Published: 18:21, 10 July 2020
| Updated: 10:01, 13 July 2020
A father fighting cancer says he's been left humbled after hundreds of people donated to help fund potentially life-saving treatment.
Mark Towens, from Gravesend, says privately funding his treatment, which is not available in the UK, is his "last option".
The 39-year-old was due to take part in a clinical trial through cancer experts at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London but after discovering a few weeks ago the cancer had spread to his brain he was no longer eligible for the treatment on the NHS.
Mark's fundraising page for £100,000 was set up on Tuesday evening and has so far raised almost £60,000 with more than 700 donations.
"The last few days have been overwhelming," he said.
"The speed with which the donations have come in has been unbelievable and you don't expect that sort of reaction.
"We thought we might raise a bit but not that much. It's been phenomenal and hopefully we can keep it going a bit further.
"The first days when things were coming in were so emotional. There's been a few times welling up seeing the messages.
"I've never wanted people to know about it and deal with it myself and protect our family.
"I have a job where I'm in charge all the time so when people are helping you, it's turned everything on its head.
"It's been a tough few days, which seems odd with all the donations, but to see messages and see what they've got to say."
He said his family's support had been incredible and he was so proud of his sister, Joanne, for setting up the fundraising page and managing it.
Mark, who is harbour master for the Port of London Authority in charge of shipping on the River Thames through central London, says the response has been "humbling" after never initially wanting people to know about his battles in the past four years.
But time is of the essence for Mark who is currently having chemotherapy and radiotherapy and is awaiting the results of a brain scan which will allow him to progress. He says his current treatment will only give him a few months.
After starting chemo this week, he says he's trying to keep family life as normal as possible by doing something every day with his wife Claire and two children, Jamie, 11, and Katie, eight.
"With my son, we've spoken to him about the fundraising. I was tucking him into bed and he got money out of his money box for something else and gave me £3 – if you want a tear-jerker there it is.
"My friend's kids also volunteered to give up their pocket money this week."
A hospital in Manchester previously took private patients but with trials now resuming his last hope is for TIL (tumour infiltrating lymphocytes) treatment in either the USA or Israel.
It involves harvesting cells which are beating the cancer, growing billions of them artificially and with drugs boosting their effectiveness, and having them injected back into the body to fight the cancer cells.
In 80% of patients the cancer is kept steady, in 50% of patients it also reduces size of tumours and for 20% of patients on the trial it wipes out the cancer entirely.
Mark says after the treatment the tumours may still be present in the body but if the treatment works they will have become "inert" and "no longer a threat".
The treatment was pioneered about 20 years ago in Maryland, USA, and some patients are still alive after 10 or 15 years.
He was first diagnosed with melanoma after finding a mole while fishing on holiday in 2003 and was given the all-clear following an operation.
But 12 years later, the cancer had returned and this time had spread to his lungs and liver – despite never smoking and not being a heavy drinker – through the blood stream.
"The lesson is the sun care. I'm a child of the 80s when sun care wasn't really a thing," Mark said.
"I want to look my kids in the eye if the point gets to 'this is it' and want to tell them I've done absolutely everything"
"It's become more of a thing in the last 10 to 15 years. I'm pretty unlucky to be honest."
For four years now, he has been battling cancer and visiting the Royal Marsden throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – sometimes twice a week – for treatment.
"My team have been amazing," Mark says. "We were starting to get to the point that it was not working but we had a plan.
"Unfortunately scans showed it had progressed to the brain. They'd just opened the trial I was going to join.
"But with the brain it ruled me out – there's strict criteria.
"It's not so much the NHS but the drug companies. The prognosis is worse with it in the brain is the blunt answer.
"They want people with the best chance of doing well."
Mark was told the drugs are less effective at protecting the brain from pathogens which pass through the blood stream making it harder to tell if it his cancer would be beaten by the trial compared to someone whose cancer was not in the brain.
He says he does not look as sick as he actually is and is riding his bike, running or walking to stay fit and give himself "the best chance" despite feeling extremely tired the following day due to the side-effects of the chemo drugs.
But he has been determined to take the fight to cancer and has never let himself "mope around".
"When they deliver the news you don't know how to take it," Mark explained. "I'm not stopping until I've done it all.
"I want to look my kids in the eye if the point gets to 'this is it' and want to tell them I've done absolutely everything and there's nothing else I can do.
"With a bit of luck, it's ok and we carry on.
"If everything disappeared then that's fantastic but I'll take it not growing any more."
Donate to help fund Mark's treatment at www.gofundme.com/f/marks-last-hope