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Dublin: -2 °C Tuesday 20 March, 2018

Kildare man at Harvard Law: 'Days before my 24th birthday, I was told I had 6 months to live'

Michael Mullen had beaten cancer twice before when he received his third diagnosis just four months into his masters in Boston.

Michael Mullen Harvard Law graduate

I’LL NEVER FORGET the day that my ‘American dream’ came crashing down.

Myself and my girlfriend of nine years, Mel, had just moved to Boston so that I could undertake my masters at Harvard Law School.

We had envisaged a year of exciting adventures, meeting people from all over the world, and being challenged academically.

Four months in, in November 2015, a simple cough, followed by a scan, led to my third diagnosis of cancer.

I was first diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 1993 when I was 16 months old. At the time there was a one in four chance of survival. After chemotherapy, surgery and a bone marrow transplant I remained cancer free until the age of 22.

cancer as a baby (1)

I was studying in my final year at Trinity when I was diagnosed with renal cell cancer which required surgery, a partial nephrectomy, on my 22nd birthday. I took two months off college to recover but I still managed to graduate that year. I got a first class honours and was awarded a scholarship to Harvard.

‘Six months to live’

On that day in November when I received my third diagnoses in Boston, I called Mel at work and she dropped everything and ran the whole way to the hospital to be at my side. She hasn’t left my side since.

We were alone in a new city and knew very few people. My parents gave up their jobs in Ireland to be with me for nine months. We considered going home but realised that there was no treatment available for me in Ireland. We were advised by a close family friend that our best shot at beating this rare form of metastasized renal cell cancer was with Dr Toni Choueiri in Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston.

At our first meeting with Dr Choueiri, days before my 24th birthday, I was told I had six months to live. At the age of 24, despite having had cancer twice before, I had never really thought about my mortality.

I was left wondering what I would do for the last six months of my life, should I stay in Boston and try fight the cancer or simply accept the fact that I had limited time and make the most of my last six months on earth?

I quickly decided that I would fight this cancer to the bitter end and not let it beat me. I had beaten it twice before, why not a third time?


The first chemotherapy I tried had no effect so my options were now limited. Luckily I was in the right city at the right time and a new immunotherapy treatment had been approved, but my doctor described it as ‘a leap of faith’ and told me it was not guaranteed to work.

St Patrick’s day 2016 – the same day that one year previously I got the news that I was admitted into Harvard Law School – proved to be another lucky day for me. Amazingly the immunotherapy was beginning to work and the cancer was kept at bay and no longer spreading.

‘Thesis from hospital bed’

After a few months, this immunotherapy began to take its toll on my body. I lost 3.5 stone, my liver was damaged, and I had to give up my studies at Harvard. As a result, I had to take a break from all cancer treatments.

I then transitioned to a new targeted chemotherapy, cabozantinib, which allowed me to get some aspects of my life back, although I am still suffering from the usual side effects of treatment.

In September 2016, for health insurance and visa purposes, I had no choice but to restart my studies at Harvard, despite being on chemotherapy. Having been given a chance to survive with the new treatments, I was determined to not let cancer get in the way of my dreams.


A masters at Harvard for any healthy person is a difficult task, never mind being on chemotherapy at the same time as attending classes and writing assignments.

My girlfriend waited outside every one of my classes with a blue sick bag and a wheelchair.

I had to complete my thesis from a hospital bed but I managed to graduate from Harvard Law in May 2017.


‘Price on a life’

My treatment has the potential of giving me the chance to have a somewhat normal life and allowing me to generate legal and social change through my academic work.

However, my doctors have advised me that I need to stay in the US in order to keep the cancer at bay. Sadly, there are no options for me in Ireland.

Medical costs in the US are extremely high. While my medical insurance covers part of the cost, there are still substantial fees not covered.

If there is one thing I have learned throughout my cancer experience it is that there should never be a price put on someone’s life, but for me that’s my reality.

My family, friends and community in Kildare are coming together to fundraise these much needed funds. I am forever grateful for all those who have supported me and continue to do so, in particular my girlfriend Mel.


Michael Mullen is a 26-year-old from Eadestown, Kildare. You can donate here to help Michael continue his life saving treatment. 


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About the author:

Michael Mullen  / Harvard Law graduate

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