Mario Fonovic on accepting death and smiling in the face of terminal cancer

By Brett Williamson

Mario Fonovic seated in the palliative care ward of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Mario Fonovic seated in the palliative care ward of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

At 55 years of age Mario Fonovic is in the final stages of terminal lung cancer. He doesn’t expect to see the end of 2016, but he is refusing to go without a smile on his face.

“I’m a doer,” Mr Fonovic told 891 ABC Adelaide‘s Mornings program.

Mr Fonovic joined the program to discuss a topic most people dread — death.

“I’ve arranged my funeral right down to my flowers — but don’t bring tissues, bring a tambourine,” he said.

Mr Fonovic said he was neither sad nor scared of his approaching death, and had decided to share his journey on Facebook.

“I can see what is happening to my body,” he said.

“I feel it, I can see it and eventually I will end up in a coma.

“If I can help one person accept death or dying or cancer [I will].

“Just accept what is happening in your life and get on with it, because life is short.”

Looking back on his life, Mr Fonovic said he wished he had only done one thing differently.

“My one and only regret is that as a gay man I never fought to have a child,” he said.

Mr Fonovic said he was lucky to have legally married his partner Sid in a ceremony in California before legislation there changed.

The two plan to move into a newly purchased home together this week and Mr Fonovic is determined he will not die in a hospital.

Too many hospital visits

Mr Fonovic has spent his fair share of time in and out of hospital since being diagnosed with asthma eight years ago.

Being a long-time smoker only made his condition worse.

“Four years ago I coughed … after having one of my last cigarettes and blew a hole in my left lung,” Mr Fonovic said.

His left lung had deflated and he struggled to breathe.

After a week in hospital being treated he was sent home, but within six hours he was back in the emergency department — his left lung had deflated once more.

After another round of treatment Mr Fonovic’s life began to return to normal.

Eighteen months later Mr Fonovic was back in hospital — this time his right lung had collapsed.

“I ended up looking like the Michelin Man as air was leaking into my body,” he said.

He was placed in intensive care and surgeons removed a third of his right lung.

In December 2015 Mr Fonovic visited a respiratory physician to check whether he would be suitable for a lung transplant.

Mario Fonovic having his chest scanned
Mario Fonovic having his chest scanned

During a routine scan the doctor discovered cancer.

“I was so happy the day that I went on the transplant list … because I wanted my life back,” he said.

“In one breath I went, ‘yes’ — and then it was cancer.”

Getting on with it

A burst of stereotactic intense radiotherapy saw Mr Fonovic end up with an infection and he was once more admitted to hospital.

“On the second of May [my doctor] shook my hands and said, ‘you are in remission’,” Mr Fonovic said.

“In the following week I went downhill to the point where I couldn’t walk down my hallway.

“I felt like a semi-trailer had parked on my chest.”

Three weeks later Mr Fonovic admitted himself into hospital for a follow-up scan and found out the cancer had returned.

“The PET scan actually showed how bad it is,” he said.

“Not only had I got the cancer back, but it had taken over the whole lung.”

The lymph nodes on the side of his lungs had stimulated the nerves on his spinal cord and were causing him immense pain.

With the firm belief he would not see his next birthday, Mr Fonovic said he decided all he could do was face death.

“You just put your feet on the side of the bed, pull your trousers on and get on with it,” he said.

The cancer may have wreaked havoc on Mr Fonovic’s body, but mentally he is nowhere near finished with life.

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