, the Leukaemia Foundation was privileged to have Prof. Mackay-Sim lend his support as National Myeloma Ambassador for National Myeloma Day.

The former Director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research at Griffith University says while he knew all about stem cells in his profession, when he became a patient he felt the same shock and anxiety and experienced the same steep learning curve as anyone else.

“It may have helped me to understand the biology of stem cells as I spoke with my haematologist, but I certainly found myself swapping between science nerd and grieving patient as I struggled to come to terms with my diagnosis,” said Prof. Mackay-Sim.

Describing himself as a healthy and athletic 64-year-old non-smoker who was looking forward to an active retirement with his wife, Lisa, Prof. Mackay-Sim says a life-threatening illness was certainly not on his radar.

“In hindsight, the first myeloma symptoms began around two years prior but I just put it down to getting older and massage generally seemed to ease the pain,” he said.

One massage, however, really increased his pain when an enthusiastic physiotherapist, without realising it, pushed around his ‘crumbly’ bones’ – a side- effect of myeloma. Not long after that his deteriorating health came to a head while on an overseas trip.

“My GP had armed me with pain medication for what we still both thought was a ‘bad back’ that I would attend to when I returned,” said Prof. Mackay-Sim.

When he finally returned home, the pain was terrible, and he immediately sought medical attention. Halfway through these tests, Prof Mackay-Sim’s health took a turn for the worst and he ended up in hospital with kidney failure and was close to death.

By the end of the week he was stabilised, given the news he had myeloma and had begun treatment including radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Prof. Mackay-Sim was fortunate his treatment went so well and he was young and healthy enough for the next stage of treatment, a stem cell transplant.

Describing myeloma as a great leveller, Prof. Mackay-Sim says he has grieved the loss of innocence.

“I have had dreams shattered and sometimes I fear the gloomy path ahead,” he said. “Pain has been a feature of this disease all the way through. I guess you could say I have learned a lot in the myeloma school of hard knocks and big shocks.”

But Prof. Mackay-Sim says not all of those lessons have been bad.

“I have learned about kindness. When the enormity of myeloma, pain and chemo overwhelmed me, I depended on the loving kindness of others: family, friends, work mates and especially nurses, who comforted me night and day.”

Prof. Mackay-Sim also participated in the Leukaemia Foundation’s free Fit to Thrive exercise program which helped him to get back on his feet. He praised this program as accelerating his physical rehabilitation by relearning how to move his muscles after his illness.

“The Leukaemia Foundation has provided great support for me and others I know going through myeloma diagnosis and therapy,” said Prof. Mackay-Sim.

He now describes himself as a reasonably healthy, not so athletic bloke who is still a healthy eater, and keen cyclist.

“I just happen to have myeloma still lurking somewhere and I’m coming to terms with the great uncertainty of this,” he said. “I am excited to say I am riding again. I bought a tricycle with electric-assist which allows me to ride without fear of falling.”

“I am still looking forward to an active retirement,” said Prof. Mackay-Sim. “The difference is now I am ready to live each day and enjoy it even more so.”

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