At just 28 years old Dave Sims lost his twin brother Mark, a doctor from Bristol, to skin cancer. By raising awareness of the disease, Mark wanted to make sure that fewer people have to go through what he did. Though he may not be here today, by joining our PEACE study Mark continues to be part of a research journey that could improve the outlook for people like him in the future.
Dave tells us the inspiring story of his brother, which is just one of those featured in our Annual Review, highlighting the progress we’re making and our aims for the future.
When Mark was 15, his hairdresser noticed a dark patch of skin on his head that was getting bigger between haircuts. His doctor diagnosed it as melanoma, a type of skin cancer. He had the dark patch removed to treat the disease and we hoped it wouldn’t come back, but it had already grown quite large by that point.
He didn’t spend his whole life worrying about what might happen, but the situation definitely made Mark more interested in health and motivated him to help people like himself. That’s part of the reason he chose to become a doctor. When he later learned about melanoma during one of his lectures, Mark realised that the risk of his cancer returning was higher than he’d thought.
He didn’t spend his whole life worrying about what might happen
In 2015, 12 years after Mark’s first diagnosis, his cancer returned. But by the time the cancer was discovered for the second time it had already spread to several parts of his body.
Mark accepted his diagnosis and was resilient, staying optimistic but realistic. He understood that his cancer was serious, so he wanted to be proactive and do the best he could in the time that he had. Immediately after his diagnosis he got involved with Cancer Research UK and became an ambassador.
He knew it was important to raise both money for research and awareness about melanoma. As a doctor and being diagnosed so young, Mark realised his story would resonate with people. He started writing a blog to tell people about his journey and set up a fundraising page. Within hours of posting the fundraising page on Facebook he raised £5,000; over the next few days that went up to £25,000.
‘Mark always thought about others more than himself’
End of life conversations between doctors and patients are difficult, but when doctors approached Mark about the PEACE study there was no question of whether he’d join; we all knew it was something he would want to do. The tissue he donated will let scientists really see how the cancer drugs Mark took interacted with his body.
“We want to know why some patients don’t respond or stop responding to certain cancer drugs, and understand how and why some cancers spread,” says Dr Mariam Jamal-Hanjani from University College London, one of the lead researchers behind the PEACE study, who had the opportunity to meet Dave.
“Because if we can understand how they develop and get worse, then we might be able to come up with new treatments and ways to stop that from happening.
“What makes the study so powerful is that as well as looking at samples from patients that are collected while they’re alive, we’re also collecting tissue from shortly after they die from their disease. Those patients won’t directly benefit from the study, but future patients will benefit from what we’ve learned through gathering information that we’ve never had before.
“It’s incredibly humbling that these selfless people are going through the most difficult time of their lives, yet they want to be part of pioneering research, knowing they won’t benefit from it.”
‘It’s never going to be easy, but he’s making a difference’
By the end of May this year Mark had raised over £183,000, but in some ways his contribution to the PEACE study is more valuable than the money he’s raised. He always thought about others more than himself and wanted to contribute as much as he possibly could so that in 20 years’ time, another Mark Sims doesn’t go through the same thing that he did. The PEACE study gave him another opportunity to do that.
Mark knew that research takes a long time and that we won’t know the benefit of the study for many years, but by raising awareness about it hopefully more people will get involved too – the more, the better.
On top of raising money for research like this, one of my main motivations for sharing Mark’s story is helping to make people more aware about melanoma itself and encouraging them to take care of their skin. It’s a cancer where you can do things to lower your risk, like not going on sunbeds and covering up your skin when you’re out in the sun. And by looking out for signs of the disease on the skin, so hopefully doctors can catch it early.
We are all really proud of Mark. Although it’s never going to be easy without him, the situation has inspired us to know that he’s making a difference. That’s made things a little easier.