‘I’d rather be a lab rat than a dead rat’: beating cancer
THE death sentence left her dry retching in a basin in the corner of a doctor's office.
It was June 2012, and Julie Randall had just celebrated her 50th birthday.
Life, lived on Sydney's northern beaches basking in the love of husband Scott and daughters Morgan and Remy, was good. She was fit. She was well. All was good.
Until, four days after her birthday Julie, sitting at work, felt "the weirdest thing in my head I'd ever felt". She woke to the sound of paramedics calling her name.
She tells 60 Minutes' Allison Langdon in an interview to air on Channel 9 on Sunday night, life was suddenly very, very different. And horrifyingly finite.
The brain seizure she'd suffered was a pointer to a cancer that had done a deadly creep through her body as she enjoyed the business of living.
Stage four metastatic melanoma is usually a death sentence. It had started in Julie's brain. Spread to her lymph nodes, and other organs including her lungs. When they found it, Julie's body was riddled with it.
There was no cure, doctors told her.
The best they could do was remove the brain tumour (she recalls being impressed with how neat the staples holding her head together were), blast her with chemotherapy, and maybe buy her nine months.
That wasn't a good enough offer for Julie.
Bent over the basin all she could think was "my babies, my babies".
"I couldn't ... I wouldn't contemplate them having to watch me die," Julie says.
Again and again she told her daughters she was sorry. She promised them she'd fix it.
She promised them she'd make it.
Langdon's story charts Julie and Scott's search for help as time ticked away.
And when they found the impossible, their fight to get access to it.
BECOMING PATIENT 71
With no options but waiting to die in Australia, the pair turned to Google, and stumbled upon a clinical trial in Portland, Oregon, on an experimental immunotherapy drug which would hopefully kick her immune system back into action to attack the cancer.
It seemed a faint hope. One made even fainter by the fact it was open only to "hopeless cases" like hers. And they had to be American. And even if Julie was, the cap of 70 participants had been reached.
Julie and Scott wrote. They emailed. They phoned. And were told no at every turn.
They'd hear the knock-back and the reasons. And then they'd write and phone again.
"I do not have much time before the chemo turns it back on me," she wrote, three months in.
"Julie is my wife and my world and it eats away at me from the inside out to see her suffering like this," Scott told them.
The rejections continued. So did the badgering. And then, impossibly, Julie was in.
The man behind the trial, Dr Walter Urba, had his patient 71.
"A lot of people thought I was grabbing at straws. I was going to be a lab rat.
"I'd rather be a lab rat than a dead rat," Julie says
They headed to the Providence Cancer Centre in Oregon.
Nivolumab, the drug at the centre of the trial, has since been approved as a cancer drug, and is now available in Australia.
But in 2013 it was still in the trial stage, and already doctors knew it would not work at all for 60 per cent of patients.
But it was Julie's salvation. It wasn't all smooth sailing, but she remains on the drug, describing it as her "monthly does of insurance".
Five years since being given her death sentence, the cancer cells are gone.
"I'm cured," she says. "It's one c-word that's a good one."
Patient 71 airs on 60 Minutes on Channel 9 on Sunday at 9.30pm