PETER Williams is, in many respects, Mr Echuca.
Everyone knows him.
A local boy, he has served as a Campaspe Shire mayor, organises the hugely successful Winter Blues Festival and has his finger in the pie of a swag of committees in town.
But for the past five months he has been walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
Peter has stage four melanoma.
It is the most advanced phase of this cancer — stage four melanoma will kill five Australians today. And tomorrow. And every day thereafter.
Melanoma is the Australian cancer and Peter’s journey into the danger zone started with sharp pain in his lower abdomen in late February.
After a day the pain had failed to subside so he checked into Echuca hospital.
Where the best medical assessment on the day was kidney stones.
After a couple of days a tiny kidney stone was discovered — but it wasn’t the source of the pain.
‘‘But they saw a whole lot of things that shouldn’t have been there,’’ Peter said.
‘‘And so the journey began.’’
It took weeks before the diagnosis came through, but Peter knew early on it must be melanoma — he had one removed from his back 11 years ago.
Melanoma had become the Williams family’s signature disease — in the past 40 years every male member of his family — including his father and two brothers have had melanomas removed.
‘‘In all those cases everyone thought it was fully gone. In mine, obviously they didn’t get all of it,’’ Peter said.
Once the diagnosis came through, it confirmed the 64-year-old had numerous seriously enlarged lymph glands.
‘‘Eventually they found a small piece inside my brain and inside one rib,’’ he said.
‘‘Fortunately, perhaps, none inside any of my major organs.’’
Despite having time and knowledge to prepare for the news, despite all the research advances and new treatments, to many people the word cancer still sounds like a sentence. A death sentence.
And stage four melanoma is so often exactly that.
‘‘I was thinking mostly, ‘oh shit’,’’ Peter said.
‘‘I kind of hoped they had taken it all out 11 years ago.
‘‘I’m a very positive person, so I didn’t sort of break down and cry.
‘‘I went, well, let’s get on and see what we can do to beat this.’’
Despite his stoicism and determination to beat the life-and-death challenge in front of him, there were times when uncomfortable conversations were necessary.
Shortly after the treatment regime began, a GP — and personal friend of Peter — sat him down to discuss end-of-life options.
‘‘Without naming him, I said: ‘I think you’re getting a bit ahead of the game here’,’’ he said. ‘‘He was very supportive, but I certainly didn’t have my headspace in the ‘what am I going to do if...’ space.’’
Soon enough, Peter would be forced to have other uncomfortable conversations, this time with family to inform them of his illness.
Peter has two adult sons and two elderly parents.
But he said telling them he had been diagnosed with an illness which could kill him was still easier than when, years earlier and after decades of marriage, he revealed his attraction to men.
‘‘It was nowhere near as hard as coming out,’’ he said.
‘‘IT’S A health issue. I know a lot of people go, ‘Oh, God, the sky’s falling in, what are you going to do?’
‘‘That’s not the way I did it.’’
Peter admits there have been teary moments, and confronting such a serious illness has led to times of reflection.
‘‘You stop and think,’’ he said.
‘‘My partner Ryan is much younger than me and I thought, you know, when we signed up there was a long time ahead.
‘‘You go, maybe I have left him hanging out there on his own. You think how long you want to be around and what you want to do.’’
He traces his problems with melanoma back to growing up on a Lockington dairy farm.
His family spent entire summers swimming in the irrigation channel or working around the farm, mostly without shirts.
‘‘We have very fair skin. Sunburn was a regular rite of passage every summer,’’ Peter said.
‘‘We were clearly the people who should not be doing that at all.’’
Fifteen years ago, melanoma was an almost-certain death sentence.
But advances in medicine have extended survival rates for many patients.
Right from the get-go, Peter was eager to throw himself at any experiments doctors were undertaking.
‘‘I said from the very beginning I’m happy to be a guinea pig in any of the trials you want,’’ he said.
Peter is five months into a two-year treatment regime which, fortunately, does not involve radiation or chemotherapy.
The side-effects from the chemicals — Peter refers to them as ‘‘magic soup’’ — are relatively minor: itchy skin, tiredness, constant hunger.
But so far, the outlook is overwhelmingly positive.
‘‘This week the report came back that it’s as good a result as they’ve ever seen with this treatment,’’ he said.
But doctors remain cautious when talking about his prognosis.
It’s still early days in the treatment regime and cure has never been mentioned.
But Peter knows it could have been very different if the melanoma was caught later on, after it had spread to his major organs.
‘‘I think I’m very lucky to catch it when I did, and by accident, because I could easily have just ignored the pain and taken a couple more panadol and thought this will go away,’’ he said.
That partly fuels his insistence for people to see a doctor if something doesn’t seem right, or if they think they are a likely candidate for melanomas.
‘‘If you get this early enough, it’s absolutely treatable,’’ he said.
Peter considers himself ‘‘pretty fatalistic’’, and he believes 64 is ‘‘not bad’’ for a life innings, but there is unfinished business and he is not ready to go out just yet.
‘‘This is very personal. I just want to live,’’ he said.
‘‘There’s a whole lot of things I still want to do: friends I want to make, places I want to visit and meals and wines I want to eat and drink.
‘‘Honestly, I don’t know how I would deal with the news had I gone in and they said: ‘Shit happens, Pete, and there’s nothing we can do. Go and clean out that shed because it’s not fair to leave that mess to your sons.’
‘‘I’d really have to think about that response.
‘‘I’ve been lucky that there have been options; that there’s been treatment. ‘‘And until that was exhausted, I certainly wasn’t going to plan anything. There’s a lot of mess in my shed that I don’t really want to clean up just yet.’’