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Phil’s shock news: The lump that changed my life

How the brave reporter faced the worst news

Last winter, television reporter Phil Vine knelt at the foot of a hammock in Fiji, talking to a young man who was weeks away from dying.

Nelson pilot Kirk Dakers had been living with Hodgkin’s lymphoma for years and knew it was about to get the better of him. Determined to wring everything he could out of life, Kirk invited six of his closest friends for a last hurrah on Mana Island. He asked Phil and a TV3 crew to join them.

For three decades, Phil had told other people’s stories on programmes like 60 Minutes, Fair Go, Sunday and 3D.

Phil met Kirk (with partner Nic) in Fiji to tell of the young man’s sad battle with cancer. In days to come, that poignant encounter would help save Phil’s life.

But something about Kirk was different. “It was incredibly intimate to be there,” says Phil, 50. “There was a maturity forced upon him by his impending death. It made him a sort of philosopher. I felt I had something to learn from him.”

Phil didn’t know it at the time, but his connection with Kirk would not only change his life, but also save it. Kirk died on June 2 last year, just weeks after returning from Fiji. He was 30. Only 14 months later, Phil was in the shower one morning when he found a lump in his groin.

“I went, ‘Wow, is there one on the other side? No. Hmmm.’ I remembered Kirk saying that he wished he hadn’t ignored his symptoms. Because he put off going to the doctor, he had stage-four cancer when he was diagnosed.

“That same day, I went to the GP,” recalls Phil, who lives in Titirangi, West Auckland, with his wife Sonja de Friez, 44, and their son Sebastien, six. “My doctor took one look and went, ‘Hmmm, interesting.’ Not a word you want to hear.”

Phil describes himself as a “two-glasses-half-full kind of guy”. Ever the optimist, he wanted to believe the lump was a swollen lymph node. After all, he did yoga, he ran and he maintained a healthy vegetarian diet. “I told our cameraman Afa Rasmussen and he said, ‘Don’t be a dick, Phil,’ in a kind way. No-one thought it would be bad news.”

This year, summer with Sonja and Sebastien will be truly precious for Phil. “Everything in life has more vibrancy,” he says.

Phil needed a needle biopsy, then surgery to remove the lump. He was told the worst-case scenario was lymphoma, but more tests were needed. The hardest part was the wait. “There are bits of you in a laboratory and people poring over them, looking at patterns of cells that determine your fate. It’s awful,” he recalls.

For the fortnight his life lay in limbo, Phil’s wife Sonja, a former TV3 journalist, was his “rock”. “She would just look at me several times a day, smile and say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’” After a two-week wait, Phil got a call from his specialist.

“I was sitting on my bed – it was 5pm on the 18th of September. She said, ‘It’s likely you have follicular lymphoma.’ I hung up, and ran past Sonja and out of the house. I ended up in a ditch crying. I was in complete free-fall.”

What Phil didn’t know was how advanced the disease was. While he waited, he researched. “It was second nature. I was in harvesting mode, getting up in the night to read every academic paper and trawling the internet on the train.”

The data made for sobering reading. At stage three or four, only 63% of people last five years. “I thought of Kirk and how he knew he’d left it too late.”

The hardest part was telling his adult children, Natasha, 23, and Ruben, 20, who both live overseas. “We Skyped and I tried to put on a brave face, but they started crying and I broke down.”

Job gone too

Amid the turmoil, Phil learned that he and his colleagues at TV3’s current-affairs programme 3D had lost their jobs. “Cancer, redundancy and terrorism are three of the most feared words in the modern vernacular. But when they told me, I laughed out loud. There’s nothing like cancer to put redundancy into perspective.”

Phil decided to do what he does best – get on with life. “People talk about their fight with cancer. I look at mine like a dance. I wanted to dance my lymphoma into a corner.” He sought a second opinion and did more research. He rid his diet of coffee, alcohol and most carbs. “I’ve lost 10kg – it’s called the lymphoma diet,” he jokes.

And the good news is, further tests show the lymphoma is localised and it’s grade one – treatable and curable. “That result, after all the others, was a gorgeous ray of sunshine.”

Although he’ll have radiation treatment, ironically, Phil says he feels healthier than he has for years. The message he wants to spread is that if you find a lump, especially a painless one, get it checked out. “Act now, the same day – don’t wait.”

In the meantime, Phil is looking forward to spending the summer with Sonja and all three of his children, and with a slightly different view on life. “In Fiji, we talked about ‘Kirk moments’ – stopping to smell the roses. You can’t understand that until you face your own mortality,” he explains. “Everything in life has more vibrancy. The sky is a brighter hue, people are kinder, I see more good in things … It’s kind of like I’ve had a benevolent bump on the head.”

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