Katharine Sarah Philp was born on Tuesday, 23 February 1988 in Armidale, NSW. On Saturday, 13 March 2010, at Westmead Hospital, Kate died as a result of a three-year battle with melanoma. The intervening 22 years and 20 days was filled with a life well-lived.
Kate was a shy, quiet and very caring person with a streak of stubbornness that motivated her to go out and get the things she really wanted in life. She rarely sweated the small stuff, although she was prone to bouts of self-doubt and anxiety.
Early in life, Kate discovered a love of travelling and set her sights on experiencing as much of the world as possible. At the end of Year 10, rather than go on the traditional Year 10 excursion to Sydney followed by the Year 10 Formal, Kate went on an exchange trip to France for eight weeks. Two years later, at the conclusion of Year 12 (and having to wait a few extra months to turn 18!), Kate travelled to the UK for a gap year experience.
This was a very important time in Kate’s life: she was given a placement at Jubilee Lodge in Essex as a care assistant. Kate was very unsure of this before leaving Australia, having thought that she would obtain her first preference, which was a placement in a school. Kate’s interviewers must have sensed Kate’s innate caring nature and recommended her for a care assistant role. After two weeks at Jubilee Lodge, Kate emailed home and said that she loved the placement, the people and the work.
Towards the end of 2006, Kate decided that she would like to continue at Jubilee Lodge as a full-time staff member. Before doing this, she travelled around Scotland and England with Jo (her mum) for six weeks and then came home to visit Jen (her sister), Dave (father) and many of her extended family and friends.
While in Scotland, Jo noticed an ugly and uncomfortable-looking mole on the top of Kate’s left big toe. Kate and Jo agreed that when Kate returned to Australia it would be a good idea to get it checked out, but neither dreamed that there was any great issue with it. Kate went to her local GP shortly before her 19th birthday in February 2007 and was referred to a general surgeon who removed the mole. There was still no inkling of any problem and Kate booked her ticket to the UK.
A week later, the surgeon asked Kate to come in a few days earlier than planned and broke the news: the mole was a melanoma and further surgery was required to ensure that all offending cells were removed. The surgery was performed almost immediately, along with a small skin graft to cover the hole left on the big toe.
Tests concluded that all melanoma cells appeared to have been removed and Kate spent a few weeks recovering from the surgery, re-booked her flight to the UK and looked forward to getting on with her life.
Kate underwent regular check-ups while in the UK and all seemed well until July 2008 when she discovered a lump in her left groin. Tests eventually concluded that the melanoma had returned and doctors advised Kate to return to Australia for treatment. Kate arrived in Sydney in late July 2008 and immediately went to see Professor John Thompson at the Sydney Melanoma Unit. Prof Thompson recommended surgery: removal of the lymph nodes in the left groin. This operation was performed at the Mater Hospital in Sydney in early August 2008. Like the first surgery on the big toe, the operation appeared to be successful and Kate began planning her future.
Earlier in 2008, Kate had already decided to return to Australia to study speech pathology at university. After the groin surgery, she set about applying to universities. Life again seemed to be getting back to a track Kate wanted to be on, but in November she discovered another lump, this time in her left armpit. Another trip to Prof Thompson at the Melanoma Unit confirmed the worst: the melanoma was back. In early December, Prof Thompson again operated, removing the lymph nodes – “a mastectomy without breast removal”. Again, all seemed well, although Kate discovered a small lump in her cheek. Tests on this were inconclusive, with the diagnosis being a small fat deposit – puppy fat!
In February 2009, just before Kate’s 21st birthday and the start of the academic year at Charles Sturt University – Albury, the lump in the cheek had grown and a check revealed that it was, in fact, another melanoma. This was removed but the news was not good. The melanoma had spread significantly to other parts of Kate’s body and surgery was no longer an option.
Kate was referred to Professor Rick Kefford at Westmead Hospital. At this stage, there was very little available in the way of treatment for melanoma sufferers, but Prof Kefford recommended a drug – oblimersen – which was, at that time, being trialled in Australia and had already been approved for use in the US and the UK. Kate was not eligible for the trial, but with the help of family, friends, understanding bank managers, and some pleading from the Westmead team, permission was granted for us to purchase the drug. Treatment began in late March 2009, with Kate spending two weeks in Albury and one in Sydney over each treatment cycle. Her determination to start and continue her studies was remarkable, and she finished 1st semester with excellent results.
In August 2009, tests showed that the oblimersen appeared to have diminished many of the lesions on vital organs, and Kate was moved onto another trial drug – a B-RAF Inhibitor. While this drug was less wearing on Kate’s physical health, the conditions of the trial meant a lot more travel between Albury and Sydney, and, as a result, Kate reluctantly deferred her studies and returned home in October.
All seemed well, and Kate again began to plan for the future, enrolling in two subjects as a distance education student for 1st Semester 2010. For her 22nd birthday, all she wanted was an “ordinary day” – the first birthday for some years that had not been spent in or near hospitals recovering from or about to undergo surgery. Around this time, she started to develop slight headaches, but these were put down to getting back into studying. Over the next few weeks, the headaches increased in intensity and frequency.
On 4 March 2010, as Kate was returning home to Uralla after a check-up, she was in such pain that she had to get off the train at Hornsby and was taken to hospital. An MRI and other tests on Friday confirmed her worst fears: the melanoma had moved to the brain, with four largish lesions discovered. Even then, there was still hope that the lesions could be surgically removed and an appointment was made with a neurosurgeon for the following Thursday. In the meantime, Kate was told to remain in Sydney, close to Westmead Hospital.
On the Sunday, despite heavy-duty drugs, the headache intensified and Kate developed uncontrollable vomiting. She was admitted to Westmead’s High Dependency Unit on Monday, with things looking pretty grim. On Tuesday, after a reasonable morning, Kate’s condition worsened and that night she had a nasty bleed. On Wednesday, Jo called Dave and Jen down to Sydney to be with Kate. At this time, we were also advised that surgery would not be possible, but radiotherapy was an option.
Kate, Dave, Jen and Jo had a great day on Thursday just being together. Kate’s condition had improved, but this was only short-lived. On Friday, after being measured for the radiation treatment that was scheduled to start the following Monday, Kate’s condition again went downhill.
On Saturday morning at around 2.30am, Kate suffered a massive bleed and slipped into a coma.
Half an hour later, with Dave, Jen and Jo at her side, and Jeff Buckley’s rendition of “Satisfied Mind” playing on her iPod, Kate lost her life to the most insidious of cancers: bloody melanoma.