Merrick from Berwick has “reported for duty” since 2012 | Leukaemia Foundation

Merrick from Berwick has “reported for duty” since 2012

Brian Merrick with his partner, Giovanna Cecconi, and her grandson, Jake Burton, in 2018: “My reaction to the diagnosis was a shock to me, my family and Giovanna. But with their support and encouragement, I looked into trials and treatment for my condition.”

“G’day girls… it’s Merrick from Berwick reporting for duty.”  
 
For almost eight years, this has been Brian Merrick’s greeting when entering the treatment room in Melbourne for his monthly round of azacitidine (Vidaza®) injections on a clinical trial.

He hasn’t let blood cancer limit his boundless positivity and love of life.  

“My life is more precious now,” said Brian, 76, who has become a voice of support for others living with MDS and an advocate of participating in clinical trials.  

Before his diagnosis with MDS, Brian “took everything for granted”.  

“Now I cherish every moment.” 

Brian’s symptoms pre-diagnosis 

In 2011, Brian started to become breathless on the job, escorting prisoners to court at the Melbourne Custody Centre. He was also fatigued and realised something was wrong.  
 
A blood test showed he had anaemia, then his red blood cells plummeted, and later that year Brian was diagnosed with the MDS subtype Refractory Cytopenia with Multilineage Dysplasia (MDS-RCMD)

“The word is about a kilometre long,” said Brian laughing.  

Continuing to work soon became a risk and he retired when he was 69. 

Initial treatment and the decision to go on a trial 

He started treatment – blood transfusions – but after his third one, Brian learned that ongoing transfusions had its own concerns and decided this treatment was not right for him. 

His haemotologist suggested he participate in a clinical trial for azacitidine and without a second thought, Brian agreed.  

“If there’s a recommended clinical trial or treatment, definitely pursue it,” Brian suggests. 

He started the trial in July 2012, which involved a daily azacitidine injection for seven days every four weeks. At first, Brian struggled with the side-effects – nausea and vomiting – after each day of treatment until a nurse consultant suggested an anti-nausea drug. 
 
“I haven’t been nauseous or vomited for nearly seven years,” said Brian who now takes ondansetron to prevent nausea and vomiting and he often recommends this drug to others on azacitidine. 

His current treatment regimen is five days of azacitidine injections each month and to make it easier, he stays with a friend near the hospital in Melbourne for a week. This saves him more than an hour’s travelling to and from Berwick each day.  

Brian’s journey with azacitidine has been a long one and while his MDS hasn’t gone away, his disease also hasn’t regressed.  

The value of support 

He understands the value of emotional support and the power of positivity. He uses his experience to help other people with MDS and is always keen to offer encouraging words and advice.  

“Keep going with the treatment, no matter what,” are words he often shares with them. 
 
Actor and singer, Olivia Newton-John has had a positive impact on Brian’s journey and he will never forget Christmas 2016. That’s when he met and chatted to Olivia at her namesake Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne. This was a privilege and Brian both admires her and draws inspiration from Olivia’s own cancer experience.  

Brian met Olivia Newton-John at the Cancer Wellness & Research Centre Christmas party in 2016: “It’s one of my favourite photos.”

“Her tenacity of staying positive – she has instilled that in everyone – and the way she talks to everybody, she’s a real angel.” 

“I know that she’s gravely ill at the moment, but she’s not giving up one little bit. She’s in there fighting.”  

Dealing with other health issues 

Earlier this year, Brian battled health problems unrelated to MDS when he began to feel breathless and exhausted again.  

“I had a major blockage and two minor blockages in the heart and had open-heart surgery – a triple bypass. Talk about having everything thrown at me,” he said.  

Fortunately, everything is now under control.   

“I’ve just got all these zipper markers over me now,” he said. 

Brian turned to the Leukaemia Foundation for support and was grateful to attend a seminar on what to expect during azacitidine treatment. He also joined the Foundation’s MDS support group in Melbourne on a visit to Melbourne Zoo.  

“It was a good therapy session,” said Brian. 

“You could go and support each other, that’s what we did.” 

Brian is certain that taking part in the azacitidine clinical trial has changed his life. 

“Like Olivia, you’ve got to keep positive, keep having the treatment, do what the doctors and the specialists recommend, and keep the fingers crossed.  

“And keep enjoying life, including a glass of red wine,” said Brian who is intent on continuing his mission.  

“What I’m most looking forward to right now, is that my story assists others in their journeys and to pursuing the best in health life can offer.” 

Giovanna and Brian in the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre garden in 2018, with Melissa, a staff member.  
Posted on October 2nd, 2019

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